An actress attempts to convince a director that she's perfect for a role in his upcoming production.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Roman Polanski knows how to start a movie. The opening frames of his widescreen adaptation of playwright David Ives' stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's trailblazing tome are a stylishly sardonic delight.
a celebration of female strength
Lightning crackles in the sky. The camera makes its way down a rainy Paris street, then glides into a theatre through seemingly automatic doors as Alexandre Desplat's score lets us in on the tone. The composer's attention-getting melody is gleefully sinister, joyously ominous, a buckle-your-seat-belt-and-enjoy-the-ride invitation to a dance whose steps are forever changing.
As with Polanski's previous film Carnage, this is a movie adapted from a play. Carnage has four characters and Venus in Fur arguably has three: two of them can breathe and the third – honourary – character is the theatre itself where the story takes place. (The original play was set in a spare rehearsal room in New York. The film takes place in a dilapidated theatre whose stage is still set for a failed musical version of Stagecoach complete with a large artificial cactus that will come in surprisingly handy during the read-through of a play set in 1870.) Polanksi is very, very skilled at keeping things interesting in confined spaces.
Auditions are over for the day when a damply bedraggled, gum-chewing woman breezes in like she owns the joint. Judging from her clothing, speech and manners, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) may as well have 'floozie’ stamped on her forehead, right next to 'ditz’.
Serious (read: pretentious) stage director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), who we first encounter complaining over the phone about how disappointing the day's auditions have been, sizes up the bold intruder and mentally files her under 'terminally uncouth’. He believes the role calls for poise and a certain contained elegance.
She's the kind of actress who recites tongue twisters to warm up. Suffice it to say, her tongue isn't the only thing subject to twists as their duet unfolds. Vanda convinces Thomas to let her audition and, lo and behold, she already has the script memorised and has conveniently brought along a few key props.
What could be more harmless than two people reading a play out loud together? Time flies watching these two spar.
Thomas' cell phone's ring tone is an amusing choice. Would it be going too far to suggest that tossing a man's cell phone away is the 21st century equivalent of beating him with a birch switch?
Those streaks of lightning and the first notes of the score fulfill their promise: the film to follow is droll and entertaining and the fewer specifics the viewer has going in, the better.
Polanski's film is a celebration of female strength and a warning against underestimating a woman based solely on the way she looks or sounds.
Venus in Fur premiered at Cannes in a Competition line-up much-criticised for its lack of films directed by women. True, only one film out of 20 was directed by a woman. But gosh, there were fine roles for middle-aged actresses, this being one of them. Seigner – Mrs. Polanski in real life – is terrific.
Polanski said at the film's press conference that "The aspect of the satire of sexism in the film – that the macho aspect of his character is torn to pieces," really appealed to him.
It was a very swift production. Polanksi came to Cannes in May 2012 for the showing of a restored print of his film Tess and was given the text to Venus in Fur which he found "hilarious". Less than a year later, the film was completed and selected for Cannes.
"My very first movie was three characters in a boat: Knife in the Water. I thought two would be a challenge," Polanski said. "The challenge is not to bore the viewer."
Amalric offered the view that "It's true there are two characters, but sometimes we turned into four. I liked the passages back and forth."
Here's a fun fact: The Franco-Polish co-production marks the first time the director and his frequent cinematographer Pawel Edelman used a digital camera, a tool Polanski pronounced "interesting to use".
In a time when many a film revolves around vampires, it's nice to see one that makes such good use of a vamp.