It seems there are few greater challenges for filmmakers today than adapting award-winning plays to the big screen. Tracy Letts' August: Osage County and Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage are two recent examples from Broadway that earned Tony Awards for Best Play but were fish out of water onscreen. Carnage was adapted and directed by Roman Polanski, creator of landmark films including Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. He returns to the theatrical well for playwright David Ives' Venus in Fur, but with altogether different results. Maybe it's the psychosexual bent of Ives' intense two-character play — which sometimes recalls early Polanski films like Repulsion and The Tenant — or the dazzling central performance by Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife of 25 years and an accomplished actress better known in Europe than the U.S. Venus in Fur is the rare work of theater that's transformed by the enhanced intimacy of film.
The set-up for Venus in Fur is simple. Actress Vanda (Seigner) walks into an almost empty theater at the end of day-long auditions for the lead role in a new play adapted from the 1870 novel Venus in Furs, written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name and work inspired the term "masochism" — as in sadomasochism. "No, she doesn't exist ... a sexy woman with classical training and a scrap of brain in her skull," says the play's adapter/director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) to his fiancee via cellphone. Vanda (which by strange coincidence happens to be the name of that lead character) manipulates the frustrated and exhausted Thomas into one last audition for the day.
Without giving anything away, what follows is a 95-minute play-within-a-play-adapted-for-a-movie that takes the timeworn battle of the sexes to new heights of intrigue and volatility. The film's main pleasures come from seeing Vanda (or Seigner) work her way through eight or nine distinct variations of her character before we can begin to unravel the tangled threads of reality, fantasy and theater. It's something that should be witnessed up close and personal, as only film can do. The whole thing is exhausting in the best possible way.
As Thomas, Amalric gamely keeps up with Seigner's transformations. There may have been another reason to cast him: He's the spitting image of young Polanski, whose face remains familiar from dozens of mostly small acting roles in his own films and others'. Amalric's eerie presence — playing opposite Polanski's wife — adds another layer of depth to the film's portrayal of actor-director relationships, which in turn reflects and amplifies the larger, gender-based issues of power and dominance at the heart of the film. Venus in Fur may be intellectually challenging, but it's also entertaining on a purely visceral level.
There's a sense of gleeful mischief to Venus in Fur, as if the now 80-year-old Polanski has returned to his roots with subject matter and methods that suit him well. He shot with a single camera in chronological sequence, all in an empty old Parisian theater brought back to life for the film. The notoriously precise Polanski adds a third presence to the formerly two-character piece. Who says plays belong only on the stage?