Asking someone about Roman Polanski is sure to conjure a wide array of responses. Few directors, if any at all, would warrant a review that includes “convicted rapist” and “auteur” in the same sentence to describe the man. But the depths of his persona extend beyond that. Polanski and his father were Holocaust survivors. Decades later, Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Manson family. In the years following his exile from America, Polanski has continued to press on, producing pictures that more or less contend with the plights of his day-to-day living and the memories of his past. Polanski’s best films have often been those that have acknowledged the immense troubles of his past, often with his characters contending with the psychological and social ramification of their confinement.
Seeing Polanski’s Venus in Fur, his second stage play adaptation after 2011’s excellent Carnage, was one of his most difficult films to process. It’s not as if the material is not a good fit. David Ives’ stage play of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel bares all the characteristics of a Polanski work, serving as a clear extension of Polanski’s own 1976 film, The Tenant. Venus in Fur’s potent power struggle between a stage director named Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) and his actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) bares the same sort of complicated gender politics that was seen in films like Carnage, The Ghost Writer and between John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. But beyond Venus in Fur’s wonderfully bizarre finale, it’s hard to say the journey that Polanski takes you on in getting to that conclusion possesses a great deal of depth - it is, for the wonders of its performances and the complexity of its design, a fairly limited film that feels more like a B-side rendition of the director’s greatest hits.
The promising opening suggests something greater, particularly in the way that Amalric and Seigner feel through the material. The ditzy act that Vanda deploys is simply a performance; her capacities far exceed that of her director’s initial impression of her. As the two run through lines, the sense that the play’s characters mirror Thomas and Vanda is made readily apparent, to the point that the two utilize the play’s script as a means of addressing each other’s personal kinks and fetishes. Unfortunately, Polanski doesn’t give their exchanges a whole lot of visual flourish, making the film’s second half a particular slog - his over-the-shoulder editing between the two feels too unremarkable for the queer material.
And how queer does it get? One can look at the meta aspects of it: Seigner is Polanski’s wife and Amalric looks exactly like Polanski circa Chinatown. The male hegemonic gaze that pervades the opening of the film may as well be Polanski commenting on his role as director and the limits of his control on the performer. Or there’s the confinement aspect of the picture that is also readily apparent, as the film opens with an exterior CGI shot of a Parisian street before entering a haunted house of a theater, never to see its characters escape it. And the moody lightening that Polanski utilizes throughout the film is his strongest method of capturing the increasingly eerie and erotic exchanges between Almaric and Seigner.
But these are flourishes that feel like exceptions to a largely bland visual and narrative design. There’s often a cumulative effect to Polanski’s films that tangle the spirit in his web of paranoia. That aspect feels oddly absent in Venus in Fur. Polanski has never been one to shy away from allowing his personal life to intercede on his material - he often observed some exciting moments of human insecurities as a result. But with Venus in Fur, that self-indulgence in one’s own history not only failed to illuminate, but felt regressive.