It is occasionally hard to separate a piece of art from the alleged scruples of its creator. Many a Woody Allen fan has struggled with it for years now, and the new X-Men film now arrives under the fresh cloud of the accusations levied at Bryan Singer. It is inherently possible that these men (and many other artists who face illicit allegations for that matter) are completely innocent. Then again, they may not be. It’s the baggage that some will refuse to carry, and it’s the sort of baggage that’s been weighing down Roman Polanski films since the late 70s. It raises the longstanding debate of whether one should judge the art by the artist, or the artist by the art, and it’s not one I shall bore you with here – I’m here to talk about movies.
And it’s a testament to Venus in Fur‘s marvellously weird and promiscuous brand of entertainment that I felt comfortable judging it on its own merits. Whatever you think of his personal life, Polanski is a borderline cinematic institution at this point, and it’s great to see that – after a decade or so spent coasting in second gear – he is back to his bold and fiercely original best.
This is a film grounded by two captivating performances, courtesy of French veterans Mathieu Almaric and Emmanuelle Seigner, respectively playing a rookie theater director and his prospective lead. It’s always a joy to see two driven performers taking it in turns to bring the house down, and they’re complimented by a concept that blurs the lines between fact and fiction, sexuality and chastity and – most interestingly – actor and director. Every step either of the two take is either a statement of domination or submission, every line an attempt to flip art and reason on its head in a whirlwind dance of raucous fun and bizarro insanity.
It’s the kind of movie that would be awfully pretentious were it not so self conscious. As the film’s duelling leads alternate between bitchy small talk and enraptured reading of a play script, any risk of the whole thing slipping into excessively pretentious surrealism is frequently undercut by a self-aware comment or a jibe at a poorly written line. It’s a credit to the writing that a potentially clunky premise works near seamlessly in practice, as the characters and dialogue slip between contexts and realities in a joyous waltz of sparkling back-and-forths.
With a concept this arch there were inevitably going to be moments where the drama jars, but it’s testament to David Ives’ incredibly intelligent screenplay that these low points are outnumbered by feats of verbal agility and knife edge dialogue. There was one moment, and one moment only that stopped this becoming one of my favourite films of the year thus far – a line about child abuse that, in the context of the accusations previously leveled at its director, was completely inappropriate – and yet, with its deadly combination of skill and craft, Venus in Furs remains the best film Polanski has made since The Pianist.
I’ve used a couple of clunky dance metaphors over the course of this review, for which I apologize, but that’s what Venus in Fur most strikes me as – an intricately choreographed ballet that sees the two dancers make heady, brief contact, only to reel away from one another to rally themselves once more. It’s a tantalizer of a movie, dangling its unashamed sexuality in full view – but always just out of reach – as a phenomenal tug of war erupts between a director and a woman who is in turns his mother, his dominatrix, his star to be and everything in between. It’s smart, energetic and fiercely original filmmaking, the kind of stuff true movie fans will always crave – and I can’t get enough of it.
A film that joyously revels in blurred lines, Venus in Furs sees Polanski return to his bold and fiercely original best.