Roman Polanski's latest adaptation of a hit play (he did Death and the Maiden in 1994 and Carnage in 2011) features only two actors, but there are more characters than that. Part of the enjoyment of the give and take is trying to sort out exactly what roles are being played from moment to moment. The filmmaker moves the production from New York to Paris (the subtitled movie is in French). Venus in Fur explores the nature of dominance and submission in relationships, doing so in a trippy fashion that is deliberately stagey and theatrical.
In 1870 Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch wrote the novella Venus in Furs, in which a man named Severin becomes the erotic slave of a woman named Vanda. The word “masochism” originated with the author, which should offer a hint of where the movie heads.
The film Venus in Fur, adapted by Polanski and David Ives from Ives' 2010 Tony-winning play, takes place at a theater where writer-director Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric) has spent a frustrating day auditioning female actors to star in his production of Venus in Fur. No one was even close to what he was looking for and the tired and frustrated Novachek, now the last person in the building, is ready to leave.
Enter a woman called Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), looking as inappropriate for the role as all the previous wannabes. The disheveled thespian was not on the call sheet for the auditions and Novachek has no interest in dealing with her. But she jabbers and cajoles, and eventually he submits to reading with her.
Please note that the actor playing Novachek bears a resemblance to Polanski in his younger days and that Emmanuelle Seigner is Polanski's real-life wife. I don't know if the filmmaker sees a therapist, but if he does, they surely could spend a great number of sessions discussing his decision to cast his wife and a surrogate for himself in a story dealing with S&M. Or maybe it's just a calculated move to mess with our heads.
As the reading progresses, the dynamic between the two changes so many times that it makes you dizzy. Vanda, who — oddly enough — shares the same first name as the character she aspires to play, claims to only have glanced at the script, but it soon becomes clear that she knows the text inside and out. Oh, and she brought clothing appropriate for the play, including a jacket for Novachek that fits.
They continue to read and the roles continue to change. The demanding Novachek appears to seek the approval — and the dominance — of Vanda. She shifts in and out of character, at times calling out the source material as sexist crap. Are we watching an actor and a writer-director exploring the characters in the play, an actor doing whatever is necessary to secure a job, or the personalities of the individuals expressing real desires and needs that mirror the play?
Roman Polanski doesn't get flashy with his direction, and Alexandre Desplat's score accents without dominating. Both artists realize that frills are unnecessary — there's plenty going on in Venus in Fur already.
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And So It Goes ★★1/2 (out of five) Rob Reiner directs (and plays a minor role in) a by-the-numbers romantic comedy about a dick (Michael Douglas) who becomes involved with a singer (Diane Keaton) and gets saddled with the young daughter of his estranged junkie son. Take a second and figure out everything that happens in the story … you're right! The audience at the preview I attended gave the film high marks. I found the sloppy, formulaic script boring, and Douglas' character annoying. Fun facts: The club owner Keaton auditions for is played by Frankie Valli, and Douglas' old friend at the office is played by Frances Sternhagen, Cliff's mother on Cheers.
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Sex Tape ★1/2 Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel star in an R-rated sex comedy that isn't sexy or particularly funny. They play a couple that tries to spice up their relationship by recording themselves recreating everything from The Joy of Sex, then erasing the recording. Uh …. okay. The recording gets out, of course, and hilarity most certainly does not ensue. If you feel the need for a sex comedy, skip this misfire and try It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.