J’ai des butterfly, des papillons en pagaille… Review of ‘Venus in Fur’

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While everybody else was checking out 50 Shades of Grey, I was debating whether to see Venus in Fur or not.  My friends know me as a moralistic censor, and there seemed something wrong about seeing a film about sexuality by a man who’s evaded lawful punishment for drugging and sodomising a thirteen-year old.  Is art inextricably connected to the creator?  If art reveals something about the creator, did I want to know anything about such a person?  If art is a creation of both artist and audience, did I want to participate with Roman Polanski?

Venus in Fur is an awkward, uncomfortable film that, by casting Polanski’s wife, never allows the audience to forget that there’s a sex offender behind the lens.  Ultimately the film ends up being an undergraduate essay about Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Venus in Furs, and Euripides’ The Bacchae.

The film is based on a play by David Ives about a playwright, Thomas Novacheck, who is trying to produce a stage version of Sacher-Masoch’s novel.  Sacher-Masoch’s novel is about a man who reads a manuscript about a man who desires a masochistic relationship with a woman who makes him dress as a servant and do various degrading things.  Novacheck has been auditioning women to play the dominatrix character but is unable to find somebody suitable.  Just as he is about to go home to his fiancee, an actress arrives and pleads for an audition.  As she reads through the play with the playwright, she shows uncanny insight into the characters and appears to have already learnt the script.  She and the playwright discuss whether the novel is inherently sexist, whether it portrays sensuality or pornography, and to what extent the male characters reflect repressed desires of their male authors.

As the reading continues, the line between the performers and the performance is increasingly blurred.  The two actors slip seamlessly between rehearsing the lines of the play and discussing how they feel about the play.  But it’s this blur which makes it difficult to know what the stakes are in the movie.

Novacheck at the start of the film is a jerk, sure.  It’s late and he’s trying to go home to his fiancee.  His polite attempts to get the actress to leave are ignored and, in an act of desperation, he begins reading the play with her.  As his fiancee continues to call his mobile telephone to ascertain where he is and how long he’ll be, Novacheck is distracted by the quality of the actress’ performance and frustrated by her odd comments about the novel.  The fiancee is an invisible agent in the film, an outside obligation that Novacheck has to fulfill.  It’s clear from his comments in scenes with the actress that he genuinely loves her — so why is he here continuing the reading with the actress?

The film suggests that he finds the actress alluring, but it’s only during the elements of reading the play that Novacheck demonstrates any kind of interest.  Even during those moments, he doesn’t actually touch the actress when the script calls for physical interaction.

And yet this changes very rapidly during one scene where, inexplicably, Novacheck is directed by the actress to tell his fiancee that he won’t be home at all that evening.  Obediently, he does what he’s told.

Come the end of the film, Novacheck has been feminised, tied to the set, and then abandoned in the theatre.  Instead of playing out Venus in Furs, Novacheck and the actress have been playing out The Bacchae, in which the proud Pentheus is driven mad by a god, feminised, and then ripped apart by his own mother.

But for what is Novacheck being punished?  What elements are in common between Novacheck and Pentheus?  Pentheus’ crimes were blasphemy and perversion.  Novacheck doesn’t seem guilty of these.

The only answer that affords itself is that Novacheck really does have a number of repressed desires and that he deserves to be punished for having these desires.  It’s a weirdly odd message to come from a man who raped a child.  Does Polanski feel that he’s being punished for having desires?

The film doesn’t provide a satisfying account of sexuality, and it’s all way too smug to move beyond the most superficial elements.  So what if Novacheck has repressed desires?  He clearly needs a semi-divine antagonist to reveal it, who then punishes him for it.  Were the repressed desires invisible even to Novacheck, identifiable only when a supernatural siren seduces him with his own play?  So what?  What kind of moral is that?  ‘Beware, men.  Your secret fantasies — unknowable even to yourself — could one day be used against you!’  ‘Beware, men.  You don’t actually want your secret fantasies to come true, else you will come to ruin!’  ‘Beware, men.  You’re taught to desire things that you don’t actually want!’

Slavoj Žižek at his home in Lubljana.

The film is extremely heavy-handed when it comes to its imagery, the most groan-worthy of which was a dog collar which migrated from one character to the other as the power dynamic changed.  The actress also changes the script so that she can refer to Thomas by his name both in character and as the playwright.

It is a thoroughly baffling film pitched directly to the art house types that confuse ‘baffling’ for ‘good’.  Congratulations, you made a pretentious film that reflects a demented sexuality.  Have awards.

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