Roman Polanski’s latest is a two-hander curio that finds a frazzled theatre director locked in a war of wills with an actress fighting to convince him that she is perfect for the role of leading lady in his new play.
Working late in a crumbling Parisian theatre on a winter’s evening with lowering skies and thunder rumbling overhead, Thomas is casting for his own deeply personalised adaptation of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novella Venus in Furs, the book that gave us the term sado masochism and which was quite the succès de scandale upon its publication in 1870.
It’s the end of a fruitless day and Thomas is at the end of his tether, broiling with anger that he has not been able to find his leading lady among the uncouth young ingénues and vulgarians who have tried out for role. Unannounced, Vanda (played by Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up, soaking and bedraggled, and begins to slowly dismantle his world as she turns the closed fantasy land of the small stage into a crucible for Thomas and his darkest desires.
It’s a neat and very well-acted and full of sly humour. Thomas is trying to re-create the twilight world of Austro-Hungarian demimonde on a stage that is still being used for a musical production of John Ford’s Stagecoach by another theatre company and his mobile ringtone is The Ride of the Valkyries.
It’s funny and dark and beautifully shot by Polanski and you don’t have to be a student of his work to know that he may be acting out his own dark fears and morbid fascinations here. The worn but elegant Amalric even looks like the director in his younger days.
The question of who is being dominated and who is the submissive is teased out well for the first hour as lines are blurred between female and male roles, both on and off stage, but Polanski drops the guillotine a mite too abruptly for an unsatisfactory ending.