Roman Polanski. Sadomasochism. What could possible go wrong?
The combination of director and subject material in "Venus in Fur" is wickedly perverse, just as it should be. Polanski and David Ives' award-winning play are a match made if not in heaven, then surely in some demon's dungeon.
The play was a Broadway hit, led by a star-making, Tony-winning performance by Nina Arianda. Here French actress Emmanuelle Seigner takes over the role of Vanda, a tardy, gum-smacking actress who arrives on a stormy night for an audition with a director (Mathieu Amalric) at a Paris theater for a production called "Venus in Fur."
That is just the start of the hall of mirrors. "Venus in Fur" is a movie-within-a-play based on a play-within-a-play, which itself is based on a novel-within-a-novel.
The origin is Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's semi-autobiographical 1870 novella "Venus in Furs," about a man who craves to be dominated by his love, Vanda. ("Masochist" derives from the author's name.) Ives' play is about an arrogant playwright adapting the novel for the stage.
Polanski had stayed largely faithful to the play, but has translated it to French, substituted his wife (Seigner) for Vanda, cast Amalric as a younger doppelganger for himself and added a terrific, carnival-esque score by Alexander Desplat.
As Vanda arrives, the director, Thomas, is on the phone complaining in misogynistic frustration that after a day of auditions, he can't find a woman with both intellect and sex appeal. The impolite Vanda, clad in black leather with a dog collar around her neck, initially seems no different.
But after she rebuffs Thomas' attempts to dismiss her, Vanda slyly begins to reveal her great, commanding talent. Though she initially acts unfamiliar with the story ("It's basically S&M, right?" she says), Vanda reveals her mastery of the text, the role and, eventually, men like Thomas.
Soon, she's fixing the lights on the stage (decorated for a musical adaptation of "Stagecoach," with a giant cactus center stage), pulling period props from her bag and eventually has the tables completely turned on Thomas. The role reversal takes on mythical grandeur.
Seigner, perhaps more appropriately older than Arianda, is a powerhouse as the increasingly domineering Vanda. But it often feels that the offstage director — the 80 year-old Polanski — is having the most fun, commenting on the director-actress relationship and his own helplessness before such goddesses.
This is the second chamber piece in a row for Polanski, long a master of terror in confined spaces. "Venus" follows 2011's "Carnage," from the Tony-winning "God of Carnage," also about a breakdown of roles in a single setting (two pairs of parents debating an incident between their young boys).
Such stage-to-screen endeavors almost always suffer from claustrophobia, and one can't help wondering if they somehow reflect Polanski's own restriction of movement. (His fine 2010 thriller "The Ghost Writer," too, dealt with a character practically imprisoned on a remote island.)
While "Venus in Fur," shot in widescreen, breathes better than "Carnage," one of the film's most exciting moments is its very first. While Desplat's score kicks off, the camera drifts down a rainy Paris boulevard before turning into the theater, the doors opening before it. It's the arrival of Vanda, like a conjured apparition.
It's also a reminder of the live danger of Polanski's camera when on the prowl.
"Venus in Fur," a Sundance Selects release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language and some bloody violence." Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle