Despite director Roman Polanski's checkered personal history, his film resume is nearly blot-free.
From Rosemary's Baby to Chinatown to The Pianist, Polanski films examine our capacity to strive and dream in the face of brutal outside influences.
While his adaptation of David Ives' Tony Award-winning play Venus in Fur isn't at the level of those movies, it has a familiar and intoxicatingly dark tone and pulse.
Moving the action to Paris from the play's New York setting, the film opens as Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Almaric), a theater director and playwright, is wrapping up a day of pointless auditions with "thirty-five idiot actresses."
He's trying to cast the crucial female role in his adaption of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's controversial 1870 novella Venus in Furs. As he's almost out the door, an actress named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife in real life) blows into the theater like a hurricane, apologizing for her lateness but hell-bent on being heard.
Even though Vanda's scattered and random, wearing a leather corset and dog collar and snapping gum like a truck stop waitress, she reveals with fierce intelligence that she knows the character — also named Vanda — inside and out. That she has the top secret script troubles its author but her incisive understanding of the story — its overtly sexual yet nuanced juggling of the psychology of dominance and submission — vanquishes his qualms. And as the two begin to read the play from page one, he's slavishly captivated by the character of Vanda he wrote as personified by the actress named Vanda, who gradually imposes a firm lock on Thomas's will and moral compass.
The film unfolds in real time and skips back and forth between the play and the actress's and director's dissection of it. As good as the play was in New York (it won Nina Arianda a Tony for Best Actress), the movie, albeit in French, is easier to follow.
That's because Polanski and Ives (they collaborated on the script) wisely italicize the subtitles when the characters are reading the play and employ a regular font when the actress and director are conversing, helping to defog the story's intentionally blurry boundaries.
Audiences who think the film could only be enjoyed by theater types or fetishists or fans of Austrian erotica should dispense with rash pigeonholing. There are numerous parallels to everyday, universal experiences most adults have encountered. Consider how every first date and job interview is an "audition" of sorts, where one puts one's best face forward in order to become more intimate with a stranger, forming a relationship whose details are yet to be defined.
Venus in Fur| Dir. Roman Polanski | 96 minutes | Playing at Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Mo. 913-383-7756, and Glenwood Arts Theater, 9575 Metcalf, Overland Park, Kan. 913-642-4404.