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Archive for August, 2015

Watching Roman Polanski’s Vénus à la fourrure (2013), I was reminded of Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir (1971), which purports to be a behind the scenes look at the filming of Jesùs Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) but is more like an alternate version of the same story (which, due to its familiarity, is easy to follow even without any dialogue). However, by including crew members in the same shot as the actors performing their scenes, Portabella divorces the movie’s style from the story of Count Dracula, whereas Polanski does just the opposite. Based on David Ives’ play Venus in Fur (2010), which derives its title from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs — neither of which I’ve read — Polanski’s film emphasizes the unity of all three texts.

The story is about a director, Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric), who’s staging an adaptation of Venus in Furs but can’t find a suitable actress to play the lead. Just as he’s about to go home for the evening, a woman calling herself Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up at the theatre dressed like a dominatrix and insists on auditioning. At first, Vanda just seems to be an annoying bimbo, yet she not only reads surprisingly well but quickly usurps Thomas’ role as director, pressing him to really get into it when feeding her lines and even improvising whole new scenes with him. It’s already self-evident by the time she reaches the end of page three that she’s got the part, but Thomas gets so worked up that, forgetting his fiancée is waiting for him, he goes through the entire script with her while arguing over her interpretation of it. The movie thus summarizes the plot of Sacher-Masoch’s novella as it provides a running commentary on it.

Vanda thinks Thomas’ play is autobiographical despite being an adaptation, and though he denies it, the film ultimately bears her out as she makes him her slave in both the play and the theatre. (In the early scenes, Vanda’s irritating diction when speaking to Thomas contrasts sharply with her delivery when reading lines, but after she drops the dumb blonde routine, it gets progressively harder to tell where Vanda Jourdain ends and Wanda von Dunajew begins.) At the same time, Polanski invites us to see Thomas as a stand-in for himself, in part by giving him a mop top haircut like he used to have in the ’60s, and by casting his wife as Vanda. Polanski’s identification with Thomas is signalled most explicitly at the end of the film when the epigraph for his play (“And the lord hath smitten him and delivered him into a woman’s hand”) becomes the epigraph for the movie as well. In other words, the film actively solicits the sort of autobiographical readings that reviewers usually impose on Polanski’s movies anyway.

A cynic might point out that this is an easy way for Polanski to position himself as the auteur of the film rather than Ives, even though the director, for all his brilliance, is largely at the mercy of his scripts. (If you want to see Polanski and a group of talented actors working in a vacuum, check out his previous stage adaptation, Carnage [2011].) Unlike Cuadecuc, vampir, where the style purposefully ruptures narrative unity, in Vénus à la fourrure it’s geared towards making the plot easily comprehensible. Late in the movie, when Vanda suggests she and Thomas switch roles, an overhead spotlight picks out a plywood cactus left over from an earlier production. On the one hand, this is obviously symbolic — Vanda has already explicitly likened the cactus to a wiener — but it’s also a subtle piece of foreshadowing, anticipating the film’s climax, in which Vanda ties Thomas to it. Rather than transcending the story, Polanski’s style serves to enhance it.

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