Roman Polanski follows up his Albee-lite burlesque Carnage (2011) with another single-set farce—the initially subdued, soon gloriously unhinged Venus in Fur, adapted from David Ives’s hit Broadway play. In the mesmeric opening scene, a sinuous Steadicam shot moves along a rainy Parisian boulevard into a theater. It’s here that harried playwright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) meets airheaded actor Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Mrs. Polanski), who’s auditioning for a role in his stage production of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s ode to S&M, Venus in Furs (1870). She may seem like a birdbrain, but there’s much more to this dog-collar-wearing ditz than she’s letting on—as there is to Thomas (a clear Polanski stand-in), whose tastes run toward the masochistic.
As always with Polanski, the narrative’s eccentricities are cloaked in an expert veneer of classicism: Few directors are as adept at shooting conversation scenes that create a subtle, ever-accumulating sense of unease (like the gorgeous one here in which Thomas is framed over the blurry top of a script). Polanski has great fun exploring and exploding the story’s carnal themes: A phallic cactus (left over from the theater’s musical production of Stagecoach) sits center stage, and the two performers slink around each other, slipping in and out of their varying roles (from the audition to the play-within-the-play and back again) with seductive ease. Like Carnage, it’s a bit of a minor lark until a deliciously grotesque finale pushes it into the realm of such kinkily profound Polanski films as Cul-de-sac (1966) and The Tenant (1976). By that point, you can’t help but submit to the perversity.
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