Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric) is holding auditions for “Venus in Fur,” a play he adapted and will direct, for which he’s struggling to find real talent. He’s watched 35 idiot actresses, half-dressed like teenage hookers, all incapable of reciting lines or exuding authenticity. At his wit’s end, he cynically suggests that he’d be better for the lead female role. But just before he closes up the theater, out from the downpour comes Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner), with hair soaked and complaining of a dead cellphone, having broken a heel on a sewer grate, and fending off a stranger rubbing up against her on the train ride there.
Dressed in tight leather, black stockings, and a studded dog collar, Vanda thinks the part is all about eroticism and bondage, but Novachek enlightens her as to the less contemporary 1870 setting. She’s primed for an audition, but the director has little patience for her after-hours arrival and there’s no one left for her to read with. When she begins to depart in tears and complains of the 30 euros she spent on her dress, he reluctantly reconsiders – persuaded further by a distracting phone call from his fiancée that gives Vanda time to don her costume and push her way into a spontaneous tryout.
The evening becomes eerier when Jourdain inexplicably possesses an entire copy of the script, which Novachek did not distribute. Annoyingly, she has little knowledge of the pages, believing the text to be based on a Lou Reed song instead of the scandalous Austrian novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name and writings inspired the term “masochism”). Furthermore, she’s certain the play is essentially pornography, which infuriates Novachek’s interpretation of it as a love story. She proceeds to change the lights, reduce his adjective-filled description of protagonist Severin von Kushemski (well-traveled, cultivated, aristocratic) to “nerd,” and implausibly insists she already knows everything about the character for which she’ll read - coincidentally also named Vanda.
As the duo recites lines and interacts, Vanda reclining on the divan, Thomas looking up from his desk surprised at her genuineness, the two actors become their alter egos, eventually transforming indistinguishably from the initially mussy actress and irritated director at the start. Their lines blur between reading the pages, giving perorational speeches, improvising, flirting, criticizing and adapting the words, reversing roles, and actually arguing - at one point, their exchanges mirror a therapy session. As the film progresses, it’s less and less clear whether they’re acting out the script or acting as themselves, as if reincarnations of their 19th century counterparts. The premise of Kushemski’s deriving of pleasure from pain and degradation, absolute submission, the link to sables and stoles, Greek mythology, and eternal unification are diminished in comparison to the performances – and to the hopelessly bizarre finale. The seduction, sexuality, and power (or rebalancing of power) are quite prominent, however, in hilarious, absorbing form.
To the same degree that Novachek becomes transfixed and mesmerized with the mysterious Jourdain, the audience is sure to be fascinated with the actors, particularly with the immediately enchanting Seigner. The design serves them well with its intimacy, possessing a presentation like that of a stage production (indeed, it’s adapted by David Ives from his own play), which might lend to its only major undoing: since it’s primarily just dialogue between two people, the running time is a touch overlong. To a slighter noticeability, merrily quirky music occasionally intrudes, hinting at the blithe supernatural notes but taking away from the sincerity of the show’s translation. The ending, while purposeful, can’t match the striking curiosity and intrigue that blankets the first three-fourths, resulting in a movie that routinely nears perfection but misses the mark considerably with the conclusion.
- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)