Roman Polanski makes a statement on gender and sexuality in ‘Venus in Fur’

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Rivers of ink could be split over the name Roman Polanski, and the ink could flow black or red. But despite the controversy his personal life may generate, Polanski maintains his status as a living legend in the world of art. In his new film, the award-winning and polemical director has adapted a stage play by David Ives, which is in and of itself an adaptation of the 1870 novel “Venus in Fur,” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The movie is unadorned art about art. Visceral and raw, it tears through emotion and passion.

It is a dark evening in Paris as we enter the theater. Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), the writer and director of “Venus in Fur,” has struggled through a day of auditions, in which he hasn’t found “her” — the woman to play Wanda von Dunayev, one of two characters in the play he’s adapting. She needs to be special — strong but fragile, brutal but caring — but dominating from within overall, where she cherishes armored and impenetrable weakness.

When Thomas is on his way out, disappointed by a fruitless day, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife), an unknown and fierce actress, storms into the theater, bringing fury with her. The auditions are over, and she is too late to even be given a chance. Undiscouraged by the director’s refusal to let her audition, she begins to play Wanda’s role, forcing him to listen and participate in the play as Severin von Kusiemski, the remaining character in the story. Soon, the borders between theater and reality begin to melt, as art becomes life. The director and the aspiring actress become one with the play over the course of the night.

“Venus in Fur” speaks of domination. The love of hammer and anvil drives characters to willfully engage in slavery. Absolute submission and domination metamorphose to become impossibly indistinguishable from the most pure form of love. The bravery and cowardice that this form of romance claims from the lovers sustains the narrative as it tears through the veil that separates deities and mortals. The devotion Severin feels for Wanda and Thomas for Vanda mirrors that which a servant of the gods feels for Venus.

Polanski portrays a history of power and femininity. He challenges gender roles and addresses the patriarchy system by utilizing two characters that represent submission and the acceptance of divine cruelty. The audience is forced into witnessing the progressive fragmentation and collapse of the individual. It is consistently unclear whether Wanda seduces, perverts and belittles Severin or vice versa, and Vanda confronts Thomas over the misconstruction and chauvinism with which he interprets the character of Wanda. Soon, they become their characters, and their characters become them.

If the viewer comes looking for a blockbuster following the path of “The Pianist,” their cinematographic efforts may serve them better investigating somewhere else. This is an introspective and obscure exploration of sexuality, humiliation and lust. Polanski doesn’t intend to please his audience. He sets the attractive and simple bait of a fictitiously transparent and natural production, succeeding with a thought-provoking, unsettling and disturbing experience.

Contact David Socol at [email protected].