18 October 2014

Just in Time for Halloween Polanski's Venus in Fur

It was a dark and stormy night.

After my second viewing of Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur I am convinced that what the great director has created in this film is a classic horror story. Witness the beginning of the movie where he telegraphs his intentions. It is the prototypical horror film opening. Thunder, lightening rain along with an appropriate jaunty but ominous soundtrack. The camera leads us down a Paris street and into a theater. There is but one man in the theater talking on his cell phone He has bad a most frustrating day that is thankfully coming to an end. Soon he will be back home. Warm and cozy. Despite the man's frustrations it is all a perfectly ordinary experience and quite innocent. So starts many a horror film.

Enter a woman. She seems fairly normal though somewhat eccentric in speech and manner and perhaps a bit lower class. This contrasts with the man who is a sophisticate. Indeed he is the adapter and director of a play and his frustration stems from an inability to find its leading lady. The woman is there to audition though she is much too late and anyway he can see that she is quite wrong for the part. However we can quickly tell from their ongoing conversation that this is going to be one of those cinematic gambits where one character insists upon something and the other resists but you know that second character will eventually relents. Then it gets strange.

Gradually we discover certain things about the woman. For example her name is Vanda which happens to be the same as the character whose part she is reading for. Also Vanda has mysteriously gotten a hold of the entire script. The adapter/director, Thomas, is surprised by certain of Vanda's revelations but he is also taken by how well she reads for the part. Has he at last found his leading lady? Vanda has come very very well prepared not only knowing the play backwards and forwards but having brought costume changes for the audition.

Thomas and Vanda read together. Not just a scene but several. And Vanda doesn't just know Thomas' play, she has a story -- a seeming concoction -- about knowing his fiancé. There actually is no doubt she has met her, but the details of the meeting seem preposterous. This only adds to the mystery. It is a part of how their reading mixes the story of the play with the story of Thomas and the relationship he is forming with the ever more mysterious Vanda.

Just where and when they are reading the play and where and when they are taking to one another gets confused. We delight in this confusion. It is spooky great fun. Their relationship is fascinating series of twists and turns.

And what of this play? It is based on the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch whose name has given us the term masochism. And in fact the play and the relationship of Thomas and Vanda are concerned with a masochistic man and the woman he loves and loves to be servile to.

The lightening and thunder continue to strike at various times always to accent the action in the theater. That all the action is between these two people in a theater does nothing to diminish how compelling a story we are watching. Venus in Fur is a masterpiece of intellectual drama. It is constant battle of wits between two people, one of whom is unarmed. Vanda holds all the aces.

Just who she is and how she comes to posses so much information is a fascinating mystery but of secondary importance to the manner in which she wraps poor Thomas and -- not so indirectly -- us, around her little finger.

I'll not spoil the ending, of course, but suffice to say it is satisfying in its consistency with the story as a whole. There are no cheap tricks here. Just mind games.

Emmanuelle Seigner is Vanda and Mathieu Amalric is Thomas and they are both up to these meaty roles. I've no doubt that Polanksi himself would have played Thomas had he made this film when he was younger but Amalric is an excellent actor who should be familiar to film goers.

Venus in Fur is a film that positively begs for repeat viewings and for me twice is not nearly enough. For one thing I haven't even begun to sort it all out although I will contine to try and won't mind failing at the effort. It will be well worth the time. Venus in Fur now available on Netflx Instant and I can't recommend it enough particularly if you're looking for some spooky yet intellectually challenging viewing for your Halloween season.

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