Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski’s new movie has no right to be as tedious as it is. Based on the Tony-winning play by David Ives, with whom Polanski adapted the script, Venus in Fur does little more than pose an art-film question for the ages: What use is cinematic sexual provocation if it becomes deadeningly cerebral? It’s a shame, as the setup seemed so promising: Alone in his theater one stormy night, a Parisian stage director and presumptive Polanski surrogate, played by Mathieu Amalric, struggles with a play he’s adapted from the writer whose name and work gave us the word masochism. This requires a just-right leading lady, pointedly elusive until muse incarnate and real-life Polanski wife Emmanuelle Seigner bursts in demanding an audition. They work through the material, and some issues. “Am I insufferably pedantic?” the man eventually asks. “Yes, but it’s kinda cute,” replies the woman. The rest is schematic, a controlled swirl of confusion between submission and domination, between life and art. As with his Carnage and Death and the Maiden, Polanski seems untroubled to have made a film of such prominent play-like shape. Certainly he knows his way around the power dynamics of male-female relations. Has he resorted to phoning it in? Venus in Fur does have subtle flourishes of style — in the two actors’ unimpeachably fine performances, and in the sound cues supplementing their occasional stage-direction pantomimes. It’s not explicit, and doesn’t need to be, but the movie does seem strangely chaste by contemporary standards — intelligent, eloquent, entirely professional, and boring. In mostly unbecoming ways, this feels like it was made by an old man.