If you couldn’t get enough of Jack Baker’s (Jeff Bridges) cinematic jaw-drop in The Fabulous Baker Boys, as soon as seemingly tone-deaf loser and gum-snapping chanteuse Suzie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer) starts to soulfully warble her heart out and blow him away, you’ll love that film’s brainy, French, cinematic stepchild, Venus in Fur. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that the entirety of the delicious and captivating Venus in Fur, co-written and directed by Roman Polanski, is one huge male jaw-drop.
Based on David Ives’ play of the same name, the movie’s cast consists of only two people. As the camera slowly zooms into the rehearsal space of a theater being pounded by a night rain storm, the director-character Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric) is on the phone, ranting and pissed off. Every woman who’s come to audition for the part of Vanda in his directorial effort – he’s also written the play – has been inadequate, he says. Then, as if on cue, a bedraggled woman whose name is not on the call sheet, and hours too late to read for the part anyway, shows up.
This is when, you might say, the fur hits the fan.
The femme (Emmanuelle Seigner), who says her name is, Mon Dieu, also Vanda, is no ingenue. She’s far from elegant in appearance and diction. And, as far as acting skills go, her demeanor shouts neophyte and ditzy broad. Thomas can’t wait to send her back out into the rain.
Velvet-tongued, she nevertheless persuades Thomas to let her try out, given that she’s here and, well, he’s right there to read the lines of the play’s only male character – the intellectual Severin Kushemski – with her. What’s the harm, she tells him. Plenty, it turns out.
The minute she begins to speak in character, Vanda the actress makes the earth move and fuels, in Thomas, some sort of religious epiphany. Her voice becomes mellifluous, her body statuesque, her dialog convincing. She’s memorized the entire play and, no surprise, she has an unexpectedly good sense of the man who adapted the source material and thinks a bit too highly of himself.
Of course, this theatrical work is no piece of fluff. Thomas has based his play on a 19th century novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – yup, the real-life originator of the term known as sado-masochism. The play’s dialog is heavy with Severin’s remembrances of the lush feel of his aunt’s fur cape and, more suggestively, of the whipping he received with a tree branch in front of the female help. (The movie’s subtitles which refer to the play’s dialog are set in italics, to separate them from the other words spoken by the actress and director.)
Vanda the actress starts to take charge and overstep her bounds by rearranging the props, fixing the lighting to set the mood, and artfully draping the shawl she’s brought to simulate the title’s animal skin. Faster than you can say “Mais, oui!” this inmate is theatrically running the asylum and magically merging with the sexually dominant Vanda character imprinted on the page.
As Thomas and Vanda discuss whether a director’s role in theater is actually a sado-masochistic act with his or her players, the actress drills down deep and resurrects an astonishing physicality to wear away the will of Thomas who’s clearly – by virtue of the fact he’s the playwright – got more in common with his character than was apparent at the start. But where’s the balance? Are women the sex who can easily segue into the role of dominatrix, or are men the species that yearns to acquiesce?
With a title like Venus in Fur, there’s no mistaking the archetype at play here. Aphrodite, a real party gal, is also connected with art and culture, femininity, charm and a powerful vanity. But when crossed or insulted, she doesn’t hesitate to become the avenging, mythological goddess.
Thomas, like a live lobster lounging in warm water and, perhaps, enjoying the chance to submit to its heat, is done for by the time he realizes the temperature’s become scalding.
Vanda, a really pushy dame, is an easily acquired taste with a thing for dog collars worn like a choker necklace. In her world, you never know when you might need one.
Astrology Film Rating: ♀ (Venus)