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by Jean Roy

Polanski’s Pleasure and Pain

Translated Monday 18 November 2013, by Mia Timpano

Venus in Fur by Roman Polanski. France, 95 minutes. With two characters and one single setting, Roman Polanski brings to the screen a play depicting master and slave role reversal.

It’s one of those days where you tell yourself you should have stayed in bed. It’s cold, it’s pissing down rain on the boulevard des Batignolles in Paris, and Thomas has been working in vain all day long. Thomas is played by Mathieu Amalric, whom one could mistake for Roman Polanski’s son, so striking is the resemblance. He has spent the day all alone, auditioning actresses on the stage of Théâtre Hébertot. The space is vacant yet still contains the leftover bits and pieces of the previous production, which appears to have flopped. Stagecoach is the production in question, a nod to John Ford. One can only assume this is no coincidence, especially since the play by David Ives on which the film is based was staged in New York by the Classic Stage Company without any such décor. In any case, the presence of a phallic cactus places the sexual nature of the plot front and centre, the title of the film moreover clearly referring to the only known work by the writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch dating back to 1870, Venus in Furs or Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man.

In this story, in order to cement his affair with Vanda, Sévérin (rebaptised here as Thomas) imagines and draws up a contract: he signs up to be her servant, her slave, even her plaything and to be subjected to all the indignities that she deems fit to inflict upon him. All the candidates for the role of Vanda have been pig-ignorant, not even knowing how to pronounce a four-syllable word. Then all of a sudden this ditz of a Vanda appears (Emmanuelle Seigner, for the fourth time and probably the best time in front of her husband’s lens). She is late to the audition, for which she isn’t even listed. The rain has spoilt her looks and her train got stuck in a darkened tunnel where she was groped. Out of gross ignorance, she stumbles over proper nouns that she should have known since primary school. She appears to be a lost cause, which Thomas cannot stand. But she is one of those people who manage to get back in through the window when you throw them out the door. Vanquished by this tornado, Thomas has no other choice but to let her read a few lines. Surprisingly, she produces the text in its entirety, having learnt it by heart: all has therefore played out according to her scheme.

And thus we discover it is not Vanda but the spectator who is getting a history lesson in Sacher-Masoch. Thomas considered himself the master and Vanda his pupil, but there is a reversal of roles, the dominator becomes the dominated and vice versa, which the rest of the film confirms. The word “masochism” was created for a reason. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly, or better yet, a praying mantis. Following Carnage by Yasmina Reza, this is the second time that Roman Polanksi has brought a play to the screen.

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