A critic if he's smart looks at a new Roman Polanski film the way an airport security officer looks at a suspiciously hefty, heavily taped carton box full of loose rattling metal: with sharp anticipation, plus a healthy dose of nervousness, perhaps fear.
I mean--look at the lines in his latest, Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure, 2013): Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) is reading Thomas' (Mathieu Amalric) play, an adaptation of the classic novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Along the way Vanda suggests the play is about child abuse. Thomas freaks: "what the fuck does the maltreatment of children have to do with this story?" He's absolutely right, of course--we have this unlovely habit of shoehorning politically correct ideas into texts that were composed long before the notion of correctness was ever conceived, we expect long-dead minds to conform to our notions of good and bad, right and wrong. You catch yourself nodding in agreement, then realize--this is a character in a Roman Polanski film talking. You wonder if Polanski's slipped in a bit of special pleading on his behalf, and feel repelled by the manipulation (for what it's worth, the lines are in the play). Then you wonder if that's what he intended all along, choosing to adapt this particular play for the big screen.
"Stereotypes!" Thomas continues to rant. "What are you going to throw at me next? Racism, sexism, class struggle?" to which Vanda replies not with a counter-argument, but a line from Thomas' play "well you're certainly unique, Herr Kushemski," mollifying the man by stroking his vanity (a classic tactic).
That's the whole play, basically: Vanda the wannabe actress mesmerizing Thomas the playwright and first-time director, in a theatrical retelling by David Ives of a classic erotic tale, in turn taken from an actual episode in the author's life (his name incidentally--or not, as little is incidental in a Polanski film--is basis for the term 'masochism'). To muddy matters between fiction and fact further, Polanski uses an actor coiffed and costumed to resemble himself (if he were fifty or even forty years younger he might have played the role himself), opposite his real-life wife as Vanda; the themes--the power struggle between man and woman, actress and director, dominatrix and dominated--echo moments in Polanski's own life, themes dealt with in his previous films.
The trouble with Polanski isn't that he's a convicted sex offender; or that he can be a maddening tyrant (to the point that actress Faye Dunaway would fling a cup of urine into his face); or that he is manipulative, charming, ingenious and ruthless by turns (sometimes all four at once and then some). No, I'd say the real trouble with Polanski is that he's immensely talented, and I find myself time and time again not apologizing for the man--he's living comfortably in France (whether he deserves to or not), in permanent exile--but for his films, which are seductive, unsettling, gorgeous, almost always worth watching (even his unhappier efforts (I'm thinking a good portion of The Ninth Gate) have moments that startle you out of your seat (the wheelchair crashing through doors for one, revealing the conflagration beyond)).
Take his trademark camera move, the tracking shot: gliding smoothly down one hallway or another, usually opening a film, likely inspired by similar shots from Alfred Hitchcock. Only Hitchcock directs your attention to this or that detail, points out the relationship between two entirely disparate objects, distends time and magnifies tension to an unbearable degree; his camerawork, more manipulative than anything, is born out of a need for precision and relentless visual storytelling logic. Polanski is capable of this when needed (I'm thinking of the camera following from a point slightly above Rosemary Wodehouse's shoulder as she enters her neighbors' apartment, in the climactic scene of Rosemary's Baby) but the overall impression is of a silky seductive style, meant to relax you and allow you to luxuriate in the velvet gorgeousness of it all--until he delivers the horrors, in which case you do anything except relax.
Said tracking shot sends us down a rainy tree-lined boulevard, turns gracefully right, pushes past theater doors like so many parting curtains to the stage--the venue of battle. The combatants are Vanda, a seemingly crude, inept actress late for auditions, and Thomas, whose new play is the reason she's braving the rain (everyone else is gone, leaving Thomas on his cellphone, complaining about the unsuitability of applicants).
Somehow Vanda manages to turn Thomas' mind (a few teardrops help; so does a deftly exposed thigh, and flattery ("You should play him...you'd be terrific," and we remember that Polanski often acted in his films). Vanda pulls out of her voluminous carpetbag some cheap knitting (the play's opening requires Venus standing in furs, and Vanda could only afford a shawl) and a costume; later she pulls out a dressing gown for Thomas--made in Vienna, 1869 (he looks at her in disbelief). From out of her head she produces a passable accent, a bright and agile mind, an increasingly impressive series of opinions and insights on the play Thomas has written, a copy of which she has somehow obtained (you wonder what else Vanda might have in that bag--Aristotle's book on comedy? Sophocles hundred other plays? The last forty minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons? Gerardo de Leon's Daigdig ng Mga Api?). You wonder if she isn't Venus herself, come down to earth to serve judgment on this presumptuous male.
Critics have complained that the sexual politics are dated--and much of it is, especially what comes from Sacher-Masoch, who ventures into the extremes of masochism only to collapse into a submissive conservatism; Ives flips the story around to wreak feminist vengeance on the author's misogyny (funny, I don't recall anyone calling Ives on the datedness of his play when it was on Broadway).
To respond one must paraphrase Ives: what the fuck does any of that have to do with the film's true appeal? The play, the actor/director, the beautiful wife/actress, the rant against child abuse, the dressing gown, even the moment Thomas applies lipstick and pulls on women's clothing--all are distractions, all are (as Thomas puts it) trivia.
The wit, sharpened by Polanski's slowly gliding camera (like a knife blade across a whetstone); eccentric bits like imaginary coffee gurgling into a nonexistent cup, or actors miming a tap or slap or kiss (which only emphasizes the play's tactility); the fact that the film's single most sensual moment doesn't involve Seigner but Amalric, giving himself completely over to a moment of erotic self-confession--it's all maddening, mesmerizing trivia--but still trivia.
The film's real subject after all isn't men vs. women, or director vs. actress, but world vs. Polanski. Like Rosemary Wodehose, Wladyslaw Szpilman, Jake Gittes, or even Dean Corso, Polanski's a survivor who knows his true role in the universe: a leaf, a plaything, the punchline to the sorry overextended joke we call evolution, backgrounded by the even more elaborate joke we call the universe. Why does Polanski put so much art and cunning into seducing us in his films? Perhaps because he knows what he has to say doesn't hold much appeal--but needs to be said, anyway.
First published in Businessworld 6.9.14