Venus in Fur opens like a horror film—more precisely, like a horror-comedy. The camera swoops slowly over rainswept streets toward a shuttered theater, as thunder rolls and a darkly glittering waltz plays. The music sets the mood for something like Beetlejuice or even Gremlins: The carnival’s in town, and it opens at midnight!
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of David Ives’s play about Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s perverse novel Venus in Furs manages to sustain this edgy, gleeful mood despite its layers of adaptation and influence. On one level it’s just an unhealthy confection, a movie-length warning: Be careful what you wish for, that classic horror maxim. Or, Be careful what you swoon for.
On a deeper level the movie is about perhaps the most important question: Is there anything outside the self? Is a genuine surrender of the will possible, or is everything just egoism in the end, since you’re still the one choosing to give or withhold yourself?
I thought the movie handled this larger question less well than the play. Ives’s play—the tale of a bratty writer who, while crafting his own much more literal interpretation of Venus in Furs, gets ambushed by a brassy actress who’s much more than she seems—has doomy subthemes of mortality and the possibility of immortality. The final images of helplessness have a greater poignancy and intimacy in the theater. (Also, Polanski closes with a sort of Roman goddess fan dance, which takes things from camp to kitsch.) The movie goes for laughs over emotional connection.
At the start of the film Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is whining into his cell phone that all the actresses he’s auditioned are ditzes. “I’d make a better Vanda!” he snaps—and the thunder rolls, as he loses his signal. It’s a perfect, cheap-thrill promise to the audience: Be careful what you wish for.
Then an actress blows in, claiming to be named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) just like Sacher-Masoch’s birch-wielding heroine. She’s a gum-chewing, déclassé creature, seeming to lack culture and polish, but she bullies Thomas into letting her read; and from that moment on, Thomas is no longer in control—and unsure whether he wants to be. Every time Vanda asks permission, thus extracting another concession from the harried writer, she confirms her power over him.
“Where do I stand?” she asks, and he tells her, “Wherever’s comfortable.” But then, trying to take back some power, he instructs: “Not so center.” She moves obediently to where he’d prefer her… and then confirms his judgment, noting that this position is better, underlining her right to judge his choices. When Thomas is finally playing Vanda-from-the-book after all (just like the movie promised) and Vanda-the-actress is zipping high-heeled boots over his calves, she points out sharply, “You’re the director!” But by that point he hasn’t been the director for a while.
The movie offers plenty of these power plays. It suggests that class and cultural differences are less primal than sexual difference—Vanda-the-actress wears or doffs her class coding like a costume, but never stops being a woman. It hints that Vanda the actress may be Venus the goddess. It’s a teasing, lighthearted movie, whose sexuality is perverse in a childish and cartoonish way. Vanda is very contemptuous of the “S&M porn” she thinks she’s being asked to make, but the more elaborate and ritualized aspects of Sacher-Masoch feel more like dress-up than like degradation. The real humiliation for Thomas isn’t wearing a collar or a footman’s uniform—that stuff is child’s play, literally—but admitting that he doesn’t want to control his own life.
Polanski’s film avoids the darker and sadder edges of Ives’s play. I didn’t get a feeling of self-dislike from Thomas, or fear of death. We’re not asked to imagine why he might want to resign from the post of captain of his soul. The script stringently rejects a merely psychological explanation for Thomas’s attitude—it’s not about how he was spanked as a child, or whatever the fashionable theory might be—which is gratifying. But the movie, with its campy carnival atmosphere, doesn’t delve into deeper reasons why he—or we—might be looking for a goddess to relieve us of our liberty.