Movie review: Polanski's 'Venus in Fur' a playful work

Be careful not just what you wish for but what role you audition for.

Conversely for a director: Be careful of finding the perfect actress to play the lead in “Venus in Fur” — the play within the David Ives’ play that earned a 2011 Tony nomination and has now been turned into a perverse Roman holiday of the Polanski kind.

With his 20th feature film, the 70-year-old master returns to a youthful theme: the diabolical dynamics of sex and power, passion and obsession. Call it a “black dramedy,” with a grand total of one set and two terrific actors.

'Venus in Fur'

Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric.

Rating: R in nature for sexual themes, language and brief nudity.

At the outset, writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is just wrapping up the tryouts in an old Parisian theater when actress-wannabe Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) rushes in late, insisting he give her a shot for his cutting-edge production of “Venus in Fur,” based on Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 “great novel” — or trashy S&M porn yarn — depending on your viewpoint.

Credentials? Critics called her Hedda Gabler performance at the Urinal Theater “angry,” she says. Thomas is annoyed but intrigued. She has come fully prepared, with her own props and costumes. Amazingly, she doesn’t even need a script, seeming to know every word and scene of his play as well as the book it’s based on.

She is beyond nervy: “Mind if I change the lights?” She then expertly does so — making good use of a huge phallic 10-foot cactus, leftover scenery from the theater’s recent, dubious musical version of “Stagecoach.”

Soon enough, she’s giving him directions, as confusion mounts over who’s in charge.

Venus-Vanda is, of course. “I give you all power — dominate me!” says Thomas. “In love and politics, one party must rule.”

“You really understand women,” she replies.

Pretentious Thomas misses the sarcasm and rattles on: “I’m going to use Alban Berg’s 'Lyric Suite’ for transitions.”

“Great idea!” says she.

“You know it?” he asks.

“No,” she replies.

What she knows is something instinctive about the play’s countess-aunt, who beat Thomas’ character (as a boy) with a birch cane — on fur. “She taught me the most valuable thing in the world: That nothing is more sensual than pain,” he says. “That nothing is more exciting than degradation.”

So actually, says Vanda, “this play is about child abuse?”

He rails against her stupidity even as he hails her as his Aphrodite — and enters into a trial-period slave contract. Subsequent interaction is punctuated, at inopportune moments, by fab cell phone calls (Thomas’ ringtone: Wagner music) in which they give lame excuses for lateness to their “better halves.”

Ms. Seigner (Mr. Polanski’s real-life wife) and Mr. Amalric, reunited here for first time since Julian Schnabel’s great “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in 2007, work beautifully together. Both move seamlessly between the assorted personalities and disorders of their roles. Mr. Amalric looks weathered these days but uncannily resembles Polanski in the director’s youth — no accident, perhaps — making good use of his trademark scared-and-scary eyes.

Mr. Polanski’s screenplay dips in and out of the script-within-a-script of a basically misogynistic play that Venus basically hates. His challenge was to film a theater piece without making it look theatrical, in which task, the humor helps him succeed. When Vanda sneezes, as if catching a cold, Thomas suggests she shouldn’t keep walking around in the nude. “I’m Venus,” she replies. “I have to be naked — it's part of the job.” But the best exchange comes when she asks him: “Would you like to put on the boots?”

“Oh, yes...,” he says breathlessly.

“I mean on ME,” she clarifies.

Kinky Boots, indeed — as we follow the zipper’s slow, sexy progress from heel to thigh.

If “Venus in Fur” lacks the gravitas of Mr. Polanski’s earlier films (“Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown,” “The Pianist”), it’s nevertheless a wickedly playful work in the league of such cult favorites as his “Fearless Vampire Killers”and “The Tenant.” The Amalric and Seigner tour-de-force performances lend weight to a battle of wits and wills in which the question of who's doing the directing and who’s doing the seducing has a constantly shifting answer.

FYI: In this School for Scandal & Dominatrices, the only skin comes during a final bacchanale (a Dance of One Fur, rather than Seven Veils) to the terrific music of Alexandre Desplat. Aside from that, the film’s most erotic visual sequence is a gorgeous montage of classical Venus paintings — on and off the half-shell — during the credits.

Go thou, and stay for it!

In French with English subtitles. Opens today [Fri July 18] at the Harris Theater, Downtown, only.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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