Forget Roman Polanski: ‘Venus in Fur’ Is About All Human Relationships

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Here’s the paradox of masochism: in order to be dominated and treated cruelly and physically harmed in a way that satisfies their fantasies, the masochist must make certain demands of the person to whom they’re ostensibly submitting. Everything essential about Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (and the David Ives play Venus in Fur, of which the movie is an adaptation; and even Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, Venus in Furs, which provides the raw material for both works) is contained within this contradictory gesture. It’s a film that deconstructs the painstakingly defined power dynamics of BDSM, but instead of getting bogged down in the tedious minutiae of the subculture itself — or limiting itself to the coy commentary on Polanski’s own horrible sexual history that many critics have judged it to be — Venus in Fur expands endlessly outward, its two characters coming to represent just about every kind of human relationship, sexual or otherwise.

Those two characters are Thomas (Mathieu Amalric, trembling with repression in a Roman Polanski wig), a playwright and director who’s spent all day auditioning actresses for the role of whip-cracking Wanda in his stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s book, and the serendipitously named Vanda (the icy Emmanuelle Seigner, who all reviewers are obligated to mention is Polanski’s real-life wife), an unknown actress who arrives at the theater just as he’s about to give up. Several hours late for an appointment that isn’t even on Thomas’ schedule and drenched after getting caught in a rainstorm, she lingers in the doorway as he rants over the phone to his fiancée about the disastrous auditions. Vanda seems, at first, to be the least promising candidate of all. Desperate and flaky, she’s no goddess on earth… until she slips into the eerily perfect 19th-century dress she’s bought for the audition, bullies Thomas into reading with her, and instantly embodies Sacher-Masoch’s heroine.

For most of its 96 minutes, Venus in Fur moves deftly between the Vanda/Thomas dialogue and lines from the latter’s play (which often come straight from Sacher-Masoch), fueled by a perverse sense of humor. Intertextuality too often becomes confusing or tiresome or academic in postmodern works, but in this film it’s both natural and essential: the split-second transitions between texts mirror the constantly shifting balance of power between the characters, underscoring the multi-layered nature of their relationship. Vanda and Thomas’ interactions are first and foremost negotiations, and it grows harder and harder to tell whether Severin/Thomas is submitting to Vanda/Wanda’s will or forcing her to become complicit in his fantasy. Even the showstopping ending, which I won’t spoil, could be interpreted as an act of either ultimate cruelty or ultimate kindness on Vanda’s part.

Although the Venus in Furs is also clearly the dead-serious chronicle of a lifelong obsession, the larger questions that fuel Ives’ play and Polanski’s film (which Ives helped adapt) originate with Sacher-Masoch. And just like the works it inspired, his novella — which is notably devoid of explicit sex scenes — is chiefly a conversation between Severin and Wanda. In his classic essay Coldness and Cruelty, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze laments that Sacher-Masoch hasn’t received the same serious consideration as the Marquis de Sade, and sets out to analyze his style:

Masoch is platonic and proceeds by dialectical imagination… Plato showed that Socrates appeared to be the lover but that fundamentally he was the loved one. Likewise the masochistic hero appears to be educated and fashioned by the authoritarian woman whereas basically it is he who forms her, dresses her for the part and prompts the harsh words she addresses to him. It is the victim who speaks through the mouth of the torturer, without sparing himself. Dialectic does not simply mean the free exchange of discourse, but implies transpositions or displacements of this kind, resulting in a scene being enacted on several levels with reversals and reduplications in the allocation of roles and discourses.

Deleuze not only identifies Wanda and Severin’s interactions as a dialectic, but also describes the protean and layered nature of a relationship forged through conversation of this kind. In convincing Wanda to make him her slave, Severin is shaping her into his Mistress. Ives’ play, and thus Polanski’s movie, adds at least a nominal extra agenda — Vanda is attempting to persuade Thomas to cast her — as well as Vanda’s awareness of the pernicious sexism of Severin’s insistence on molding Wanda into the woman of his fantasies. Their dialogue spins a web of competing goals and motivations that transcends masochism and love and even gender politics to illuminate just about every kind of human relationship.

Lighthearted as it is, Venus in Fur has the rare effect of filtering the viewer’s life through its own extreme lens. Walk out of the cinema after seeing the film (or, preferably, the theater after seeing the play), and the subtle discourse of power that runs through your every relationship — your every conversation, even — may haunt you for days. You see it in a lovers’ quarrel, sure, but also in meetings at the office, and on the phone with family. And just like in the movie, it becomes difficult to tell who is freer or more powerful: the apparently dominant figure, who’s nominally in control but is weighed down by responsibility, or the submissive one, whose dependency is in itself a kind of liberation.

It’s not a far jump from there to questions like the ones Dostoevsky raised about whether humans truly prefer freedom to being cared for but controlled by some superior being. Both Sacher-Masoch and Ives/Polanski come down firmly on the latter side of that argument. Here’s Severin, in the novella:

If a marriage can be based only on equality, on compatibility, then the greatest passions, by contrast, arise from opposites. We are such opposites, almost hostile to each other. That explains this love of mine, which is part hatred, part fear. In such a relationship, only one person can be the hammer, the other anvil. I want to be the anvil. I can’t be happy if I look down on my beloved. I want to be able to worship a woman, and I can do so only if she is cruel to me.

Even Wanda, his Venus, would rather worship than be worshiped:

I can well imagine belonging to one man for life, but it would have to be a total man, a man who commands my respect, who subjugates me with the power of who and what he is — do you understand? And every man — I know this — turns weak, pliant, ridiculous as soon as he’s in love. He puts himself in the woman’s hands, kneels before her — whereas I can love only the man before whom I would kneel.

Venus in Fur ends somewhat differently from Sacher-Masoch’s book, in a way that both highlights the story’s Ancient Greek sensibilities and suggests that Vanda’s effect on Thomas may indeed have something to do with divine intervention in the lives of mortals. Curiously, that makes its story both messier and more thought-provoking than the novella. Ives leaves us less sure that the hammer vs. anvil binary can be resolved, at least in relationships between human beings.

Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy in ‘Venus in Fur’ on Broadway

It’s tempting to interpret Venus in Fur as a rejoinder to those of us who still want to see Roman Polanski jailed for raping a child in the ’70s, and the filmmaker provides several clues that he really does see it that way. He makes Amalric his twin, seemingly with the sole purpose of pressing hard on Thomas’ lines about how feminist analyses reduce the complexities of love to something boring and small and easily legislated — lines that are germane to the film’s themes but shouldn’t carry as much weight in it as they do. The few choices that do seem to reflect Polanski’s agenda, rather than Ives’, are generally missteps. Casting Seigner not only transforms Broadway star Nina Arianda’s 20-something Vanda into a middle-aged woman but replaces the stage actress’ electric, neurotic ball of energy with your standard beautiful Aryan ice queen. (Seigner is good, but Arianda’s performances were singularly thrilling. And it likely isn’t an accident that Sacher-Masoch’s 24-year-old Wanda, described as “more piquant… than strictly beautiful,” with lips full of “gracious mischief,” resembles Arianda much more than Seigner.) Overall, the movie feels too serious compared with the play, whose lighter, funnier approach keeps its big ideas from becoming too ponderous. Even the potentially awkward intimacy of live theater suits the material better than film.

Polanski’s adaptation may do more to hurt Ives’ play than enhance it, and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t have personal reasons for making the movie. But it’s faithful enough to Ives’ words to be an important film nonetheless — and it would be a shame to take such a narrow view of a work whose implications are universal.