Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la Fourrure)
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Roman Polanski is no stranger to controversy—starting with wife Sharon Tate’s infamous murder back in 1969. Despite fleeing the States in 1978 to avoid spending more time in prison for his statutory rape conviction, he continues to garner buzz for each new film (and win awards, too). It’s no surprise, then, that a director who’s spent the last 45 years of his life drenched in controversy would be drawn to projects like his latest film, Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la Fourrure).

Like Polanski’s last film, Carnage, Venus in Fur is a remarkably simple film, based on a simple stage play—just two characters and one set. Mathieu Amalric stars as Thomas, a director who’s struggling to find the perfect actress to star in his stage production of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s controversial 1870s novel, Venus in Furs. After a long day of auditions with horrible actresses, he’s about to pack up and head home. But that’s when Vanda (played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives, soaking wet from a downpour and apologetic for showing up late.

Thomas tries to usher Vanda back out the door, but she refuses to take “no” for an answer. Instead, she insists on reading for the part, with the director as her costar. And as she performs, she slowly takes control of the situation.

Especially in the beginning, Polanski’s take on David Ives’s play is all about the atmosphere. It’s tense and gritty—quietly seductive and (to give a nod to the original material) a little risqué—pulling viewers into the characters’ increasingly intimate conversation. And the nearly-empty theater adds to the intimacy. It’s dark and shadowy and cluttered with old props, giving the film an almost voyeuristic feel.

At the same time, without a huge cast of supporting characters—or a complex storyline—to distract attention away from the main characters, this simple production is often both surprisingly captivating and subtly suspenseful. The problem, however, is its tendency to go completely off the rails from time to time, breaking up the tension and suspense with moments of wacky comedy. Though the characters sometimes offer up an amusing take on the entertainment industry, the moments of humor feel awkward and uncomfortable and completely out of place.

But that’s not where the discomfort ends. And what begins as an intriguing game of cat and mouse between actress and director—a story that often blurs the lines between action and audition in the best of ways—eventually falls apart, giving in to the stranger sides of the story, until it all crumbles into a head-scratching mess.

The simple, basic, two-person show can be done remarkably well—and, at times, Polanski makes it work here. But the awkward distractions and bizarre conclusion keep Venus in Fur from being another must-see production from the controversial director.

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