'Venus in Fur'

An actress puts a director on the casting couch in Venus in Fur
REELING HIM IN: Actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) knows all the right ways to bend her would-be director (Mathieu Amalric) to her will in this film adaption of the play 'Venus in Fur.'

A female friend who did a little bit of role-playing said that the important thing was not to let the mask drop. If you came in the room wrapped in leather, you had to continue to look like you meant business.

By contrast, Roman Polanski's pervy and very fun two-character film Venus in Fur lets its marvelous star Emmanuelle Seigner drop and reapply the mask, and still be a redoubtable female avenger. Seigner is Vanda, an actress who reverses the flow of power coming from her would-be director. He, Thomas (the ever-anxious Mathieu Amalric) is a prissy writer-turned-director, casting his first play, Venus in Fur, in a derelict, haunted-house theater on an empty Paris boulevard, during a rainstorm so strong the thunder and lightning leaks through the walls. ("This ain't the Comedie Francaise," Vanda observes). The stage is dressed with plywood saguaros and fake campfires; the theater is currently playing a Belgian musical based on John Ford's Stagecoach.

The actress and the director match wits with one another, interpreting and critiquing the play at the same time. Seemingly a gum-chewing flooze, Vanda turns out to be better armed than she looks. It's more than coincidence that Vanda shares her first name with the femme fatale in the play. Thomas' source material is Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel Venus in Furs, the book that gave masochists the group name under which they now quiver. In it, the upper-crust Severin meets a determined woman named Vanda who reminded him of his most exquisite sexual experience in his youth: the time he was stripped and birched by his fur-clad aunt. Severin coaxes his Vanda into becoming his domineering mistress, "voluptuous and terrible."

Vanda has been played young and streety on the stage, and Seigner is in her late 40s. But could you reach this level of succulence and decadence in less than that time? Laugh-lines around the eyes are important to this comedy. (This isn't the Japanese film Audition.) The stage lighting—which is the first thing Vanda starts to control as she takes over—lifts years off Seigner. There's enough youth, or at least impertinence, in the lines for her, in the witty, slangy, earthy French of Abel Gerschenfeld's translation of David Ives' play.

Seigner's limber body is wrapped in the costume of a dom—$500 worth of black lingerie and a leather dog collar—but it's the deep-set, heavy-lidded eyes that deprive the poor little director of resistance. Seigner's gaze is really something—she has a slightly out-of-focus look, as if she's had one too many at the bar.

Seigner previously starred in Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992) in which her Severin-like victim was a pompous writer (Peter Coyote) who had fatally confused himself with Henry Miller. He betrayed Mimi, but she revenged herself after he was crippled. "There's bad news and there's good news. You're paralyzed from the waist down, permanently." When he asked for the good news: "That was the good news. The bad news is that from now on, I'm taking care of you."

Venus in Fur isn't quite as demented as Polanski's earlier comedy, but it's an invigorating walk through the maze of fantasy—in a realm where 50 Shades of Gray is wreaking havoc, it has relevance, and brains. Vanda argues that what happens to Severin counts as child abuse, and yet Sacher-Masoch passed on from De Sade the idea that there should be total sexual equality between men and women. When Thomas pronounces "all women want worship, like our Creator," Vanda can counter "What do you know of my nature besides your imaginings?" And yet she fires Thomas' imagination, slowly fanning her thighs under the floor length skirt of her costume.

The finale can't do what it attempts, to sum up the ancient terror of the Goddess—I mean, really ancient, back to the mythical Orpheus' era. Nevertheless, Venus in Fur takes it far past the level of Maleficent in delving out the appeal of women who love to be mean for the fun of it. And it has all the sex that was left out of the Disney version.

Venus in Fur

Not rated; 97 MIN.

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