Venus in Fur belongs to Roman Polanski’s wife, Emanuelle Seigner. Seigner has appeared in her husband’s films before (as a French smuggler in Frantic, a sexual dynamo in Bitter Moon, and the Devil herself in The Ninth Gate), but this outshines any of her previous appearances. This is, in part, because of her maturity. Seigner wears her age astonishingly well and it has only enhanced her inherent sensuality. Her sly eyes have never seemed more entrancing or intimidating. But the material, drawn from the play by David Ives, also gives Seigner plenty of room to show off. As the enigmatic, vital Vanda, she runs nearly the whole gamut of expression, never allowing the audience or flustered playwright and would-be director Thomas Novacheck to get a lock on her identity.
As Polanski elevates his wife, he humiliates himself, situating David Ives’ one-room play as a sly bit of self-critique by casting his dopplegänger, Matthieu Amalric, in the part of Novacheck (Amalric, for his part, delivers an admirably twitchy performance, and commits himself wholly to his character’s pomposity), whose mortification is Venus in Fur‘s ultimate object. Venus in Fur makes of a mockery of sadomasochism, as well as any artists who would disguise their own perversions as worthy art. This is not altogether foreign territory for Polanski, but he’s never so clearly made himself the butt of the joke.
This brings a level of complexity and playfulness to Venus in Fur that eluded Polanski’s previous film, the rather slight, if not unenjoyable, Carnage. Like Venus in Fur, Carnage sought to derive intensity from intimacy (it, like Venus in Fur, is an adaptation of a one-scene, one-room play), but its shenanigans were too broad, too dependent on the wild gesticulations of its cast, to have the twisted edge and existential terror of Polanski’s best efforts. While Polanski’s direction in Carnage could not rightly be accused of laziness (as always, Polanski’s attention to geography, even in intimate settings, is impressive), Polanski’s direction in Venus in Fur is much more satisfying, always paying close attention to the ever-shifting relational dynamics between the film’s two characters. The humor, too, is sharper, with Ives’ play offering Polanski some outrageous visual gags in addition to all the witty verbal sparring.
It would perhaps be in bad taste to say how it all ends. Polanski has always taken great care with his endings, and, as with 2009’s The Ghost Writer, Venus in Fur‘s finale both exceeds and improves upon the preceding material. The film’s final moments are not entirely unanticipated in terms of narrative content, but in execution, they are positively bracing, finding a sublime balance of the ethereal and the grotesque. For Polanski, humiliation is its own kind of art form.