Given his notorious past (he was arrested for the rape of a 13-year-old girl and then fled the states for Europe to escape incarceration), Polish writer-director Roman Polanski (The Pianist) rightly inspires rather negative reactions. And yet despite that, he continues to make movies that matter. Based on a Broadway play by David Ives, his latest effort, Venus in Fur, which opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, is another masterwork.
As the film opens, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), the director of an adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), is on the phone, arguing with an agent who can't seem to send him an actress smart enough to say the word "inextricable" without a coach. He's seen "35 idiot actresses" and can't take any more.
When the buxom Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) stumbles into his theater one dark and stormy night and pulls a soggy headshot and resume out of her bag, Thomas ends up engaged in a long debate with the actress. Incessantly chewing gum as her boobs practically pop out of her bra, she proves to be a real vixen and dry humps a stage prop before her audition begins. She then engages in some ridiculous vocal warm-ups and, out of nowhere, proceeds to nail the part.
The two act out the sexually charged play with real fierceness as Vanda takes to the role of dominatrix with real gusto, whipping and slapping Thomas as she calls him her slave. Though they take the occasional break to answer cell phone calls or have a cup of coffee, it ultimately becomes difficult to tell when they're reading from the play and when they're having a conversation. The power dynamic between the two of them is fascinating.
Adapted by Polanski and David Ives, the film reunites Amalric and Seigner (they starred in Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). The two are really terrific together. Dialogue from plays is often too stilted and doesn't lend itself to good moviemaking. But with Amalric and Seigner, that's not a problem. The two manage to make the dialogue sound natural. And Polanski does a good job of amplifying the tension with his methodical pacing and use of counter shots, once again living up to his reputation as an accomplished director.