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Roman Polanski gets kinky with 'Venus in Fur'

Director's latest is a filmed version of David Ives' taut, sexy two-person play

House of mirrors-style, director Roman Polanski adapts an adaptation in his latest film Venus in Fur. The basis for the movie, David Ives' award-winning play of the same name, is itself a post-modern adaptation of the 19th century sadomasochistic classic Venus in Furs by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name we get term masochism). In the play and the new film, a self-interested writer auditions a mysterious, brash young actress who shows up unexpectedly to try out for a part in his latest play, an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's kinky novel. As she reads for him — she's strangely and unexpectedly perfect for the role — they both become deeply involved in the play-within-a-play.

Ives' play was set in New York, but Polanski, perhaps because New York is not an easy trip for him to make, moves the action to Paris. In the film version, Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's real-life wife), plays the auditioning actress Vanda. Mathieu Amalric, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Polanski, plays the writer-director Thomas. The play is about a number of things — power, sex, the theater, art, fantasy — and Polanski adds one more element to the list: himself. The play-within-a-play becomes a play-within-a-movie, not an entirely smooth transition to make. The play (Actor's Express did a fine production last fall with Adam Fristoe and Veronika Duerr) had an effortless sense of intimacy and immediacy. It's a tone that's harder for the film to achieve at first — things seem super-talky, and anyone who has never seen the play will reasonably wonder why we're focusing on just two characters who never leave the same room — but once eased into, Polanski is able to mine the material for its most intriguing evocations of the ineluctable enormity of sexual mystery.

Ives' play asks us to entertain the possibility that the auditioning actress may be some sort of divine being. As in Sacher-Masoch's novel, featuring a fleshy incarnation of a vengeful goddess, Seigner effortlessly transitions from the vulgar, plainspoken auditioning actress to the elegant, secretly sadistic, 19th-century aristocrat whom she hopes to play. Whereas Ives' play ended on a reversal of power-dynamics that alluded to Greek tragedy, however, Polanski ends Venus in Fur with a campy, silly dance, undoing the film's more effective, cumulative sense of sexual dread mixed with titillation. Still, though this may not be Polanski's best film, it's a masterful adaptation of its source material. It's possible we're witnessing Polanski wrestle with his own demons — or we're seeing another well-executed authorial trick; there are many of them in Venus in Fur.



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