It’s a question that quickly confronts anyone reading Masoch’s novel itself. It is generally accepted that, despite numerous passages where the author declares his worthy intentions and presents his tale as a parable of social philosophy, Venus in Furs is essentially sadomasochistic pornography. The author’s fantasies – which he compelled his unfortunate wives to live out in their domestic lives – are played entirely straight throughout its narrative, without any real contemplation of them getting in the way of pure enjoyment.
Emmanuelle Seigner plays the role of Vanda with a skilful sleight of hand, beginning the film as a naïve wannabe actress, but quickly showing us glimpses of a darker, more mature presence lurking behind the veil. Although she presents herself as an air-head, as they begin reading together Thomas is transfixed by the intensity of her performance. Her name was nowhere to be found on his list of potential actresses, and she produces a copy of his script which Thomas cannot account for. It emerges later that Vanda knows every line by heart, a fact she never tries to hide. At several points she pulls impossibly perfect props from her bag – which, like Mary Poppins’, seems to contain whatever she wants it to.
The role might have been more ambiguous in the original stage play, but Polanski and Siegner are in no doubt about Vanda’s real nature. She is no mere mortal but a vengeful supernatural force, come to deliver Thomas to his reckoning. As her dominance of the director extends from playfully taking control of the stage lighting, to criticising and amending his writing, and even into manipulating his life outside the theatre, Seigner walks a tricky line between portraying a mortal and a goddess. When she slips into full-on mistress mode, shouting orders and strutting like a professional dominatrix, it feels phoney and forced. In her quieter moments, as she did in Polasnki’s Ninth Gate, Seigner gives a sense of genuinely chilling demonic intensity which is far more effective.
The key signal of the novel’s pornographic nature is that, although our hero Severin initiates their unusual relationship, his beloved Wanda turns out to be exactly the sadistic, controlling tyrant he was looking for, once he gives her a chance to express her ‘true’ nature. In the end, naturally, her own desire for cruelty even outstrips his desire for punishment – an essential element of the fantasy. Someone who seeks only to indulge such fantasies rather than examine them can never acknowledge the shameful truth at their core – that the fantasist is himself a tyrant in diguise, seeking to hide his own controlling, sadistic thoughts inside another person’s head.
As its plot unfolds, the film gives such criticisms voice through the character of Vanda, who not only dominates her director but turns a wrathful eye on poor old Masoch too. She transforms Thomas into his substitute with one of her too-convenient props – an authentic Austrian smoking jacket which is not just from the right period but, a briefly-glimpsed label confirms, the exact year prior to Venus in Furs’ publication, and could have belonged to Masoch or Severin himself.
Vanda constantly interrupts their read-through of Thomas’ play to critique the source material and challenge his reverence of it as “great literature,” giving an interpretation of Masoch’s novel in which Wanda is not a sadist at all, but “an innocent woman who runs into a pervert” – “an object like all women of the 1800s”.
Her critique of Masoch is made literal as she compels Thomas to act out the role of Wanda the controlling, sadistic mistress, rather than her victim Severin. The masochist is forced to act out the sadist, bringing us full circle to the shameful, hidden truth the he is, and always ways, in fact both.
The soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat frequently points up the absurdity of the situations in which the characters find themselves, with the same outlandish cacophony feel he gave to Moonrise Kingdom – this time composed of folkish European sounds, which suits the film’s sense of wicked fairytale gloom. In fact, the soundtrack is often almost too eccentric, forcing a purely comic sensibility onto scenes which would otherwise have been stark and disturbing.
Mathieu Amalric is anything but the weaker partner in performing terms, selling everything about his character’s twitchy, narcissistic pomposity. He is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the spitting of Polanski earlier in his career – short, sparky, nervy, angular. The only weak links are the scenes in which he portrays Thomas taking a feverish erotic excitement from his domination by Vanda, revealing himself as a genuine masochist. Like Seigner’s portrayal of Vanda in her full-fledged dominatrix routine, these moments have a forced, bloodless feeling to them which is nowhere to be found in the rest of his performance.
In its final scenes the film seems to abandon all pretext at criticising its source material, and instead delivers a climax which revels in the simplistic femme fatale-ism of the novel. Thomas winds up bound to a stake in the classical pose of a tormented martyr, as Vanda – now transformed into Masoch’s fictional Wanda, or perhaps even the divine image of vengeful feminine power she embodied – struts around him in growling, gurning majesty. The ideal abuser of masochistic fantasy is brought fully and memorably to life, in a scene which is equal parts frightening and hysterical.
This enjoyable but crude scene at first seems like a failure on the part of the film, but ultimately feels more like a deliberate ploy to throw a harsh spotlight on Masoch’s own. The film even pointedly closes with the same Biblical epigraph from the beginning of Venus in Furs, which Vanda singles out as evidence of its underlying, perversely conservative misogyny: “The Almighty Lord struck him, and delivered him into the hands of a woman”. It is perhaps fitting that what looks like a celebration of Masoch’s work ends up beating it savagely – although, one suspects, not in quite the way he would have liked.