Venus in Fur, Film. Review. The Limits of Masochism.
Venus in Furs.
“But the Almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.”
Judith, xvi. 7.
Gilles Deleuze once suggested that Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Fur was not only the inspiration for the modern word masochism but illustrated the paradoxes of punishment (Présentation de Sachar-Masoch.1967). Traditional legal systems threatened, and inflict pain, supposedly as a deterrent. By contrast the ‘desiring machine’ Severin von Kusiemski, wishes to suffer. As a parody of law, a contract reigns over and demands the whiplash. The Biblical epigraph that heads the novel is equally misleading. Far from embodying worshiped female superiority, the Goddess Wanda, is a creation, Pygmalion style, of the narrator. In these ways one can see how the theme can take us from sexuality to forms of power.
The film pans onto a Parisian boulevard. In the background is a looming thunderstorm. An unkempt actress (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife), Vanda, hurries into a shabby theatre. She is auditioning for a production of Venus in Furs. Inside the director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is about to leave, bemoaning on his mobile the talentless candidates he’s already seen. Vanda, late beyond excuse, but pushy to the point of breaking boundaries, persuades him to let her perform.
Vanda already has the script by heart. Alternatively thick and knowing, using the vocabulary of vulgarity and erudition, she dominates Sevrin’s delirium. His infantile ecstasy when punished by a sable-wrapped aunt (playing a role not dissimilar to Mademoiselle Lambercier for Rousseau) has swollen into an infatuation for a heartless Venus. Wanda, of the play, acts this out against the backdrop of a crackling fire. At regular intervals Vanda rails at the “sexism” of the whole scenario.
If a knife and physical pain play a role, psychological cruelty that spins at the centre of the film’s drama. As the novel says, “.Nothing can intensify my passion more than tyranny, cruelty, and especially the faithlessness of a beautiful woman.”
Vanda gets her claws into the inauthenticity of Thomas’ cosseted life with a highly-educated, monied, fiancée as one senses more than a flicker of longing for submission to her edgy presence, at the borderline of the pute. Pushing an implicit conclusion Wanda suggests that his real desire is for her handsome Officer admirer, and she helps a deliciously helpless Sevrin with make-up for his new role.
Echoes of Polanski’s films, from Knife in the Water 1962 (a weapon wielded by Wanda) to Rosemary’s Baby, 1968 (the storm outside) have been noted by critics. At its best Venus in Furs rivals Pinter’s The Servant (1963) with its intense power struggle. There one significant difference from the original novel is absence of three African women. Their presence might have given an additional theme – the ‘race play’ fashionable in some leftist sado-masochistic circles. (1)
The strengths of the film Venus in Furs (though not the original book which is as vulgar in its pretend elegant way as Vanda) lies in its language, the conversation. This – in different registers of French – is wholly lost in the subtitles, which mix Valley Girl slang with the vocabulary of American Pie. There is no charm and little humour (though you will be able to avoid them on the DVD) It is hard to imagine the original, well received, US play by David Ives written like this.
In an age when somebody is convicted in connection with a sexual obsession with pig slurry the theme of ‘perversion’ has lost its ability to interest, let alone shock. Masochism reminds many of us more of Fifty Shades of Grey (though that was apparently female) than any deep experience or insight. But in Polanski’s film, as for the psychology – the picture is up there with the greats.
(1) Lest we forget (from the Charnel House):