Venus in Fur [La Vénus à la fourrure]. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner. Mars Distribution, 2013. Film.
While Gilles Deleuze argues that “[v]iolence is something that does not speak, or speaks but little, while sexuality is something that is little spoken about” (16), the cinema of Roman Polanski shatters this silence into pieces through the demonstrative language of torture, murder and madness, subtly leading his characters and the spectators to step over their limits and cast a glimpse into the realms beyond their perceived realities. Yet, this ‘beyond’ does not welcome mortals for it is the realm of gods and devils, Eros and Thanatos; it engenders chaos, death and the terrifying silent screams of Carol in Repulsion (1965) and Trelkovsky in The Tenant (1976). Fitting well into Polanski’s cinematic oeuvre, his latest film Venus in Fur (2013) once again portrays the disastrous consequences should such limits be crossed. This time, violence and sexuality meet at the crossroad of masochism blocked by a divinity. A rather faithful cinematic adaptation of David Ives’ theatrical rendition of Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 Venus in Furs, the film is Polanski’s first non-English film after Knife in the Water (1962). Mirroring his feature film yet elevating the degree of violence and sexual tension to the heights of Olympus, Venus in Fur portrays the dynamics of male-female duel for power within a masochistic context. Not only does the film, inter alia, hint at the differences between masochism and sadism a la manière de Deleuze, but it also subverts the dynamics of the masochistic play by tipping the balance of power greatly in favor of the woman torturer.
The film begins with the Polanskian untethered camera speeding along a deserted boulevard before arriving at a shabby theater on a rainy Parisian evening. Identifying with the point of view of the camera, the spectators share the position of and participate in the role of the director as the invisible third party staging a threesome theatrum mundi and disclosing the dynamics of the two-handed play from various perspectives. Inside the theater, Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric), the director of a stage adaptation of Masoch’s novel, is frustrated after a fruitless day of auditioning actresses for the role of the female character. The door opens and there stands the rain-soaked Wanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner). In a studded patent-leather top, a black leather mini-skirt, and a studded dog collar, she appears to be the least qualified candidate for the role of the 19th century sophisticate Wanda von Dunajew, venerated as the goddess of love, Venus. However, Thomas lets her audition for the part only to realize that she is not only Wanda von Dunajew fleshed out of the pages of Masoch’s novel, but also actually Venus flown down from Olympus in the guise of a mortal. Mesmerized by her ‘divine’ performance, Thomas insists on performing the whole play. Gradually, the line between the diegetic reality and fantasy blurs: names change, roles reverse, and finally Thomas’ ideal masochistic fantasy ends in a nightmarish metamorphosis of Wanda into Venus-qua-Dionysus who punishes the transgressor as did the disguised Dionysus in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Emasculated, humiliated and tied around a phallic-looking tree, Thomas is abandoned in the theater while Venus-qua-Dionysus slams the door shut before she returns to her divine throne.
The ending of the film, probably its most significant deviation from the novel, presents in visual terms the negation of the complementarity of sadism and masochism. That is, while Freud asserts that masochism derives from sadism, Deleuze challenges this dialectical unity by exposing the very different worlds to which each belongs. On one hand, while Severin turns in Masoch’s novel to sadism after being disillusioned with his masochistic fantasy, such a transformation is absent in Polanski’s rendition. Thomas/Severin remains a defeated masochist who reveals no signs remotely suggestive of his future sadistic inclinations. On the other hand, what differentiates a sadist from a masochist is the former’s inclination towards cumulative violence (18), and the latter’s tendency for “persuasion and education” (20). In other words, as “an educator” of his ideal torturer (21), the masochist “dresses her for the part and prompts the harsh words she addresses to him” (22). Indeed, the masochist acts like, or rather is, the director of a fantastical, masochistic play/film meticulously guiding his would-be-dominatrix actress to “mettez vous au centre, au fond… prenez le pouvoir et devez vous mettre dans une position du pouvoir,”1 gradually empowering her for a cold but titillating performance. However, if Wanda/Venus does in fact possess the dominating power, why does she insist that the play is sexist and degrading to women? Why is it that in in response to Thomas/Severin’s comment “je suis entièrement en votre pouvoir,”2 she says “menteur, vous n’êtes pas en mon pouvoir. C’est moi qui suis entre vos mains. Vous dites que vous êtes mon esclave, mais c’est vous qui me dominez”?3 This contradiction could be best explained by Deleuze’s argument that in masochism, it is the masochistic victim, and not the female torturer, who possesses the real power. That is, by disavowing and projecting his superego onto the woman, the masochist renders her power “derisory” and superficial. The pain that she inflicts on him is not directed at his ego, but at the “father’s likeness [that] represents both genital sexuality and the superego as an agent of repression” (125). Hence, it is the ego of the masochist that triumphs, the masochistic fantasy being an ego-boost disguised behind the mask of humiliation and torture.
Nevertheless, Polanski’s portrayal of the woman torturer in this very film does not so much render her power derisory, but divinely fortifies it. On one hand, the masochist initiates and confers the power of the masochistic contract to protect his fatherless symbolic realm (93). However, not only is the contract imaginary and its signing mimed in the film, but it is also proposed by Wanda/Venus and not Thomas/Severin. Hence, it is not Wanda/Venus as the woman torturer who is obliged to play by the rules of the masochistic fantasy laid out by Thomas/Severin, but the reverse. Indeed, she is given the extra dose of freedom to direct the fantasy towards not strengthening Thomas/Severin’s ego, but its very destruction through her nightmarish metamorphosis into Venus-qua-Dionysus.
“Tu comprends mieux son personnage que moi. Tu la créé. Tu la connais intiment.”4 Thus, Wanda persuades Thomas to play the role of Wanda von Dunajew minus her double, Venus. Feminized and trapped in the world of both/and but neither/nor of a transvestite, Thomas then witnesses her metamorphosis and undergoes its pertinent terror. From the horrified look in Thomas’ eyes, to the god-like voice in which Wanda calls upon the bacchants to “dansons sur le rytheme du Bacchus,”5 and her bacchant dance around her victim, one can infer that she is the hermaphroditic Venus-qua-Dionysus disguised as a mortal: her duality makes her that hallucinatory return of the father that shatters Thomas’ fantasy of being reborn as a man; after all, deities are self-sufficient and can defantasize anyone without the need for a third party. Furthermore, unlike his meta-textual double, Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, Thomas is tied around the bottom of a phallic-looking tree and denied both Pentheus’ physical and the masochist’s psychological elevations.6 His transformation into “une demoiselle en détresse”7 under the shade of the phallus does draw one’s attention away from his body to which it is attached, putatively suggesting that men are not enslaved by women per se but by their own egos and illusions of superiority.
Moreover, one of the hallmarks of Polanski’s cinema is the presence of double-faced female figures. While perceived as victims, they bring ruin upon men when given the chance. For instance, Mimi in Bitter Moon (1992) becomes the cruel woman who throws Oscar off his bed and incapacitates him; or in Knife in the Water, Krystyna, by leaving her husband in the unbearable dilemma of admitting to being a cuckold or a killer, deprives him of his masculine power. These female figures finally merge into the figure of Wanda/Venus who tortures and punishes the director for staging a play that is degrading to women: a director whose body, stature and meticulousness in details of acting/directing are reminiscent of Polanski in his younger days. Thus, could this film be the director’s apology to all the female characters of his previous films who were humiliated, tortured and degraded by their sadistic male partners: an apology to the Woman who, since her creation, has been under the shadow of the Man’s rib? Or could it be Polanski’s depiction of the collapse of the age of Man’s dominance over the Woman? Since resisting any form of reductionism is a constant in Polanski’s oeuvre, it might be but simplistic to accept such speculations with absolute certainty, for his subsequent films might trigger a reverse motion in the halted seesaw of domination/subjugation of Venus in Fur.
- “Put yourself in the center, at the back… Take the power and put yourself in a position of power.”
- “I am entirely in your power.”
- “Liar, you are not in my power. It is I who am in your power. You say you are my slave, but it is you who dominate me.”
- “You understand her character better than I. You created her. You know her intimately.”
- “Dance to the rhythm of Bacchus.”
- Though feminine in appearance, Pentheus was privileged with a quasi-godlike position by being on top of the tree.
- “A damsel in distress”
Deleuze, Gilles. Masochism; an Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty: Together with the Entire Text of Venus in Furs. New York: George Braziller, 1971. Print.