This French film is based on the play of the same name by American David Ives, which was in turn inspired by an Austrian novel written by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (whose work gave the world 'masochism').
The film won Best Director for Roman Polanski in the 2014 French Cesar Awards. Interestingly, the film features a main actor who looks like Polanski, and the main actress is his wife. It is a two-person movie, set entirely within a theatre in Paris.
The film begins with a French director, Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric), auditioning actresses for a play. The play is based on a novel about sexual attraction, but the detail of its plot is not discussed.
The audition is unsuccessful, and afterwards,Thomas complains on the phone to his fiancee about the lack of talent that he has just seen. As he goes to leave the theatre, a young actress, Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner) enters from the rain outside.
She is wet, distressed, and aggressive, and she wants the director to let her read for the part. Paradoxically, she has brought along props and costumes that are well suited to it. Thomas relents and agrees to audition her, and for the audition, he takes the role of a man, who enjoys the feel of fur and likes being dominated.
In reading for her role, Vanda seems to know every line of the play, and she shows Thomas that she has an insightful grasp of the character she is supposed to be. The audition proceeds and, as it does, it slowly becomes an intense experience for both director and actress. The attraction of Thomas to Vanda turns from bewilderment to intrigue to obsession. Vanda's attraction to Thomas turns from an attempt to seduce Thomas, to the discovery of the thrill and power of her sexual hold over him.
The film is about the dark side of human nature, and both Vanda and Thomas try to dominate each other. Their interaction becomes sexual, as Thomas attempts to humiliate Vanda, who in turn flirts with him suggestively. He weakens as she assumes power.
The film, as a whole, heavily emphasises sex, and fetish practices, but it engages in sexual innuendo, rather than explicit sexual activity. It is about the psychology of dark attraction, rather than a physical exploration of it, and it is about sexual role-play rather than sexual enactment. The film skirts the line between passion and perversity, and pleasure and pain.
This is classic Polanski territory where Polanski typically extracts as much sexual tension as he can from the attraction of one sex to the other. As in other movies he has made with a similar theme. the dividing line between reality and fantasy blurs, and as the film progresses, it becomes difficult to detect whether Vanda and Thomas are playing themselves in real-life or two people, who are engaged in role-play.
The events that are played out are uncomfortably akin to masochistic display: men try to dominate women sexually, and vice versa, and gender easily crosses its expected boundaries. This is an art-house movie for Polanski-lovers that demonstrates a darkness that hides the joy of humanity.
It aims to capture provocatively the enormous and bewildering complexities that can exist at times in human relationships, but the assertion of equality might have had a kinder treatment.
- Peter Sheehan, ACOFB
Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric. Directed by Roman Polanski. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong coarse language and sexual references). 96 min.