The French Film Festival in Sydney has also seen the Australian debut of the 2013 Roman Polanski film Venus in Furs, an adaptation of the 2010 David Ives play, which was itself inspired by the 1870 novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The latter author, in case the name sounds familiar, is from where the Masochism in S&M derives.
Mathieu Amalric plays Thomas Novacheck, a frustrated writer/director at his wits end trying to cast the part of Vanda in his new stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. Amalric bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger Polanski, Polanski seemingly playing off his own persona in the creation of Novacheck.
Then, into the run down Parisienne théâtre stumbles Vanda (played by Polanski’s wife, the beautiful Emmanuelle Seigner), perceptibly, the complete opposite of her sophisticated novel namesake, with her leather attire and attendant dog-collar. The pretentious director dismisses her upfront, and it takes all Vanda’s flattery and persistence to persuade him to humour an audition for her.
Vanda proves mesmerising, on top of which she has memorised Novacheck’s script and brings along the perfect costuming, including an authentic smoking jacket for Novachek to don as he morphs into the character of Severin. The power dynamic shifts, as it is fought over by both players, Vanda confounding Novacheck by oscillating between her dumb actress act and her intuitive enactment of the fictitious Vanda.
She commands control, gradually claiming her ground by surreptitiously assuming all the “powers” of the director in costuming, casting, and subverting gender roles. The dog collar symbolically switches necks, as who is directing and dominating the scene irrevocably shifts.
Polanski flexes his skill set in rendering yet another play (after his 2011 hit Carnage) into a brilliant film. His talent for portraying human relationships and the spaces they inhabit claustrophobic and explosive fits perfectly with the constrained space the theatre necessitates. The battle transpires in one scene, in one space, we’re locked in and while we grasp for air, we’re too enthralled to want out.
The chemistry between Seigner and Amalric is scintillating and sexy, and Polanski was absolutely justified in maturing the age of the characters in the play. Seigner shifts effortlessly between her multiple characters, and we’re as equally confounded by her as Novacheck is. She makes a masterful feminist heroine.
Venus in Furs was nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, as well as a barrage of nominations at the César Awards, Polanski taking home the award for Best Director, and the Lumière Awards, Polanski and David Ives taking home the award for Best Screenplay.
Cerebral, witty, unexpected – and I might have forgot to mention absolutely hilarious – the film looks set to be another Polanski classic. You can still catch Venus in Furs at Palace Norton Street this Thursday and Sunday. For show times, check out the French Film Festival program at afrenchfilmfestival.org/schedule.