The role of submission, in both its physical and emotional manifestations, and its potential place in romantic relationships is explored compellingly in Roman Polanski’s latest film Venus In Fur.
Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway play by David Ives, which itself was based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella, the film follows writer/director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) as he holds auditions for his latest play. Thomas complains that no actress he’s seen has what it takes to play the lead female character: a woman who enters into an agreement with her male counterpart to dominate him as her slave. Preparing to leave the theater, Thomas is surprised by a woman named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) who bursts in claiming to be a last minute audition. Reluctant at first, Thomas agrees to let her try out for the part, and is taken aback by the captivating quality of her performance and character transformation. But as the audition progresses, questions as to Vanda’s intimate knowledge of the material arises, plunging the characters into a harrowing examination of pain and its influence on sexual desire.
The pursuit of pleasure through pain and the often theatricality of the act is something that’s deconstructed and enhanced effectively through Polanski’s decision to set the action in a theater in the midst of transition (In the original Ives play, everything happens in an audition room). Polanski says, “There is something in sado-masochism which is not dissimilar to theatre: you become a director in your own fantasies, you play a part, you get somebody else to play a part. That theatricality is something the film plays with, that play within a play: a place where domination and submission, theatre and real life, characters, reality and fantasy, all meet, switch places and blur boundaries.”
Seigner and Amalric, who starred together previously in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, expertly move from character to character, until everything is mirror-like, with new angles of emotion and desire distorting the nature of their selves, and questioning whether we are a single self or a constantly evolving set of personalities.
Here, Seigner does not play one Vanda but several: the actress passing the audition, the woman written by Sacher-Masoch, the one imagined by the director and the one who embodies Venus. Amalric as well sheds these various skins, and even perhaps goes beyond the realms of the narrative becoming a representation for the director himself (Amalric more than a little resembles Polanski, and elements of cross-dressing, manipulation and domination harken back to his classic film The Tenant.)
Polanski goes on to say, “I like to develop that ambiguity gradually. We wanted to increase that feeling of moving away from reality, without the spectator ever realizing at what point the feeling set in.”
Music as well is integral to the story, and because of the mirror-like representations of the characters, the compositions become extensions of these altered selves, enhancing the thematic elements. To achieve these moments of suspense and metamorphosis, Polanski employed Alexandre Desplat who previously collaborated with the director on The Ghost Writer and Carnage. Desplat says, “The music comes in and takes us into a fantasy world. And the music plays with the reflections: it doesn’t necessarily stop when they stop acting and sometimes doesn’t come in straight away when they start acting again. This subtlety means the film doesn’t become didactic but creates fluidity in the musical narrative, and thus plays a part in creating the confusion that sets into their relationship and the film.”
What’s quite remarkable as well is transforming the relatively small confines of a theater space into a vast landscape of psychological turmoil. Director of photography Pawel Edelman who has worked with Polanski on four previous features (The Pianist, Oliver Twist, The Ghost Writer, Carnage) used a single camera for shooting, and manages to construct a labyrinth of sorts, where the constantly evolving nature of the environment alternates between claustrophobic close-ups to disorienting and seemingly endless hallways and backdrops. This progression in visual abstraction gives scenes an often fleeting, ghost-like quality.
Edelman says, “What I knew was that we had to make the actors stand out from the space and that there would be a lot of dark areas which viewers would have to fill with their own imagination. We needed to create an atmosphere, a climate which could almost enter the realm of symbolism. Theatres are concrete spaces, and sometimes we needed to transform it to make it an almost abstract space.”
Like certain trees that depend on fire to reproduce, the characters within the film at times thrive on degradation and destruction, but it is this annihilation of certain liberties that provides insight into the complex nature of the self, and sheds light on the ever evolving relationship between pleasure and pain.