The Thrill of the Lash

23 June 2014

Roman Polanski’s film version of Venus In Fur – a sexual tug-of-war between a submissive director and a mysterious, sexy actress – is smart, funny, entertaining, and very pervy.

Tonight I watched Roman Polanski’s film version of David Ives’ play Venus In Fur on Curzon’s film on demand website. The film had such a short cinema run here that it was over before I or anyone else saw it – though I’m amused to see that it’s this month’s top-selling film on the Curzon site. It seems that les rosbifs would prefer to watch racy S&M-themed films at home with the net curtains drawn than in a cinema.

The film is great fun, and pleasantly kinky, befitting the text which it’s named after: Venus In Fur, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novella about a young aristocrat named Severin who convinces an older woman, Vanda, to dominate him and let him become her love-slave. Like the Marquis de Sade, Sacher-Mosoch is better known for his name than his writing – the word “masochist” was derived from his name.

Ives’ play updates Sacher-Masoch’s story to modern times. A blowsy actress (the fantastic Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives late in the middle of a thunderstorm to audition for a stage adaptation of Venus In Furs. She’s dripping wet from the rain, dressed in a cheap hooker’s outfit, and hilariously uncouth. “It’s S&M porn, right?” she says of the script. The exasperated playwright-director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) splutteringly defends the novel as a love story and suggests she’s not right for the part. The actress begs and cajoles, and casually mentions that her name is Vanda – the same as Sacher-Masoch’s sadistic heroine. Sufficiently intrigued, or perhaps just worn out, Thomas lets her read.

As the audition progresses, things get very strange. Vanda is able to recite the entire play from memory (despite having said she only glanced at a few pages from the script) and vanishes into the role of the stately dominatrix with frightening ease. Thomas becomes transfixed, and quickly assumes the role of the submissive. Chaos follows.

Ives’ script, translated into French for the film, feels very Proustian in its exacting analysis of subtle shifts of power between the duo. Each line becomes a teasing riddle, as you try to make out where reality ends and performance begins, or who exactly is directing whom. Vanda’s identity is never quite made clear. One minute she’s effortlessly seducing Thomas, the epitome of Sacher-Masoch’s fantasy of the dominant sexualised woman; then just as quickly, she’s angrily attacking Thomas for the misogyny of the script. Is she the embodiment of his fantasies, an avenging goddess, or just a surprisingly gifted actress? Though the answer is “revealed” in the final scene, the film finds room to embrace doubt.

There’s an added level of delight (and dread) in Polanski’s casting. Amalric is a dead ringer for a younger, Chinatown-era Polanski, and he’s playing opposite Seigner, who is Polanski’s wife. We’re invited, playfully, to read the script as a slice of psychodrama from Polanski’s marriage. Or perhaps it’s Polanski’s tongue-in-cheek take on the sado-masochism existing in any director-actress relationship. Either way, it adds a deliciously weird layer of uncertainty to a story about the treacherous nature of identity.

As a film, Venus In Fur doesn’t quite pop with the explosiveness that the script promises. There’s a particular magic to watching two people interact with each other live on stage that simply can’t be replicated as well in film. That being said, the actors slug it out satisfyingly like a pair of prizefighters. It’s an engrossing tug-of-war that lasts right up until – and perhaps beyond – the final frame.

The referencing of Sacher-Masoch interests me, as he also seems to have been an influence on Proust. One of the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time features a gay character, Baron de Charlus, who the narrator later discovers in a male brothel. I seem to recall a scene in Time Regained, Raoul Ruiz’s 1999 film of In Search of Lost Time, in which Charlus (played by John Malkovich) is tied up and flogged. Less obviously, romantic masochism seems to form an extensive part of In Search of Lost Time, which is filled with hapless lovers like Swann, suffering exquisitely at the hands of the withholding Odette, or the narrator himself who is obsessed with Albertine.

It’s curious that despite our modern openness about sexuality, and the “release” of S&M practices into the mainstream, we’re no nearer to understanding or navigating human sexuality. All we have, it seems, is the dance (or in Venus In Fur‘s case, the tug-of-war) – and what a splendid thing it is, too.

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