“Venus in Fur” screens Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. as part of the Spotlight Cinema series. FREE to members, $7 to all others. R, 1:29, two stars out of four.
Some critics (not me) complained that Roman Polanski’s last film “Carnage,” an adaptation of the play “God of Carnage,” was too stagey. Polanski has responded by adapting another play, “Venus in Fur,” this with only one location and two characters instead of four. And not only that, but a play set in a theater. So there.
That may be the most perverse touch in a film that is anything but shy about perversity, intertwining both the actor-director dynamic and good ol’ S&M in a heady but somewhat antiseptic treatise on power struggles between men and women. You can see why Polanski would be attracted to this kind of edgy material, but it’s surprising how he treats it so matter-of-factly, almost with reserve.
The entirety of the film takes place in a decrepit Paris theater, which we approach in the opening credits as if entering a haunted house. Inside is Thomas (Matthieu Almaric, who looks a lot like Polanski), trying to cast the female lead in his new play, an adaptation of the 1870 S&M novel “Venus in Furs.” Yes, this is a movie based on a play about a play adapted from a book, best known for inspiring a Velvet Underground song of the same name. And as long as we’re getting so meta, we might as well bring up that the Velvet Underground song inspired the name of a very good punk rock band in Madison too.
Anyway, just as Thomas is closing up, in comes Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), an actress who wants to audition for the part. Thomas is brusque and arrogant with her, suggesting that her age and downclass demeanor make her all wrong for the role, a woman who willingly submits herself to a dominating relationship with a man.
But when Vanda starts reading lines, she instantly transforms into the character, who, tellingly, is also named Vanda. Thomas is amazed and transfixed, and the pair slide in and out of character as they read lines and comment upon them. (The film is in French subtitles, which become italicized when Thomas and Vanda read from the play. This feels like it robs a bit of the fun of watching them flip back and forth in an instant.)
Eventually, it becomes clear that there is more going on here than a play, and Thomas and Vanda struggle just as the play’s couple do to determine who is in control and who isn’t. Thomas seems to be a bit of a submissive himself, but if Vanda is dominating him at his command, who’s really dominating whom?
Some of this carnal chess match is cheeky fun, but never really engages on the gut level it seems to be going for. It doesn’t help that Polanski directs it with such a lack of flair — with its basic lighting and shot/reaction shot editing, we could be watching a basic-cable movie from the ’90s. In both style and substance, “Venus in Fur” feels tossed off, a finger exercise to get Polanski warmed up for another project.