Saturday, 17 October 2015

Stage Craft

“Venus in Fur”

This is one of my first reviews, written before I had a blog, when I first saw this movie. Youll notice disparities between my current writing and the writing found in this early work. I hope the difference reflects well, if not on me, at least on your judiciousness.

A moment from "Venus in Fur," hopefully hinting at the titillation on offer here

Like most great films, and indeed many good films, Venus in Fur, Roman Polanski’s latest endeavour, can inspire, and has inspired, a good deal of discussion on what it’s about: sex and power; art and life; the artifice of the theatre and how that helps the art form help us deal with our questions; the simultaneous logic and absurdity of desire, etc.

But why choose? And why not consider that it could also be about the film’s auteur, or at least that some understanding can be gained from looking at Mr Polanski’s life and career? A Holocaust survivor, an exile and a fugitive, a victim of great loss and suffering, a sex offender, Mr Polanski does not often play at autobiography in his films, but does seem to tackle, or at least engage with, some of his personal demons in his films. The film is based on the play by David Ives, which in turn in based on the 1870 Austrian novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masochs, from whose name and work we’ve derived the world “masochism”. That novel was based largely on the life and relationships of its author, and Mr Polanski has certainly left his mark on this adaptation. The female part, Vanda Jourdain, is played by his wife Emmanuelle Seigner, and her foil, Thomas Novachek, is played by Mathieu Amalric as an impersonation of his director, unless his diminished stature, nervous energy and neat haircut are all a coincidence.

A regular fascination of Mr Polanski’s in his films, in Macbeth, in The Pianist, in Carnage and many others, is claustrophobia and the examination of a character trapped in a place or situation they can neither control nor escape. In Venus in Fur, the two characters are enclosed for the entirety of the film in a Parisian theatre. Thomas, a playwright, has been holding auditions, wholly unproductive, for the lead role of Wanda von Dunayev in his new play, Venus in Fur, based on Sacher-Masochs’s novel. Vanda walks in from the pouring rain, hours late for her supposed audition, and pleads Thomas in vain to let her read for him. She eventually succeeds when she gets him to see her in the costume she bought for the audition, and convinces him to read the male lead, Severin von Kuscemski, opposite her. He is understandably surprised to find that she and the character share a name, which she claims is a sign she was made for the part, but is duly pessimistic when she speaks with more colloquialisms than an inner-city high school student, and refers to the novel’s historical context as “the medieval 18-whatevers” and its language as “Austrian”, and seems dishearteningly dismissive and ignorant of its themes: “It’s S&M porn, isn’t it?” she asks, while he insists it’s a great love story and “a central text in world literature”. But again, why choose?

All doubts are dispelled, however, as soon as she speaks the opening lines. Playing Vanda, she suddenly appears to have such great understanding of the part and the play, it gives Thomas, and us, the impression she’s walked from its pages. She and Thomas read the parts with each other, with sudden and unanticipated jumps back to real-life dialogue about how much (or little) the characters are like their players, and how the play sometimes resembles and sometimes distorts modern life and the politics of modern sexual relations. The abrupt breaks between this and the play within, and how Vanda and Thomas continually transform into Wanda and Severin and back again, is a cause of great delight in the film, and contributes to the boundaries between art and life, and the at first clearly defined relationship between the two, being blurred and twisted until it’s virtually indistinct and unrecognisable, respectively.

All the elements of the film – the shifts between fiction and reality, the gradually crescendoing score, the dramatic lighting changes, the swapping of clothing and of roles, the eyebrow-raising revelations, the delving into Thomas’s life and characters he finds increasingly he cannot explain – build throughout the film from what looked like a regular beginning, without any waxing or ebbing into an ultimately harrowing, but dramatically fulfilling, conclusion.

There is much to be said for Ms Seigner’s performance as Vanda, as a whirlwind of emotion, hidden intellect, feigned depravity, buried insights and a fiery force of nature. Ultimately, it’s she who reveals what the film and its play are about: the voyeuristic nature of acting and performance, and the extreme satisfaction, sensual and cerebral, the viewer gains from watching it.

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