The last film to screen in competition at Cannes this year is a slight, spry comedy of sex and power; a doodle in the festival’s margins, perhaps, but it has certainly been sketched with a flourish.
Roman Polanski has adapted the David Ives play Venus in Fur, which is itself based on a novella by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It is from Leo’s predilections that the word ‘masochism’ derives: his story concerns a man who gleans sexual pleasure by posing as the servant of Vanda, the woman he idolises.
Polanski’s film takes place entirely inside a theatre where auditions for a stage version of Sacher-Masoch’s tale are being held. The playwright, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), has decided to direct his own script, and as the film begins, he is lamenting the lack of suitable actresses for the Vanda role. “I need a sexy young woman with classical training and a scrap of brain in her skull,” he fumes.
At that moment, an actress blows in through the door, although she is not the erudite gamine of Thomas’s casting-call fantasies. She is in her mid-40s; a blur of blonde hair, boobs and blue eyeshadow; and she seems to have only the vaguest idea as to what the text is about. Her name, oddly enough, is Vanda, and she is played by Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife. Vanda stands there, hand planted on fleshy hip, and cuts Thomas’s artistic ambitions down to size. “It’s S&M porn,” she shrugs. “I know my sadomasochism. I work in the theatre.”
Thomas reluctantly allows her to audition, and as the pair read through the script, the power balance between them flips and skews along with the unfolding on-stage drama. Amalric is, quite obviously, made up to look like a young Polanski of The Tenant vintage or thereabouts; Seigner’s character might represent almost any actress whom he has ever turned down for a part.
At first, Polanski openly goads us into thinking Seigner is too old for her role, as well as her role-within-a-role – but her character soon takes control of the theatre’s lighting desk, and when she dims the spots and throws seductive shadows across the makeshift set, she becomes progressively more gorgeous and goddess-like.
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