Guilty, Pleasure

When the movie's called "Venus in Fur," it's guaranteed somebody is getting tied up. And given that the title is only a slight tweak of Austrian novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella "Venus in Furs," which charts a man finding sublime pleasure in being degraded by the woman he loves, chances are that somebody is going to be a dude. Roman Polanski's cheeky new movie, an adaptation of the 2010 play of the same name by David Ives (who co-wrote here), not only delivers on that hunch but does something more entertainingly odd: It concludes with a scene that is both completely expected and absolutely baffling, leaving you smiling, feeling awkward, and feeling a little unclean.

What's disarming is how funny the movie is getting there. "Fur" is set entirely inside a Parisian theater, where first-time stage director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is about to wrap up a day of auditions for his interpretation of Sacher-Masoch's work when Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up. She's a tawdry mess, looking like a woman dressing too young for her age. She broke a heel getting there, got harassed on the subway en route, and now finds herself pleading with Thomas to let her audition. Thomas eyes her like he stepped in something unpleasant, and it's obvious that not only would he never consider her for the role, he can't wait to shoo her away.

Between chews of gum she implores him for a quick chance, exasperated in the dejection of being an actress who is always too old, too young, too big, or too small. Thomas assents, mostly to hasten her departure. He'll read the male part opposite her. He does note that Vanda coincidentally has the same name as the character in his play and Sacher-Masoch's novella. She produces a coffee-stained version of his complete script, a period-appropriate costume for the roles, and adjusts his stage lighting to suit the opening scene's setting. By the time Vanda begins reading Thomas' script off book, she has become a refined, cultured, sophisticated, and downright imposing presence. Thomas isn't just taken aback and impressed by her transformation; he might be a little turned on.

What follows is increasingly tense pas de deux as Vanda and Thomas move between roles: the characters in the play, an actress and director discussing theater, a man and a women debating sexual politics, a master and slave negotiating the terms of their relationship. If it all sounds like pretentious intellectualism, it should: Haughty critical-theory discussions of "desire" and the "gaze" and "texts" are gleefully skewered here, as every moment of brooding art-house seriousness is effortlessly deflated into ordinary silliness. Thomas argues that "Venus in Furs" is a great love story; Vanda sneers that it's merely S&M porn. Thomas settles into a desk and glumly prepares to read through his serious work; Vanda gets into character with a series of vocal warmup exercises that sound like a hippopotamus playing bagpipes. They run through a scene and establish a taut erotic tension, which Vanda pierces with a sarcastic comment. 

It's clear early on that she's the hunter and he's the prey, though the movie never bothers with any motive for this pursuit. That she wants to needle him and he wants to be needled is taken as a given, and Polanski cunningly teases those desires out. The camera lingers just a bit too long on the point of her shoe, Thomas' hand inching toward it but never brave enough to touch it. Some props Vanda has on hand, such as the dog collar she wore when she arrived; others she mimes onstage, as in the case of the whip with which she pretends to flog him. We hear the snaps of its lashes, though, as reality and role-playing bleed together. Come the bewildering finale, which involves Amalric in heels and lipstick and Seigner in little more than a deranged grin, fact and fantasy fuse, and the movie achieves an entertainingly unsettling slapstick.

This uncomfortable comedy feels entirely intentional, as "Venus in Fur" is smugly self-aware. Amalric famously bears a strong likeness to a young Polanski; Seigner, whose performance carries this entire film, is Polanski's wife, and is who he cast as a whore of Babylonish character in "The Ninth Gate" and one half of an S&M couple in "Bitter Moon." Polanski, a convicted sex offender, has made an outright bawdy comedy about a director pursuing a controversial sexual relationship with his actress. You might laugh so hard you vomit in your mouth a little bit.

And maybe that's the obvious point of "Venus in Fur" ending in a moment that is both absolutely expected, given the storyline, but also utterly bat-shit on top: Experiencing two conflicting ideas isn't supposed to be convenient. Polanski's films often crawl behind the civilized facades humans wear in public to expose the unsavory things people do to each other in private, and he's one of cinema's finest visual storytellers when it comes to realizing intense psychological complexity onscreen. Here, he's practically rubbing our faces in any effort to comfortably divorce the sins of the artist from the art itself. You can't, and enjoying this movie is a 96-minute reminder of that. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl—and if you've ever had a soft spot for the mordant wit in his movies, "Venus in Fur" wonderfully tickles the funny bone. Insert uncomfortable laughter here.

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