It won't take you long to realize that Venus in Fur has no intention of stepping beyond the dank auditorium in which it opens. But claustrophobia is never on Roman Polanski's mind when he sends his film careening through the folds of Western psychosexuality, directing his starring duo with a momentum that carries them well beyond the setting walls. While Polanski's last effort, Carnage, used the one-room conceit to press down on and crush its characters, here he's playing the opposite game: launching fractured playwright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) higher, higher, higher until he vaporizes into the atmosphere. Like any skyward launch, the journey in Venus is pretty straightforward and narrow. But it's fast, freeing, and a good deal of fun on the way up.
Stage actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) bursts in out of the rain to insist upon an audition with frustrated artiste Thomas, whose "perfect woman" evades him in the quest to cast his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novella Venus in Furs. Despite the tired writer/director's protests, Vanda engages in an increasingly captivating — and increasingly mysterious — embodiment of the female lead, drawing Thomas deeper into her favor, and bringing closer to light his own relationship with the sexually-charged story.
The film is a little too interested in its own enigma: the true motives behind Vanda's performance, and the explanation for the occasional hints dropped that she is more than what she seems. When it commits principality to the importance this wicked secret, Venus in Fur becomes less than the sum of its parts. The joy is in the present: Vanda launching Thomas through the most horrifying corridors of his own mind, the altitude tearing him apart at the seams. Polanski's traditional black heart peers through, but the whimsy of the story's theatrical setting — and Seinger's terrifically bright performance — keep things consistently fun.
As grand as its themes may be — with gender and sexuality topping the lot — Venus in Fur amounts to something very simple. Though the ultimate product may sell short some of the gravity attached to its central ideas, the visceral journey is rich all the way through. It's dark, cheeky, provocative, and more than anything else, energized.