In 1870 Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch wrote the novella Venus in Furs, in which a man named Severin becomes the erotic slave of a woman named Vanda. The word “masochism” originated with the author, which should offer a hint of where the movie heads.
The film Venus in Fur, adapted by Polanski and David Ives from Ives' 2010 Tony-winning play, takes place at a theater where writer-director Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric) has spent a frustrating day auditioning female actors to star in his production of Venus in Fur. No one was even close to what he was looking for and the tired and frustrated Novachek, now the last person in the building, is ready to leave.
Please note that the actor playing Novachek bears a resemblance to Polanski in his younger days and that Emmanuelle Seigner is Polanski's real-life wife. I don't know if the filmmaker sees a therapist, but if he does, they surely could spend a great number of sessions discussing his decision to cast his wife and a surrogate for himself in a story dealing with S&M. Or maybe it's just a calculated move to mess with our heads.
As the reading progresses, the dynamic between the two changes so many times that it makes you dizzy. Vanda, who — oddly enough — shares the same first name as the character she aspires to play, claims to only have glanced at the script, but it soon becomes clear that she knows the text inside and out. Oh, and she brought clothing appropriate for the play, including a jacket for Novachek that fits.
They continue to read and the roles continue to change. The demanding Novachek appears to seek the approval — and the dominance — of Vanda. She shifts in and out of character, at times calling out the source material as sexist crap. Are we watching an actor and a writer-director exploring the characters in the play, an actor doing whatever is necessary to secure a job, or the personalities of the individuals expressing real desires and needs that mirror the play?
Roman Polanski doesn't get flashy with his direction, and Alexandre Desplat's score accents without dominating. Both artists realize that frills are unnecessary — there's plenty going on in Venus in Fur already.