Venus in Fur (Sundance Selects, NR)

film venus-in-fur_smThis is the least cinematic film I’ve seen in some time; it feels like it’s trying and failing to not feel so stagey.

film venus-in-fur

Venus in Fur is a bad film. Frustratingly so. Part of that frustration comes from the fact that it’s hard to pin down why the film isn’t working: The actors are good, the director (Roman Polanski) is a legend, and the material is in his wheelhouse. But watching the film is by turns annoying, boring, or eye-rollingly bad.

The film is, of course, an adaptation of David Ives’ play, which a few years back made a huge splash on Broadway and a star of its female lead, Nina Arianda. Here, Arianda’s role of Vanda is played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, who is more or less up to the task (this coming from someone who has not seen the stage production, which limits my authority and insight regarding matters such as these). She’s playing opposite Mathieu Amalric, one of everyone’s favorite modern French actors (myself included), who, come to think of it, looks a fair amount like Polanski, especially with his hair done the way it is in this film. The content of the plot is that Vanda is auditioning for a role in a play written and to be directed by Almaric’s Thomas. During the course of this audition, Vanda and Thomas sometimes share and sometimes are alone in hate, mistrust, thrill, attraction, awe, etc., with the power switching back and forth many times in the film’s 96-minute runtime. Really, though, the script is written specifically as a showcase for the actress playing Vanda, as she really gets to cut loose on variances in tone, body language, vocabulary, mannerisms, and just about everything else.

One thing that presents itself as a major problem with the film is its inherent staginess. This is the least cinematic film I’ve seen in some time. It only has the two actors and one location (a theatre, for fuck’s sake!), and is wall-to-wall dialogue. But that said, Polanski has shown himself adept at this kind of thing in the past. Not for nothing, his last film was 2011’s Carnage, which was also a stage adaptation, and a much better film than Venus in Fur (though still hardly a great film). Meanwhile, some of his best works, such as 1962’s Knife in the Water or 1965’s Repulsion, could have just as well made very good stage plays, given their similar lack of characters or multitude of sets.

Venus in Fur, though, in contrast to those above mentioned films, feels like it’s trying and failing to not feel so stagey. It’s shot in cinemascope for no apparent reason other than to make it feel more cinematic, and this is coupled by a few too many showy camera moves, particularly toward the beginning of the film. Sometimes these gambits pay off—for example, there’s some interesting foley work done when our actors are miming actions—but the majority of them fall flat.

The poor cinematic aspects don’t entirely account for just how grating I found this film to be in the end, but they are certainly a big part of it. Another big part of it is that this film came from Polanski, and not another filmmaker; it’s hard not to hate a film as slight as this when it comes from the guy who made Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. | Pete Timmermann

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