The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Venus in Fur

Reviewed by Tilde Fredholm.

Director Roman Polanski
Length 96 mins
Certificate 15
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 5  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Roman Polanski’s new Venus in Fur casts Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s famous book in its lead role whilst at the same time using it as a narrative blueprint. Set in a small theatre, where writer-director Thomas is preparing his play of Venus in Furs, it follows Thomas’ growing obsession with an actress (Vanda) auditioning for the role of Wanda von Dunajew. As she begins to dominate the situation he is thrown into the role of Severin, and reacts with a mixture of curiosity, pleasure and fear. What follows, as in the book, is a blurring of lines between reality and fiction, desire and fear, performance and life, sex and power.

But simultaneously a deconstruction takes place, on the one hand of the book and, on the other of the book’s position in the literary canon. Vanda’s continuous accusations of sexism (on the book’s part) and appropriation (on the part of Thomas) signals a post-modern feminist critique that is not so much about dismantling the book but rather about exploring what has been left out by a male-dominated literary discourse. This approach to the book is constructive, albeit not original (Polanski is adapting a play by David Ives), since it has the potential of updating a very potent story to current sexual politics. The film carries a heavy burden - but the question of whether it delivers is a hard one to answer.

Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is not merely about a man’s tormented love for and fetishisation of women, it is also a criticism of patriarchal society and the view of relations it fosters. Similarly, the film portrays the fetishisation of a book whilst commenting on the (patriarchal) system behind this tradition of fetishisation and misappropriation. Thomas is revealed as a hypocrite who cannot face up to his own desires. Yet in way of sexual politics, even though Vanda assumes total control throughout the film, very little is changed from the book. Regardless of her multiple incarnations - floozy, muse, dominatrix, and primeval idol - Vanda remains an elusive, mysterious, feared yet desired object without desires of her own. Neither does the film really bring out the conflation of real desires (and life) and political statement so subtly written into the book.

Despite this, the film cannot be easily dismissed as conservative in its views. It feels too self-conscious to be misogynist, yet too closed to be a well articulated criticism. There is no doubt that Venus in Fur has a thoroughly male perspective, but the question is whether this is a statement or a comment. Is Polanski objectifying women or is he commentating on the continuous objectification of women? Vanda’s different guises are like a parade of the roles women have been assigned throughout modern art- and literary history, all of which lead back to a Freudian ‘ur-image’ of woman, which (according to psychoanalysis) harbours the unconscious conflation of sexual desire and fear. Is the male unconscious under analysis here, or is modern discourse (of which psychoanalysis is the central core) being exorcised? And whilst this makes the bold statement that sexual politics have only marginally improved since the 1870s, what does it actually mean, or do, for women?

Just like its literary predecessor, Venus in Fur is highly interpretable just as it is highly enjoyable. If nothing else, it is a very well-constructed Polanski thriller, unfolding with nightmarish precision in real-time with an ever-growing tension. The dense dialogue and the theatrics of performance and effects (when Thomas and Vanda trace an action written into Thomas’ script, it is given a sound effect) enfold the viewer, and helps obscure any clarity of position. Venus in Fur is worthy of its literary predecessor yet holds its own ground in its extrapolation on uncontrollable desire.

This review was published on July 20, 2014.

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