Although it’s based on the play by David Ives, I was reluctant to see Roman Polanski’s new film, “Venus in Fur” because of the S&M component. Polanski’s infamous admission that he plied a 13-year-old girl with alcohol and a Quaalude before orally, vaginally and anally having sex with her in 1977 did not encourage me to rush to a movie of borderline porn made by a man whose perv meter might lead to gleefully humiliating the character played by his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner.
When asked to screen the film for review, I relented, mostly out of curiosity because I’ve loved Polanski’s movies. Seigner plays Vanda, a dippy, vulgar, classless woman who auditions for playwright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric, who has an eerie resemblance to a young Polanski). The movie proved much different than I’d expected. It wasn’t sleazy; in fact, it wasn’t even all that sexy. It’s also an unlikely comedy about two mentally fragile people who play with gender roles.
It’s a tad tedious to watch a film with only one set — a dark, worn theater — and two characters, but their intensity is undeniable. Vanda surprises Thomas after he’s had a long and disappointing day of auditioning actresses. He’s frustrated and ready to go home, but Vanda won’t stop pleading to audition, and he’s too tired to resist.
Thomas is shocked when Vanda transforms into Venus. She’s memorized his play, brought props she’d paid for and takes him on an emotional journey. “Venus in Fur” will appeal more to theater lovers; it really is more of a play than a movie. But the actors are so compelling and the writing so good, it’s impossible not to like.
Landing an exclusive interview with playwright David Ives, I was fortunate to hear about his journey with Polanski.
Dorri Olds: How did Roman Polanski decide to adapt your play for a film?
David Ives: I came home, and there was a message on my phone machine, “Hello, David Ives, this is Roman Polanski. I love your play. I want to turn it into a movie. Call me, here’s my phone number.”
Did you know him already?
No. I called my agent and said, “I just got the oddest message on my phone machine.” He said, “Was it from Roman Polanski?” He’d heard that Roman wanted to turn “Venus in Fur” into a movie. That was how easy it was and a sign how smoothly the whole thing would go.
Can you describe Polanski?
He’s generous, charming, funny, insightful, solicitous, and his analysis of the play was absolutely brilliant. He read me my play over the course of several days, line by line, page by page, and we’d talk about it. He’d ask questions, and we’d trim or fix. His insight into what was happening moment by moment in the play was extraordinary.
Had he ever seen it?
No, all he had were the words in front of him. He could see the underlying emotion behind the dialogue and went straight for that. Roman and I worked for several days. After 10 days, we had a film script.
Did you socialize when you weren’t working?
Yes, at night we’d go out to restaurants and have the most amazing meals in the world looking out over the Swiss Alps. It’s exactly how I always wanted to live my life.
What was the dinner-table conversation?
We talked about people we know, movies we’d seen. He’s a great conversationalist. It roamed over a million things in his life including stories about Jack Nicholson and “Chinatown,” and it was always fun.
How do Roman and his wife get along?
They seem incredibly tight to me, like two people intensely committed to making their 15-year-old son a well-rounded human being. Polanski also has a wonderful daughter.
Did you have preconceived notions of him based on his choice to live in Switzerland to avoid prosecution for statutory rape?
I knew the outlines of that story but I was a huge admirer of his movies, particularly his earlier movies like “Knife in the Water,” “Repulsion,” “Cul-de-sac,” “The Tenant” and then “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby.” My perceptions of him were as an artist.
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Did his legal troubles ever come up in conversation?
He spoke quite openly about the case with the young woman in California, and he said, “You know, it’s been 36 years, and she herself has been petitioning for this whole thing to be ended.” He told me his side of things of what happened, which was pretty much what’s been in the recent documentaries about him, so I didn’t know enough to make a judgment, and my feelings were about the work.
Have you seen the two recent documentaries about him?
Yes, they were “A Film Memoir” by Andrew Braunsberg and “Odd Man Out” by Marina Zenovich. Braunsberg’s was about Roman’s whole life. The film by the woman was about the court case, and it’s very good and seemed judicious — of course, you never know what’s judicious. In any case, that’s all I know about those things.
“Venus in Fur” opened in New York Friday, June 20 and will open in Los Angeles Friday, July 4. It will be released nationally this summer. Not rated. 96 min. French with English subtitles.
Watch the trailer:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.