This is the year’s most thrilling surprise. At 80(upon the film’s release), my thinking was that Roman Polanski may have shot his final bolt. Hit-or-miss for a number of years, following 2002’s Oscar-soaked, “The Pianist”, it was starting to seem that Polanski would never touch the edge of greatness again. 2010’s “The Ghost Writer” was promising for a spell, but ultimately managed to fall short. And 2011’s “Carnage” was a disappointing miscalculation. So, imagine the shockwave that rattled through me, upon the revelation of the sexy, playful, electric “Venus in Fur”. It’s the hoped for return-to-form, and it would be a fitting swan song, if the controversial director were actually never to helm a project again. Not that I’m hoping for that! On the contrary, after experiencing the razor perfect instincts displayed for his 20th official feature, I’m ready for a full ninth decade resurgence from the polarizing Pole. Love him or hate him, he’s back–and with his first all French language film in decades. Plus, there’s a Fellini-esque final scene that is simply breath-taking.
Thomas Novacheck(Polanski doppelgänger, Mathieu Amalric)is desperately working to cast the lead actress in his new play, which also finds him directing for the very first time. Exasperated by his lack of success, he readies himself to leave the cavernous Parisian theatre where the auditions are taking place, to join his waiting fiance for dinner. In trudges Vanda(a wickedly marvelous, Emmanuelle Seigner), hours late for her scheduled reading, and soaking wet from a thunderous deluge of rain. Sizing her up quickly as the latest in a line of unsuitable casting choices , Novacheck attempts to brusquely escort her out of the building. Eventually acquiescing, upon Vanda’s insistence and shameless display of frustrated tears, Thomas is astonished to learn that the gum-snapping, fortysomething hopeful, possesses just the correct amount of world-weariness and dignity for the role. What follows is a delightfully, titillating adult pas de deux, that finds Thomas and Vanda in a cat-and-mouse, play-within-a-play, power struggle and role reversal. And with Novacheck’s play being based on a 17th century novel responsible for ushering in the word masochist, the proceedings promise to be provocative–at the very least.
Ironic that it took a two-character play to reenergize Polanski, after a four-character one betrayed him the previous time out in 2011. But where “Carnage”(adapted from Yasmina Reza’s renowned Tony-winning work)came off as stage bound and overwrought, “Venus in Fur”(based on David Ives play of the same name)was liberated by its sole setting, and positively set ablaze by its beautifully modulated twin performances. Emmanuelle Seigner is especially formidable. Finally, freeing herself from the label of being simply “Mrs.” Polanski(33 years Roman’s junior, they’ve now been married for 25 years), Ms. Seigner is mesmerizing and completely alluring. That being said, it’s impossible to ignore how nepotism influenced the casting decision, with Emmanuelle being two decades older, than the role of Vanda’s most renowned interpreter, Nina Arianda(winner of a treasure chest of awards for her stage run, including 2012’s Tony for Best Actress). Seigner certainly carries her 40+ years well. And Mathieu Amalric as Thomas, finds just the right rhythm for the far trickier character of Thomas, the director. The co-screenplay by Mr. Polanski and the original play’s author, is both dexterous and free-wheeling. It’s never ponderous, and maintains the spritely-nuanced touch that the material begs for. “Venus in Fur” finds Polanski in jolly good form. I can’t wait to watch it again.