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La Vénus à la fourrure

July 11, 2014
Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski seems to be spending his time at the theater. He follows up his adaptation of Le Dieu du carnage with a French-language adaptation of David Ives’ off-Broadway drama Venus in Fur, itself adapted from — or at least inspired by — the infamous novella Venus im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name and writing we get “masochism”. Again, we have a stripped-down setting and cast, but despite a wildly creative structure that offers stars Matthieu Amalric and (Polanski’s wife) Emmanuelle Seigner a playground for their acting talents, the story manages to undercut any of its own meaning while seeming to miss Sacher-Masoch’s own remarkably prescient point.

The play is itself centered on the pre-production of a play entitled La Vénus à la fourrure, adapted more directly from Sacher-Masoch’s novella by the director, Thomas Novacheck (Amalric). A woman who gives her name as Vanda Jourdain (Seigner) stumbles in one rainy night, claiming to have missed her appointment to audition for the lead role. Thomas isn’t inclined to bother, but she has a way of plowing on through. She’s brought a late-19th century dress to audition in; once she asks/tells him to help her with the back, he’s as hooked as the closures on her dress.

Not only does Vanda share her name with the lead role, she seems to know the part inside and out already, quickly discarding her copy of the script. Initially intending to read only the first three pages, the pair continue deeper in to the play. Thomas falls into the role of Severin, so fascinated with this mysterious Vanda that he begs to become her slave. Severin does, that is, with the Vanda in the play; Thomas’ own submission is less explicit, but just as real.

The dialogue slips back and forth between Thomas-and-Vanda the actors discussing the play and Severin-and-Vanda acting it out. The English subtitles for the quoted lines are italicized, which seems to make the distinction far too crisp. If possible, watching without them should help the two layers blend more effectively.

Any sort of play within a play like this can’t help but comment on itself. Every suggestive comment Vanda makes about Thomas as adapter is immediately promoted to a comment about Ives as playwright, and about Polanski for adapting the play. So as Thomas rails against the need to see meaning and social commentary in everything, does that mean that Ives (or Polanski) feels the same way? Or does presenting that idea as silly mean that he (either one) disagrees? Thomas seems to have adapted the novella out of some repressed psychosexual issues; it seems impossible for quite the same to be true of the real adapters, since if they can make statements about their own repressions it must not be so repressed. The structure is clever, and it’s fun to watch Amalric and Seigner weave in and out of the two layers, but the only thing it clearly shows is just how clever the writers think they are.

And in the midst of it, Sacher-Masoch himself is lost. The one clear statement is that, at the end of it all, Venus im Pelz is sexist and misogynistic; Severin and Thomas both seek to manipulate women only to blame them for doing as they’re told. It’s probably true that many fans of the novella are indeed puerile fantasists, wrapping their kinks and hangups in highbrow language to call it art, but Ives and Polanski seem to have missed the fact that Sacher-Masoch himself wasn’t.

Each of the adapters focuses on the same apocryphal quotation, but not on the actual punchline of the novella itself: “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.” The behavior we are asked to ridicule in Thomas and Severin is the natural outgrowth of a deeply sexist society. Maybe Ives meant to imply this in the way that Thomas’ masochism is just another form of misogyny, but it certainly doesn’t come across. And maybe Polanski, of all filmmakers, ought to shy away from allegories about gendered power dynamics.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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