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'Venus in Fur' review: Fine acting in Polanski's tale of sexual politics

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A tour de force for actors Emmanuelle Seigner (“Bitter Moon,” “The Ninth Gate”) and Mathieu Amalric (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “A Quantum of Solace”), Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” is a wild ride through sexual politics and dominance via a theatrical audition. Based on the award-winning Broadway play by David Ives, who based his play on the 1870 novella, “Venus in Furs” by Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Polanski transfers Ives’ work to a French theater, utilizing the auditorium, stage and backstage areas for his actors to play out their tale of sexual dominance.

The film opens on the back of Vanda (Seigner) as she walks a stormy Paris path to arrive at an older, once grand theater that has just produced a musical version of “Stagecoach.” Entering the theater, she overhears the director, Thomas (Amalric) complain bitterly over the phone that he’s auditioned some 35 “idiot” actresses and none are close to his Vanda, a character who agrees to dominate her mate and turn him into her slave. Enter working actress named Vanda. Thomas in all of his arrogance is quick to dismiss Vanda – she’s wet, rumpled, carries everything in her bag, basically a loud, gum-smacking broad.

But after much persuading, including erotic energy and tears, Thomas allows Vanda to read the part, after all, Vanda shares the same name as the character in the play. Let the battle of the sexes begin! Vanda turns out to be quite a fine actress, showing the fine nuances between her own persona and that of the character she plays. But is this a character? The line becomes more and more blurred as Vanda and Thomas dive into their roles with insightful and wickedly funny results.

Per the film’s production notes, Polanski notes that his agent sent him a copy of Ives’ script two years ago at Cannes saying, “It’s your cup of tea.” Polanski immediately read and found, “The text was so funny I found myself laughing out loud all by myself which is pretty rare. The irony of the piece … was irresistible. I also liked the feminist element …. And there was a great part for Emmanuelle [Polanski’s wife] and we had been talking about working together again for a long time.”

Pulling off a film with only two characters and making it feel cinematic is often an arduous task. But Polanski enlisted his team of skilled craftsmen. Cinematographer, Pawel Edelman, who has worked with Polanski on four films before this (“The Pianist,” “Oliver Twist,” “The Ghost Writer,” and “Carnage”), remarked that this was a hard film to make since it only had two characters. But his use of lighting helped define the spaces around the actors, which created a very cinematic and lively feel.

The creative lighting coupled with composer Alexandre Desplat’s excellent and witty score also emphasized shifts in tone. In some ways the score plays like an invisible third character (in the most positive sense). This was Desplat’s third film with Polanski after “Carnage” and “The Ghost Writer.”

Roman Polanski’s skill with his source material and his taut direction of his talented actors make “Venus in Fur” a sexual, table-turning commentary and an entertaining movie experience.

“Venus in Fur” is 96 minutes, Rated R and opens July 4th for a one week run at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.

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