The trouble with the term “strong female characters” is that a lot of people take the “strong” part literally and never get to the real issue. It’s not that film and television need more women wielding guns and swords or strapped into battle corsets and towering boots (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but being a badass isn’t a safeguard from being one-dimensional, inessential to the story, or primarily on-screen decor. The plea for strong female characters is really one for a point of view, for women on screen who aren’t just prizes or accessories or things to be rescued, who’ve actually been considered as people outside of how they affect a male protagonist.
The best new contribution to this debate comes from an unexpected corner — that of Roman Polanski, whose latest film, Venus In Fur, opens in limited release this Friday and will hit VOD the same day. Polanski adapted the screenplay with David Ives, who penned the original play, which (bear with me) centers on a play based on a 19th century novel called Venus In Furs by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the guy who gave us the term “masochism.” The book was inspired by the author’s own life and follows Severin von Kushemski, who becomes the slave of Wanda von Dunayev, the woman he’s obsessed with, encouraging her to become the proto-dominatrix of his dreams.
The movie is more… BDSM-adjacent. Its characters, a pair of Parisians trying to put on a theatrical version of von Sacher-Masoch’s story, enact and discuss a sexy story of submission and dominance, but their power struggle is more creative than erotic, even as the clothes come off. Auditioning actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) and writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) are really contending over who better understands the material, and their battle is a delicious one involving flirtation, ego, and judicious costuming.
Venus In Fur is set entirely in a small theater at the end of a day of auditioning, where Thomas bitches over the phone about the flightiness of the actresses he’s been seeing, noting he’d do a better job at playing the lead role. When Vanda comes in, blowzy and brash, dressed in a thematically (but not period) appropriate dog collar and corset, he immediately writes her off, but she bullies her way into being seen, with him reading the other part. There’s a touch of magic to the way she’s got the perfect vintage gown to put on, that she shares a name with the character, that she somehow got hold of Thomas’ entire play and has it memorized.
Vanda nonchalantly claims to know the character of Wanda “inside out” before they even begin, and as she and Thomas go through the first scene, she challenges him about his understanding of his own work. Playing ditzy, she blithely refers to the book he defends as a “classic of international literature” as a “BDSM porno.” He calls it a beautiful love story; she suggests it’s a battle of class and the sexes. He’s sensitive about being seen as just an adapter rather than an author, but hides behind his source material when she calls him out on the inclusion of a line she finds sexist: “You will never be safe in the hands of a woman.”
Thomas and the character of Severin may blur at times, but Vanda’s basically Wanda from the play come to life to masquerade as a performer and offer a critique of how she and the story are represented. Polanski’s film is wonderfully light on its feet — it never feels hemmed in, though it also never leaves the space in which it begins — but it lands its punches, as Vanda toys with Thomas’ sense of vanity as a playwright who’s also directing for the first time because he doesn’t trust others to understand his work. “You really understand women,” she coos, but she’s goading him and his use of Wanda as a symbol and commodity. “He forces her to a game of power and then blames her,” she claims when Thomas describes what happens between the characters as mutual passion, suggesting both Severin and Thomas are just projecting their own desires onto her and challenging the idea that Wanda’s ever the one in control.
Putting personal events aside, Polanski’s portrayed plenty of nuanced, nervy gender dynamics in his past films (Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion offered outsized versions), but Venus In Fur is a small, late work in the director’s career that feels particularly of the moment, with its object of lust and emotional terror calling its creator out for how little thought he’s actually given her. As Thomas and Vanda (Seigner’s especially terrific in the role) make their way through the play, she reframes their duel without his noticing. He’s writing about games of dominance and submission, but she’s aware of the larger stakes. It’s not getting your shoe kissed that makes you a strong character, it’s having agency in your own story, and Venus In Fur stages a rebellion that has more to say about power than any BDSM scenario, classic or porno.