Opening today at Harkins Shea:
Venus in Fur—In case you’re wondering, Roman Polanski’s new film isn’t an adaptation of the 1870 novel by Sasher-Masoch, from whose name we get the term “masochism.” It is, rather, an adaptation, in French, of the 2010 play by the American dramatist David Ives, a two-hander about a playwright and director mounting a stage version of the novel, and his startling encounter with an auditioning actress.
On a stormy evening, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has just finished an unsatisfactory round of auditions in a small deserted theatre. He’s getting ready to leave when Vanda (Emmanuelle Siegner) crashes in, acting manic and frazzled and flirty, and talks him into letting her read for the female lead. He’s reluctant at first, but when he finally gives in, after hours of listening to kewpie doll ingénues in the modern style, Thomas is instantly gripped by Vanda’s mature, controlled intensity and directness. After a while, her understanding of the dominant character, and perhaps of her auditor’s psychology and sexuality, seems to go beyond that simply of a capable actress.
Spoiler alert, and warning to the prurient: There’s no graphic sex in the film, and only a flicker of nudity. But from a classical, old-school masochistic point of view, I guess this Venus in Fur can’t be called a cheat. Seigner, the ill-fated Paris street cupcake in Polanski’s 1988 Frantic (she’s Mrs. P. in real life) ends up in scanties, garters and knee boots, and looks like a million Euros in them. Her funny, sexy performance is sensational too, especially in light of how unpromising she seemed back in ’88. Amalric is likewise excellent as the hapless Thomas.
Whatever one thinks of Polanski personally or morally, there can be no doubt that he’s as skillful as ever. Basically a filmed play, Venus in Fur doesn’t feel stagy, and while it’s certainly talky, it still has a cinematic vibrancy. The script, by Polanski and Ives, isn’t interested in reticence—the theatre in which the audition takes place, for instance, has a standing set for a western play, and lest we miss the phallic symbolism of the cut-out saguaro, Vanda brashly announces it, then walks over and pantomimes humping it.
And Polanski can still surprise visually. Late in the film there’s a shot—a close-up of a boot being zipped up—that has the look of a shark’s mouth devouring a leg. It hums with allegorical meaning on multiple and conflicting levels, though I suppose Sasher-Masoch’s fellow Austrian Freud might tell me that sometimes a zipper is just a zipper.
Opening today at Harkins Camelview:
Ivory Tower—According to this highly persuasive documentary by Andrew Rossi, college is becoming one of the worst buys in America. A sheepskin is insanely overpriced for whatever career benefits it may offer, the institutions are bloated and inefficient, and students, especially in liberal arts, aren’t coming out with much knowledge or ability, assuming they finish at all.
Produced by CNN Films, this movie is another of the ilk of Inequality for All or Electoral Dysfunction—fast-moving, upbeat, graphically lively presentations of infuriating subjects. Along with powerful strands on the Cooper Union student occupation and California State’s experimentation with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Rossi, of 2011’s Page One: Inside the New York Times, gives us a wide variety of talking heads who certainly seem to know what they’re talking about, but who don’t quite seem to know what to do about these problems.
We’re shown some experiments with non-institutional learning, and they’re interesting, but none of them can claim to carry the currency in prestige that college still does, whether it should or not. The movie suggests, however, that this currency is weakening, and that it probably deserves to. Ivory Tower offers no particular solution to this, which makes it an honorable film, and a depressing one.