The author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch inspired the word “masochism” and in his novel Venus in Furs was the first to map its official terrain. Sacher-Masoch is dragged across time kicking and screaming – which of course he might love – towards, and into, Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur. Hauled through thickets of intermediate text, including David Ives’s stage play and here screen adaptation, Sacher-Masoch’s book arrives torn, tattered and transmuted – Pirandellian but still recognisable – in this mischievous movie brainstorm.
Polanski begins with thunder and lightning in a Paris street, then settles for two hours of indoor Sturm und Drang in a theatre. Mathieu Amalric – further to confound the film’s multiplying vibes, a dead ringer for the younger Polanski – plays an auditioning playwright-director preparing his version of Venus in Fur. He is burst upon by an I’m-the-answer-to-your-prayers actress played by Emmanuelle Seigner who (to add another vibe) is Polanski’s own wife.
The film is like stumbling on an incestuous snake pit. Scary but fun. Ives has composed an extended scream full of hissy comedy and writhing power play, devoted to the theme of male paranoia. Think of Miss Julie; add serpentining wit and po-mo eclecticism. Amalric’s character is outwitted at almost every turn by Seigner’s, a blowsy, bruised-eyed, flamboyant blonde behaving like an off-the-leash Dietrich. She is contemptuous of his personal kinks and foibles: “Women don’t interest you. Their fur does. You should marry a raccoon.” Any erotic outrage he dreams up she trumps with a bolder, more nightmarish one. (Look out for the phallic cactus.) If the film never quite escapes its theatrical provenance and setting, it’s still a bracingly bumpy ride.