The Paradox of Pain and Pleasure
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: David Ives (play), Roman Polanski (screenplay)
Stars: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
Not knowing that this was a Roman Polanski film, I spent at least 5 minutes waiting in line at the New York Fries stand as the film was already playing. I thought that while a 2-person stage movie is by all means interesting, my brother who was my film buddy that day at the French Film Fest might not like it. We regretted this assumption the minute we stepped into the theatre. Everyone was bursting in laughter.
La Vénus à la Fourrure is an excellent example of everything falling into place. Every aspect of the film I could think of just worked perfectly with each other that I could hardly notice them. I could only see the film as a whole - a piece of work that is fully alive and bursting with spirit. From the lighting and the sounds to the set, the film is truly theatrical. It is grand even in the simplicity of the set. It builds its tension upon an atmosphere that is unique to the theatre - one that is tight and compact as a stage and boxed as a theatre is. But the formality and claustrophobia of the stage is toned down by the cinematography and editing that freely and playfully maximize the limited space. They make the film energetic and natural through fluid visual movement and bring the actors much closer to the audience. The film eliminates the distance between a stage performance and its audience. It places us right on the stage, allowing us to watch the drama unfold very closely and the see actors face to face. This tension between restriction and freedom is maintained throughout the film, rising and falling as the actors slip in and out of their characters, shifting back and forth from reality to fiction in a matter of seconds until the two become one.
Polanski pits polar opposites against each other throughout the film. First of all, the characters could not have been more different. Aspiring actress Vanda is a manic, insistent, self-assured, and charmingly-annoying woman who, in her hooker-ish attire, exudes confidence and sex appeal. On the other hand, the director Thomas is a plain-looking fellow who is hesitant, reserved and passive. For a playwright, he displays an unbelievable ignorance of his own characters’ desires (and his own). He is also in a stubborn state of self-denial and self-righteousness. Their personalities mirror the characters of the stage play whom Vanda claims to be the epitome of sadism and masochism (whether which is one or the other is debatable). The ambience of the theatre is not without contradictions either. It is both formal and intimate. The set is of course staged, and in-character, Vanda and Thomas have to move in a restricted manner. But as Vanda enchantingly delivers dialogues (surprisingly, like a professional), then suddenly spews out the most hilarious questions and painful criticisms at Thomas, and as Thomas defends himself and retaliates, the atmosphere becomes uncomfortably comfortable. As the events take surprising twists and the characters struggle for domination, the line between acting and being begins to blur. In the emptiness of the theatre, Vanda and Thomas might as well be lovers in a sexually-charged, power-driven, and unpredictable courtship ritual.
La Vénus à la Fourrure is a film that provokes discussion on sex, sexism and gender politics. It could be a criticism of “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch after whom the words sadism and masochism were named (trivia!), but since I’m not familiar with the work I cannot say how the original text paints the roles of the male and female
but I will not delve into that matter anymore. I believe I still need to see it a second time so I can confidently put my finger on what exactly it is trying to say. But besides the roars of laughter, the great respect for Emmanuelle Siegner and Mathieu Amalric’s magnetic performances, and the awe for Polanski’s boldness and cunning, I came home that day even more astounded with the intricate relationship of opposites and the paradox of human desire. “Sado-machism.” The force that pulls opposing energies together into one extremely volatile state of being.