Venus in Fur begins with an unkempt blonde named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) entering a theater in Paris to audition for exhausted director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric). The actress initially appears sloppy and unprepared, but as they rehearse Thomas' adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella of sadomasochism, Venus in Furs, she proceeds to arouse, incite, and ultimately degrade her director. Which is what he needed and perhaps wanted the whole time.
It's not surprising that director Roman Polanski, now 80, was drawn to the psychosexual farcicality of the plot. (The script was translated into French from David Ives' two-hander play.) What is surprising is how little Polanski juices the material with his usual devilish touch. Two people becoming consumed by their fictional identities is an idea rich with potential, but the film is relentless in its deconstruction of the concept, prattling on more like a repetitious academic exercise than a drama of any real consequence or danger. When a knife is pulled out late in the film, it's not an object of tension like it was in Rosemary's Baby or Chinatown. It's just another gimmick.
The two actors, however, dodge the booby traps. At 47, Seigner is nearly two decades older than Nina Arianda, who originated the role on stage in 2010, and she finds a cougar's stealth in Vanda that reflects the coiled frustration of actresses of a certain age. (She is also Polanski's wife.) And while it's hard not to see the elfin-faced Amalric as a doppelgänger for his director, it's even tougher to miss the dark subtext in a scene where Thomas indignantly refuses to be identified with child abuse.
The last shot includes a terrific visual gag involving a giant fake cactus, proving that Polanski still has an eye for inspired perversity. In Venus in Fur, you hate to see it strained by the glare of so many trick mirrors. (Also available on VOD) C+