Roman Polanski's adaptation of David Ives's play "Venus in Fur" — itself a sort of meta-adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 short novella (whose title is usually translated as "Venus in Furs") — is, among other things, a bouillabaisse of irony and the self-reflective. It's so "meta" that it's hard to know where to begin.
Von Sacher-Masoch is best remembered now as the man who put the "M" in "S and M"— though not voluntarily: His name was appropriated by turn-of-the-century psychiatry. His book was fiction, but was based on his agreement with his mistress to become his Mistress, in the sexual sense of the word. They signed a contract making him her absolute slave for six months. According to a 1907 memoir by his widow, he subsequently wanted to relive the book's experiences in their marriage. Worthwhile trivia: If Wikipedia is to be trusted, he was an active "philosemite," a lovely and self-explanatory term I've never before encountered; and Marianne Faithfull is his great-grand-niece.
The central character in both Ives's play and Polanski's film (co-adapted with Ives), is Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), a playwright trying to cast his version of Sacher-Masoch's book, which he intends to direct. Complaining to his girlfriend on the phone, he imitates the uniformly wretched actresses he's seen so far. Even as he speaks, one more candidate (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives. She is the worst yet — irritating and trashy, popping her gum and displaying utterly unashamed ignorance. (When he explains the novel was by an Austrian writer, she fawningly says, "I'll bet you read it in the original Austrian!")
After much bullying, he lets her audition and is taken aback when she gives her name as Vanda, coincidentally (yeah, right) the name of the character in his play. She insists on him reading the part of Severin, the male lead. To his astonishment, she is perfect in the role. To his confusion, she knows every line and seems familiar with the book — which contradicts her earlier display of ignorance.
Soon it's not clear who is directing whom. And it grows impossible to know what dialogue is from Thomas' play and what is simply the two of them speaking.
Around the time she asks him to get into costume and pulls a genuine 19th century smoking jacket out of her bag for him to wear, it becomes undeniable that something beyond the limits of reality is going on. Is she really whom she claims to be? Is she his projected materialization of Sacher-Masoch's heroine? Or of his real Mistress? Or of the goddess Venus herself? Should the film really be called "The Revenge of Aphrodite"?
As he guides the shift in power on the rehearsal stage, Polanski revisits various elements from his earlier films: the claustrophobic settings of "Knife in the Water" and "Carnage"; the interplay of sex and humiliation from the underrated "Bitter Moon" (also starring Seigner); and the forced feminization of "Cul de Sac" and "The Tenant."
It's one thing to dive down through the layers, from film to play to play-within-a-play to novel to Sacher-Masoch's real life. But "Venus in Fur" suggests layers of narrative irony above the film. Seigner is Polanski's wife; and, in addition to his film work, Polanski is a stage director.
Most striking of all is the casting of Amalric, who looks extraordinarily like Polanski (and is coiffed to look even more so) — a resemblance that the director, his actors, and virtually everyone else involved in the production has commented on. Amalric says that, while they were shopping for costumes one day, Polanski pretended to be his father.
Polanski is a first-rate actor himself, and at some point he must have entertained, if only half-seriously, the notion of playing the part himself. His age would presumably have ruled it out: Amazingly, he is now 80, albeit about as "boyish" an 80 as can be imagined. But perhaps the obvious age difference might have been distracting, given his notorious reputation, even though Seigner isn't far short of 50 and is his wife.
As always in Polanski films, the craft is immaculate. The great Alexandre Desplat provides the music, which by the end has tinges of Norma Desmond's out-of-kilter bolero at the end of "Sunset Blvd." Pawel Edelman's cinematography and Jean Rabasse's design make the most of the single set.
Amalric has been brilliant in a large number of films — "King and Queen," "Munich," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" — and he has plenty to work with here.
The film is, despite its nastiness, is arguably feminist. Polanski quotes part of the following paragraph from Sacher-Masoch's book: "...woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man's enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work."
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).