This week in movies you missed: I'm going to see Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend. What can I say? I'm curious.
I am expecting to watch two scantily clad thespians uncomfortably fake sexual chemistry. I am expecting (or hoping for) moments of high camp. What I am not expecting from Fifty Shades is to learn anything new about the role of dominance and submission in sex and romance. (For an extremely exhaustive analysis/satire of everything the Fifty Shades series gets wrong about real-life BDSM, click here.)
No. For insight into the culture of whips, chains and legalistic sex-slavery contracts, I turned to David Ives' 2010 play Venus in Fur, adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski and now available on Netflix Instant. It proved to be about as provocative as an arty two-character drama confined to a single location with virtually no nudity can be. That is, a lot.
The playwright/director has found the actress of his dreams — but she's creeping him out.
In the novel (and Thomas' play), a young man with a fur fetish dreams of being dominated by a goddess-like woman. When he meets noblewoman Vanda, who fits all his specifications, he begs her to marry him, but she declares herself too free-thinking for fidelity. He pleads instead to be her slave, and Vanda obliges. ("Masochism" was named after Sacher-Masoch, by the way.)
Thomas has a problem: He can't find an actress mature and commanding enough to play his dominatrix. Then in walks Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner), who just happens to bear the same name as his heroine. She's late, she's loud, she's inappropriately dressed in bondage gear, and she doesn't seem to know the first thing about his play, dismissing the novel as outdated, misogynist porn.
Until the two of them start reading the scene, and Vanda slips effortlessly into the role, speaking her lines from memory. Who is she really, and what kind of game is she playing with the increasingly-out-of-his-depth writer?
Why You Missed It
Perhaps you caught Venus in Fur during the one week it played at the Savoy Theater last summer. Or you could have seen Vermont Stage Company's production of Ives' play in March (here's a review).
And here's the trailer:
Should You Keep Missing It?
I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey, but, unlike many viewers of Venus in Fur, I have read Sacher-Masoch's novel. I found it fascinating and frustrating in equal measures, because it plays around with 19th-century gender roles only to end up confirming the status quo.
As intensely realized by Polanski, Ives' play re-enacts Sacher-Masoch's book while giving it the extra level of self-awareness it lacked. The play is a work of fandom, but also of parody and critique. In this way it's both like and unlike Fifty Shades, which started as Twilight fan fiction but didn't critique those chaste vampire novels so much as just make their erotic subtext into very obvious text.
Polanski gets some mileage out of light, framing and props in this adaptation, but basically it's about the actors, and both are blisteringly good. Amalric plays Thomas as an ingratiating bumbler with a dark side, while Seigner keeps us guessing about who or what Vanda really is. In an instant, she can morph from the French equivalent of a Valley Girl to the terrifying erotic goddess of Thomas' dreams. Or are they nightmares?
Seigner channels her "inner goddess" as Vanda.
Just for fun, here are a few things that Venus in Fur and Fifty Shadesdo have in common:
The heroine has bangs.
The dominant partner in the relationship demands that the submissive sign a contract of servitude, despite the legal voidness of such a document.
Whips. Bondage. Dog collars.
Ana in Fifty Shades refers frequently to her "inner goddess," the naughty part of her that wants to engage in activities that she insists are so not her. Vanda is frequently identified with the naughty goddess Venus/Aphrodite.
At one point, Vanda suggests that Sacher-Masoch's novel is really about nothing but the after-effects of child abuse. (The hero discovered his erotic proclivities when his aunt flogged him.) In Fifty Shades, Ana attempts to explain Christian's erotic proclivities as the after-effects of child abuse. (In his teens, he had an affair with a much older, dominant woman.)
Venus in Fur explores the ambiguities of BDSM role-play, treating it very much as role-play. It demonstrates how the dominant can suddenly become the submissive or vice versa, and how the submissive can exercise tacit control over the whole endeavor. On a surface level, that volatility is missing from Fifty Shades, given that Ana claims to engage in BDSM for Christian's sake and not because she enjoys it. But, given that E.L. James' audience seems to identify with Ana, and the books are generally acknowledged by that audience to be pretty sexy, one has to wonder just how sincere Ana's distaste for that practice is — and how many choices she might make without appearing to.
Fifty Shades allows readers to indulge certain fantasies without fully owning them — and so, I think, does Sacher-Masoch's novel, with its weird mix of soft porn and Victorian prudery. But Ives' play shows what happens when someone has no choice but to own up to his or her hidden kinks. And it's scary.
Verdict:Venus in Fur could inspire some great conversations. Just don't see it on a first date unless both of you are very comfortable with uncomfortable situations.
Bonus: Want another reason not to see Fifty Shades? Watch both seasons of "The Fall" on Netflix. After seeing Jamie Dornan portray a sweet bereavement counselor and family man who moonlights as a cold-blooded serial killer on the streets of Belfast, you won't be able to buy him as the billionaire of anyone's dreams. It's that creepy a performance.
This Week in Theaters
I mentioned Fifty Shades of Grey, right? Also, a loutish British kid gets to play James Bond in the comic-book adaptation Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Oscar alert! The nominated shorts are now at the Savoy, while you can see Julianne Moore's turn in Still Alice at the Roxy.
This Week in Your Living Room Addicted, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Force Majeure, Kill the Messenger, Nightcrawler, Rosewater.