These two, Vanda, an actress, and Thomas, a writer, are accompanied in this debate by a myriad of combatants who have gone before — in the forum, on the stage, in poetry, and the salon: Chaucer’s tale-tellers discussing who is sovereign, man or woman, the Greek Bacchae, the Austrian novelist Masoch-Sacher, and the Book of Judith in the Apocrypha of the Bible. So Polanski, who wrote the screenplay from the stage play by David Ives, who also wrote the subtitles, puts us on the stage with these two. They have an agenda: Thomas thinks he is auditioning actors for the part of Vanda; Vanda is a vamp, a coy mistress, who wants to portray Vanda.
The film opens on a rainy Parisian allée. The camera runs under dripping trees, into a theater’s vestibule, and through the lobby doors by empty seats in the auditorium. Thomas gets ready to leave the set left from the previous production (“Stagecoach: The Musical”). In comes a wet woman named Vanda. She is late, she knows, but she wants to try out for the part of Vanda. She has even spent 30 Euros on a try-out dress to take her to the 1870s when the play from Masoch-Sacher’s book is set. She covers her teddy and dog collar with a coral-colored dress of ruching and ruffles and layers. She whips out a script. Where did she get that, Thomas wants to know. Never mind. She has it by heart. She asks him, the writer/the adapter, to read with her.
And, thus, begins the audition wherein the actors in the film move in and out of the characters they are playing on the stage as each tries to achieve sovereignty over the other in classic ways. They say their lines in one voice, then discuss their parts and attitudes in their street voices; they raise their voices in acrimony or lower their voices in seduction.
The film actors, Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric, are exquisite. They were both in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Both are 48; she is almost ripe and he resembles a nerdy Polanski. They range from innocent to duped to wise to wicked. And their voices range from cocky to liquid to allusive and abusive as they tread the boards with their scripts.
Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” is a tight, amusing, and clever one-act with classic overtones and with sexual innuendoes and politics but without, as dictated by time, a clear winner.