The legendary Polish director Roman Polanski brought the Cannes competition to an end this weekend with a dash of S&M in his new film, Venus in Fur. When the festival ends tonight, Polanski may not win another Palme d'Or to put alongside his prize for his 2002 Holocaust drama The Pianist, but he'll certainly have made one of the best-liked, and raciest, films of this year's competition.
The comedy of sexual manners is adapted by Polanski and the US writer David Ives from the latter's stage play. It concerns a director (Mathieu Amalric) auditioning an actress to play a dominating femme fatale in his adaptation of Venus in Furs, the 1870 novel by Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name masochism is derived. As the two characters slip in and out of a rehearsed reading, the actress – played by Polanski's wife and muse, Emmanuelle Seigner – gives the director rather more than he bargained for.
In his press conference yesterday, Polanski said of Ives's play, "The satire on sexism was very seductive to me." Asked whether he resembled the film's director character, Thomas, Polanski replied, "There's this macho element in Thomas which is torn to pieces. When people get to know me, they know I'm not really this way." However, asked if he dominated his actors, Polanski smiled. "That's what the play's about – domination," he said. "I slapped them sometimes, but they never complained."
According to Seigner, the film is an attack on male directors who mistreat their actresses. "It can be humiliating, and we've all put up with it. So perhaps I'm avenging all the actresses on earth."
As for the uncanny resemblance between Polanski and Amalric, the French star quipped: "My mother's coming to see the film tonight. She'll have to explain that to me."
Polanski, whose name is still inextricably linked with his sexual abuse case in the US in 1977, admitted to having some traditional ideas about male and female roles. "It's a pity that now offering flowers to a lady becomes indecent, that's how I feel about it," he commented drily. "Trying to level the genders is purely idiotic – the pill has changed women of our times, masculinising them. That chases away romance from our lives."
The assembled press seemed more amused than startled by his unenlightened comments, but gender continues to be a thorny point in Cannes after last year's competition was criticised for not including a single female director. This year's featured only one, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, while France's most prominent female director, the acclaimed Claire Denis, did not make the main competition with her film Bastards.
Polanski has had triumphs and failures in Cannes before, and pointed out that his film The Tenant was given a chilly reception in 1976. This was why, after the screening of The Pianist, he returned immediately to Paris – he didn't expect the Palme. "When my producer asked me to come back for the closing ceremony, I thought, 'What for – a prize for directing? I know I can direct.'"
Whatever Polanski's chances tonight, both Amalric and Seigner look like front-runners for acting prizes. Other favourites include Michael Douglas for his exuberantly camp turn as Liberace in Steven Soderbergh's biopic Behind the Candelabra; Adèle Exarchopoulos as a teenage lesbian in Blue is the Warmest Colour by Abdellatif Kechiche; as well as her co-star Léa Seydoux.
This year's competition was a mixed bag, with many titles polarising critics. The much-awaited film The Past, by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi was both hailed and dismissed. And even the roundly booed Only God Forgives by Denmark's Nicolas Winding Refn had its vocal supporters.
But there has been a handful of out-and-out gems. US cinema was strong, with the Coen brothers' 1960s folk comedy Inside Llewyn Davis. Alexander Payne also cheered up critics with his road comedy Nebraska. But the freshest film by a US name was Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch's twist on the vampire genre, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston – also up for tonight's acting awards.
As for the Palme d'Or, it'll be a tough choice. But there are two much-fancied front-runners: Blue is the Warmest Colour and Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza.