Pas de Deux and Donts: Polanski takes a risk in a theatrical adaptation.ts: Polanski takes a risk in a theatrical adaptation.
Pas de Deux and Donts: Polanski takes a risk in a theatrical adaptation.ts: Polanski takes a risk in a theatrical adaptation.

Much of Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur may call to mind the 2010 bomb The Tourist. That film, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, surprised the cinematic world with its irrefutable demonstration that sexy stars—even the sexiest stars—don’t guarantee smokin’ chemistry.

Venus in Fur, a pas de deux between a director (Mathieu Amalric) and a flustered and none-too-bright auditioning actress (Emmanuelle Seigner), is, in some regard, a 96-minute flirtation between a siren and a modestly attractive man, albeit one who probably got bullied in school. When Vanda (Seigner) busts through a theater’s doors, soaking wet, well after auditions have finished, Thomas (Amalric) is on the phone complaining that a young, sexy, classically trained actress with “a scrap of brain in her skull” doesn’t exist.

Yeah, you kinda hate him already. (Even though he’s dead-on when he describes modern young women as sounding “like 10-year-olds on helium.”) But Vanda’s irritating, too. She begs and lies her way into letting Thomas hear her read, pretending she’s familiar with the references he casually mentions, insisting she had an appointment though it’s not on his schedule, and generally behaving as if that scrap of brain Thomas is looking for won’t, after all, be found in her head. Finally, she pummels him into submission, shimmying into a costume and starting her lines.

Amalric’s Thomas may react a bit more agog than is believable, but Vanda does transform and has memorized pages of lines. So why the put-on? It’s not the last time you’ll question the rationale of either character’s actions; throughout the film, you’ll be puzzled whenever Thomas abruptly loses his temper as well as when Vanda does just about anything. You can buy his attraction to her, in a corset, heels, and full makeup as she breathily delivers her lines. But is she sincerely flirting with him? Is this a casting-couch thing?

Polanski co-adapted Venus in Fur from a play with David Ives, the playwright himself. Considering the director’s last stage-to-screen adaptation, 2011’s Carnage, was miscast and nearly insufferable, it’s a bold move. But whereas Carnage portrayed straight-up reality (if an extreme form of it), Venus has the flair of the theatrical from the very start. Panning down a city street with classical architecture in muted, nearly entirely gray tones, Polanski adds a soundtrack that’s Halloweenish, but in a playful way, more Tim Burton than Rob Zombie. The camera follows through the theater doors, and the mostly sober—though puzzling—action begins.

Amalric and Seigner have co-starred before, in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and even if the sexual chemistry is one-sided, they play off one another comfortably. Most impressive is how smoothly they transition between fiction and reality, interrupting the work’s dialogue with questions and asides. If the subtitles weren’t italicized to differentiate the two, it would be difficult to know where their characters begin and end. Besides Thomas’ brief tantrums, he’s largely under Vanda’s spell, both in character and out.

Just when you’re wondering what the point of all this is, Venus takes a bizarre turn that ups the theatricality and lends all that preceded it some meaning. It’s a stretch, and there remain questions. Without giving too much away, themes of domination and feminism ring clear, though the exercise seems like a lot of work to prove a point to one person. But the final images are indelible and, with that Halloween soundtrack kicking in again, nearly ghoulish. Polanski may not make the whys of the script very clear. The hows, though, are bewitching.