Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel gave the world the term sado-masochism, the director Roman Polanski is still wanted for questioning in the United States on a sex charge, and yet star Mathieu Amalric doesn’t even take his sneakers off in this tame adaptation of David Ives’ stage play.
In Ives’ version, an actress turns up to audition for a director for the principal role in Venus in Furs. Polanski takes the first of many liberties with the stage script by moving the action from the audition room to a theatre auditorium. In other places, scenes are changed and adapted, and a new abstract epilogue has been tagged on. None of which is for the better.
The solitary location is home to all the action. It’s a constraint that Polanski has contended with brilliantly in the past. - his first film, Knife in the Water, was a three-hander that took place on a boat - but this is much closer in style and tone to his last outing, the adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s four-hander, Carnage.
But where cinematographer Pawel Edelman found surprising angles and brought the New York apartment alive in Carnage, here the action feels like a play that’s being taped for posterity. It’s all rather flat, which is a surprise because the Edelman / Polanski partnership, that started with his Palme d’Or winning The Pianist and has now reached five films, is usually inventive.
It all begins rather promisingly. A long tracking shot takes us down a Parisian boulevard and through the doors of a theatre. There we find theatre director Thomas (Amalric) packing up for the day after unsuccessfully auditioning 35 actresses who he remarks to his fiancée on the phone as sounding like ’10-year olds on helium.’ What he needs is a real woman.
Cut to Vanda, played by Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner. She’s standing in a doorway dressed in leather and a dog collar. Looking good at 46, she makes a ballsy entrance, chewing gum and cajoling the reluctant Thomas to give her an audition. He’s an intellectual, not amused by her coarseness, that is until she inevitably wows him with her performance. But the script, which uses the audition framework to tell Sacher-Masoch’s story expediently and demands the two actors take on different guises, is not as clever as the filmmakers may think.
While Seigner delights playing the sex kitten role, as she did more than twenty years ago when she worked for her husband in Bitter Moon (1992), the actress struggles as the tone turns from comedy to drama.
Amalric is thankfully on far better form than that seen in another Palme d’Or contender, Jimmy P, which showed earlier in the week. The former Bond villain, who has a series of directorial credits under his belt, uses his experience to play Thomas as a malleable character, who is easily manipulated by women.