From the moment “Venus in Fur” opens with a long tracking shot, cruising down a tree-lined boulevard on a rainy Paris day, until its final darkly comic set piece, it’s clear that we’re in capable hands. This may not be Roman Polanski’s finest movie; it may not even be his best adaptation of a play. But it’s masterfully done in a way that does justice to its source material.
That source is the play “Venus in Fur,” a two-hander that debuted on Broadway in 2011 and received plenty of attention, not to mention a best actress Tony Award for its star, Nina Arianda. Playwright David Ives, in turn, was inspired by the nearly identically titled 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. (That would be the man who inspired the word masochism. So yes, there is a dog collar involved.)
Polanski’s film stars his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, as the actress Vanda and Mathieu Amalric as director Thomas. When Vanda shows up to audition for Thomas’s play, an adaptation of von Sacher-Masoch’s novel, the director is on the phone with his fiancee complaining about his terrible day. Every actress has been all wrong, he says: They’re shallow ditzes who pepper their sentences with “like.”
Vanda, in her tiny leather getup, appears to be just such a specimen. She’s hours late for the audition and says ridiculous things when she’s not chomping on gum. She’s frazzled and frizzy from the rain, and she has two rivers of mascara running down her cheeks. It’s late, and all Thomas wants to do is go home and eat take-out sushi with his cherié, but Vanda is irrepressible. When he caves, she sticks her gum under a table, directs him to read the role of Severin von Kushemski and takes the stage.
Seigner is dazzling as Vanda. She does the wide-eyed airhead thing well, but as soon as she’s inhabiting the role of the play’s lead — also named Vanda — she’s a dominating force. Thomas turns to her, his eyes lit up in shock. She’s perfect as the woman to whom Severin, a man who likes pain, wants to bow down. She sometimes breaks character to encourage Thomas to read with more vigor or make changes to his script, and before you know it, the line between actor and director begins to blur. Who exactly is in charge here? The answer is never easy to pin down as the two spar, scream and flirt.
One thing that makes the dialogue-heavy movie so compelling (and also something that Polanski does so well) is an undercurrent of dread. What are Vanda’s motives? She can’t be trusted, but it’s hard to know how sinister her intentions might be. The mysteriousness is echoed in the score, which comes and goes, and the lightning that flashes intermittently through the theater’s skylight.
The movie also has an idiosyncratic approach to sound. When Vanda and Thomas are in character as Vanda and Severin, they mime stirring sugar into coffee or pulling out a contract to sign, and we hear the clinking and scribbling even though the cups and papers are all make-believe. It’s a funny quirk and adds a fantastical element to the increasingly absurd story.
And, yet, the power struggle feels very real and will probably delight many actors. “You’re the director. It’s your job to torture actors,” Vanda tells Thomas at one point. But those roles are hardly set in stone.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity and crude language. In French with subtitles. 96 minutes.