Venus in Fur ***1/2 (out of five)
Actors transition all the time from one state of being to another but it’s rare that a film is all about those moments. Here, there is immense reward watching Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) slip from state to state, identity to identity, character to character, as beguiled Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) follows along. He is a playwright about to direct his own adaptation of Venus in Fur; she is an actress who has not only arrived late to audition, her name isn’t even on the list. But she’s good; my, is she good, particularly at all that domme stuff…
Polanski now has a trilogy of “filmed plays” in his collection, along with Death and the Maiden (1994) and Carnage (2011); there’s also Macbeth (1971), but that’s a different kettle of fish, being epic and unabashedly cinematic. With these plays he doesn’t seek to expand them too far at all beyond their theatrical reach, and this one is the purest and most theatrical: it’s a two-hander, it’s in real time, and it’s set in a theatre. Along the way, Polanski has become the best in the world at this sort of intimate adaptation; he defines, and delineates, the single space we’re in so well, that not only does it begin to feel like a mansion full of different rooms, but when Thomas, late in the film, moves into a corridor backstage, it has the same impact as when a Bond or Bourne goes to a new continent.
The script, co-written by Polanski with Ives from Ives’ play, is good, but what you’re really watching is the acting. Amalric is great, but the role here is Vanda – it’s all about Vanda – and Seigner takes it and gets everything she can from it. It’s a role to die for, she knows it, and she doesn’t waste the opportunity. Some actors are lucky to get a “role of a lifetime” (being married to the director can help that luck along, I guess) and it’s a great responsibility. Seigner passes with all colours flying proudly. Played on the US stage by an actress in her very young 20s, Seigner, at 47, owns it.
I have a curious quibble with the subtitling: whenever Vanda and Thomas shift into speaking lines from the play she’s auditioning for – which is all the time – the subtitles go into italics. This is spoon-feeding the reader and goes against the film’s actual and intended feel: when Seigner/Vanda shifts into the words of the play, she doesn’t make air-quotation marks or otherwise announce that she’s back into the text – it’s all in the magic of an actor’s transition, and, oftentimes, the intent of her words is deliberately vague – is she playing the part now or playing at something else? The italicised subtitling effectively removes this entire layer of the film’s mystique. It’s a bad choice.