Back in the early 1990s, when Roman Polanski was already in his 60s, I was invited onto the Paris set of his movie Death and the Maiden, where it seemed he was doing almost everything. On the day in question, he was accomplishing even more than usual—dashing madly back and forth to talk to this Australian journalist—as Sigourney Weaver was performing one of the film’s harrowing torture scenes and would not let some prying Aussie look on. Who could blame her as she had to hold Ben Kingsley’s penis while he peed, or at least make it look as if her character did?
While the experience has made for good dinner party conversation over the years, what I really came away with was admiration for the Polish director, who managed to make the eventual movie riveting, even if it was shot on few locations with three characters, and was based on an Ariel Dorfman play—albeit a very successful one.
Two decades later, Polanski, who loves nothing more than having two people go at each other in a room, wanted to create a tour de force for his beloved wife and the mother of his two children, French actress, singer and former model, the equally well-preserved and equally energetic Emmanuelle Seigner, now 48. His agent suggested he make a film of David Ives’ play Venus in Fur, a huge success in New York.
“He said it would be right up my alley,” Polanski notes quizzically. “In the beginning, when Emmanuelle read it in English, she wasn’t very keen and I did want to do something with her in French. I’ve always felt that to get an actor to do something well you really have to do it in their language.” So Polanski went ahead and made his first film in French.
Mathieu Amalric, the French star who played the baddie in Quantum of Solace but who most significantly embodied Jean-Dominique Bauby, the Frenchman who had lost all body movement and could only blink with one eye, in Julian Schnabel’s magnificent The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, plays the theatre director Thomas, who Seigner’s brash actress comes to visit at a theatre on the Champs-Élysées. He is putting on a production of Venus in Furs, the 1870 roman à clef by Austrian writer Leopold Sacher-Masoch—after whom S&M was named—and she wants to audition. Of course, it’s no coincidence that, like Sacher-Masoch’s heroine, she is called Vanda, or that she knows the play by heart. As they become caught up in the reading, the tables are turned so that Vanda has her director at her beck and call.
“It’s nice to do something like this, to take the woman’s side without it being about women’s lib,” Polanski says.
Polanksi on Movies vs. Theatre
“I started as an actor at 14 and loved it, and when I had good reviews, I liked it even more. I really liked the business. The first Polish theatre director I worked with told me, 'You’re not going to be an actor, you’re going to be a director because too many things interest you'. I distinctly remember the moment he told me that.”
HB: Where does your energy come from?
“Making movies was my passion and when you have something that is a passion to you, you can keep going. That’s the most important thing I tell my children: do things that you really enjoy. I had a very poor education because I was born just before the war so I didn’t go to school until I was 12 and I always missed that education. When I was finally in school, I was last in the class for many years because I’d missed so much. But then I went to art school and suddenly I was brilliant and I caught up.”
Are you satisfied with your life?
“Regrets? What’s the point in lamenting over the spilt milk? I’m a great optimist in all parts of my life. I always see a good resolution to problems that I currently have. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t.”
Polanski’s personal history
The life of the Paris-born Polish Holocaust survivor, who relayed his experiences in his 1984 autobiography Roman by Polanski and who also made the Jewish Krakow ghetto the backdrop for his award-winning 2002 film, The Pianist, will undoubtedly be made into a film one day. After his parents were sent to death camps—his mother was exterminated in Auschwitz, his father returned after the war—Polanski also survived the murder of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and their unborn son by Charles Manson followers, and then was arrested and charged by the American authorities, and more recently the Swiss, for his unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, at Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles pad in 1977. Before sentencing, he fled to France where he had citizenship and has lived in Paris ever since. Gemier has accepted his public apologies and written a book about the furore that followed.
In his autobiography, Polanski had said, “I doubt if I shall ever again be able to live on a permanent basis with any woman, no matter how bright, easygoing, good-natured, or attuned to my moods. My attempts to do so have always failed, not least because I start drawing comparisons with Sharon.”
Yet in 1985 he met Seigner, and a more devoted showbiz couple you will rarely find. They are always by each other’s side when either is at a festival promoting their movies and are regularly seen at arts events around Paris. They were introduced when Seigner, the granddaughter of Comédie-Française legend Louis Seigner and the sister of actress Mathilde Seigner, was working as a model and had just filmed a bit part in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Détective. Polanski’s casting director had invited her friend along to a Paris drag cabaret where he was looking for a female impersonator to play a role in Pirates. Even if the voluptuous young model had no aspirations of pursuing an acting career, she ended up with a husband, who is 33 years her senior. In no time, the feisty Parisian had helped turn Polanski’s life around. They are equally devoted to their kids, 21-year-old Morgane, who is studying acting at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, and 15-year-old Elvis, an avid pianist. Both have appeared in bit parts in separate movies by their father. He speaks to them in Polish at home.
HB: Was it a romantic gesture that Roman created his new movie as a vehicle for you?
ES: Yeah, for sure. He wanted me to have a great part and there aren’t so many great parts for women.
Do you think it’s your personality, this forceful woman?
ES: Yes, in a way. I think there is a little bit of me in every woman I play. But it’s a role.
Is it harder to take orders from your husband than from other directors?
ES: It’s easier because he’s a good director. It’s better to take orders from someone who knows what he’s doing than an idiot—which is most of the time.
You have strong opinions like your husband?
ES: Yeah, that’s why we are together!
Did Julian Schnabel cast your son Elvis in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) because he thought that Roman and Mathieu look alike?
ES: He thought that our son looked like Mathieu so he wanted him. Though, Elvis didn’t want to do it because, “There are no lines and I’m not going to do it!” He was seven and Julian was begging him so he said, “Okay, so I’m going to be dancing and singing in the rain.” Julian said “Okay” and then he did that.
Do you think Mathieu looks like your husband?
ES: Yeah, a bit. Apparently, Mathieu had a Polish (Jewish) grandmother.
Mathieu says he’s playing some kind of alter-ego of your husband in Venus in Fur. What do you think of that?
ES: No, I don’t think he does. I think it was an accident and Roman really cast him because he was right for the role.
Mathieu said you suggested him.
ES: It was both of us. But, of course, I loved working with him, playing his wife on Diving Bell, so my memory of him was great. And he’s one of the best French actors for sure.
What did you think when you read the screenplay and saw the nude dancing scene at the end?
ES: I had no reaction because you can’t see anything. I have the fur on.
Do people talk down to you because you’re just an actress, as in the film?
ES: Yeah, most of the time people think I’m blonde, I’m an actress and I’m French and I’m stupid. You know what? I don’t bother with what people think of me. (Purses her lips and blows pffffff.) If you did, you’d hang yourself right away because everybody has something to say. You can’t be listening to everybody and that’s not my goal.
Roman still has enormous energy. Where does he get it from?
ES: I think he gets it from his mind. His mind is very alert and very young.
He also gets energy from you?
ES: Maybe, I don’t know. I think it’s in him.
Does he offer advice, tell you how to do things?
ES: No, he’s not that type of person. He’s not a macho person, otherwise he would have never directed this movie. He loves women and he loves actresses and he has a passion for movies and for theatre since he was a child. I think that’s what saved his life.
Has he changed the way he directs you since you made Frantic (1988), your first movie together?
ES: He hasn’t changed much. I changed I guess because when he directed me in Frantic I’d only done a very small role with Godard and I didn’t know much about making movies. I learned a lot and improved a lot and I did a lot of theatre.
Given your family background, you weren’t interested in acting as a child?
ES: No, I was not. I was going every week to the theatre because of my grandfather, but I didn’t want to do it myself. I don’t even want my children to be child actors. I think children should be children.
Did you decide to act or did it just happen?
ES: It just happened. First I was a model because I wanted to make money, and then I had this opportunity when I met Godard in a hotel and he asked me and I did it. I didn’t even know who he was!
A huge fan of Polanski’s movies in his youth, Amalric, 48, may be one of France’s leading actors, though he considers himself a director first with movies like On Tour and The Blue Room gaining world-wide attention in recent years. Sporting a mod haircut with his hair brushed to the side in Venus in Fur, the slightly built actor is like the twin brother Polanski never had.
HB: Had you met Polanski before?
MA: I’d seen Roman once during the filming of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but I knew everything about his films. When I was 16 he was one of the first directors who made me want to make films because he loves to do all the jobs in movies—the props, the sets, the makeup, the costumes; all those artisanal jobs in movies—and I wanted to do what he was doing. I already knew he was acting as well from when I was 13 and saw Le bal des vampires (1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers).
You also have Jewish Polish roots?
MA: Yes, I have Jewish Polish origins from my grandmother. But nobody’s left; they’re all dead. I was very close to grandmother and although I had no religious Jewish education there is something about being in love with humour because life can stop at any moment.
Roman has this humour, and energy.
MA: It’s incredible. How does he do it? Where is it coming from? His background pushes him, of course. I do run around when I direct too. I like to do all the jobs. We have a similar process. We made this film with 10 people over 12 days and whatever happened, happened.
The thing that just makes the film exist is that the man is filming the woman he loves. That’s why he did his first film in French for her and she’s amazing in the film. It’s two energies that are alive. He’s filming this thing that is very mysterious and Emmanuelle is immediately bringing something hot and sexual.
Your director looks like Roman.
MA: In this humiliating world of movies with actresses and women, maybe Roman was having fun. If I’d been a stupid man, maybe I’d be that guy, but it’s not Roman. He’s the opposite of what Roman is.
Venus in Fur is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer below: