Still 4

Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) and Mathieu Amalric (Thomas) in Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur.” Photo Courtesy of Guy Ferrandis. A Sundance Selects Release.

Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur opens on a deserted Parisian street, the camera meandering through the front doors of a rundown theater as rain pounds and thunder booms. It’s a telling entrance into the electric surrealism that’s about to unfold.

The film, whose story arc plays out in the theater’s dimly lit hall, follows a playwright-director’s search for a female lead in his adaptation of Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th-century novella Venus in Furs. The impassioned director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), has a precise vision for his leading lady, and when we first meet him after a day of unfruitful auditioning, he has succumbed to verbal throes of frustration. “I saw a bunch of freaks. One with braces!” he shouts to someone over the phone.

Like an apparition, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) turns up for the tryout, and while at first a complete turn-off to Thomas — she’s vulgar, chatters aimlessly, carries herself frivolously and sports an unrefined appearance (her outfit makes her look like a hooker, and not the expensive kind) — he has an Eiffel Tower-sized hard on before she can finish reciting even two lines. As Vanda and Thomas push further into their dramatic volleys, she as subjugating dominatrix Vanda (yes, they share the same name) and he as submissive Severin von Kusiemski, the distinction between reality and fantasy grows more fleeting with each spoken word. Thomas, enamored with his flawless reading partner, gets sucked into von Kusiemski’s masochistic reveries with seemingly gravitational force. The director, in fact, becomes the directed.

Co-writers Polanski and David Ives adapted the Venus screenplay from Ives’ 2010 play of the same name (actress Nina Arianda won a Tony for her turn as that work’s steamy seductress). The duo structured the film much like an actual theatrical production, a single-setting ordeal in which the acts and scenes exist as pockets of scripted rehearsal and organic musings that weave in and out of one another seamlessly. You don’t have to be a theater snob, though, to enjoy the full-fledged perversion (think unstable cerebral footing of Rosemary’s Baby coupled with mysterious noir tones of Chinatown, packaged up Shakespeare-style). Almaric and Seigner (Polanski’s real-life wife) act the hell out of their parts, displaying nimble dexterity in the delivery of their perpetually fluid dialogue and a refined nuance in their mastery of both stage and screen acting. They’re the only tangible characters throughout the entire 96 minutes, incarnating four personages, but the tour de force performances hold us like glue.

Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman, in their fifth collaboration, cast the shadowy odeum with an almost dream-like sheen, the darkness of the interior and the constricted space serving to draw us deeper into the illusion. What Venus in Fur ultimately delivers, though, aside from a delirious Frenchman in drag, and Polanski’s finest work since The Pianist, is a very real lesson in passion versus obsession, and the potential danger in crossing over into the realm of the latter. For Thomas, a curtain call seems more elusive than ever.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

“Venus in Fur” is making its North American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 16-27. For those interested, the film will be screening at BMCC Tribeca PAC on Tuesday, April 22 and the SVA Theatre on Saturday, 4/26. For a full list of screening dates, times and ticket information, please click here.

Cincopa WordPress plugin