Monday, July 21, 2014


Why are there adaptations? If the bond between a novel and its reader is so compelling, the immersion, the dreamlike experience of literature nourishing the imagination, is such a complete deal, why do we need it contained by other conventions like theatre or cinema? We are sitting in a cinema watching a noted film director's take on a playwright's take on a novel. The novel is by Sascher-Masoch who inadvertently teamed up with the Marquis de Sade to give history the term sadomasochism. As with the very best of anything that diverts us with its power we are in for some intense role play and reversal.

We rush through an avenue of storm bashed trees in the credit sequence in a pallette of steel blue and grey. Turning like a predator at the sight of a theatre we head in past the posters for something gaudy and unsuccessful and into the auditorium where a lone man on a stage is pouring anger into a mobile phone. He's frustrated at the range of actors he's been auditioning. They're all unsuitable for the gravity role of Vanda the dominatrix of his adaptation of Venus in Fur. They're young and too fragile or young and too bold and all of them are too distant from touching base with the character as he sees her. The story is important to him. His adaptation was written from compulsion. His identification with Severin and his complicated subjection to Vanda total. And then in walks Vanda.

As soon as she bursts chaotically through the theatre doors and stands as the most active eavesdropper you will ever witness, you know that it is her force you have been following through the storm to this barely warm refuge. Yes, her name really is Vanda, just like the character. She knows all about it this story taken from a Lou Reed song. In that way, little by little, this Vanda persuades Thomas the director to hear her as that Vanda.

We have been encouraged in this film's publicity campaign to recognise how Mathieu Amalric resembles the young Roman Polanski (the film's director) and that Vanda is played by Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. It's also inescapable to note, while watching that this story of adaptation is Polanski's adaptation of Martin Ives's adapation of Venus in Fur. What we are seeing works without knowing any of this but it does add a tang. And tang is what this piece is all about, the pleasurable sharpness, the irresistible ache, the lemon juice through the cream.

Vanda's chaos is so successful at disarming Thomas that he agrees to read the part with her. She has betrayed no knowledge of the role or its source and, while obviously forceful, she doesn't hide that her age puts her beyond the role; what can he lose by giving her a few pages of audition before getting back home to his fiancee and dinner? Actually, a lot.

Vanda not only has her own copy of the script, claiming her agent gave it to her, but a bag full of costumes and props (she enters wearing a dog collar and general SM style) but when he feeds her Severin's lines she responds with Vanda's without once looking at the page. Vanda the actress and Vanda the character are going to become by turns indistinguishable and antithetical. Thomas is going to phase within and outside of Severin. These are actors playing actors in an adaptation within a naturalistic setting but one that plays behind the proscenium arch.

There is a point to all this self reflexivity and also to the smoothness with which Polanski handles it. When we are meant to know that one of the actors is briefly stepping out of role to comment or consult we know. When the line needs to be more obscure it is so. Through all of this mask and bare face we begin to approach the hazards of the relationship at the centre of the source material, how it is like the act of staging, adapting and filming and offering an audience the opportunity of willingly entering into the risky contract of fiction. Like all good fiction this one and all the other layers of artifice it represents we don't know at the start who's on top or if we are going to like it that way.

Roman Polanski has never disappointed the way that Martin Scorsese has. Responding to changes in cinema fashion, having done his share of leading it, has not always been easy for him but I suspect the main reason that this is far more gratifying piece than he has presented for many a year is due to the rebooting it required: show your stagecraft as well as your cinemastery, bring your audience closer to your actors than in a more conventional film and you'll have them eating from your open palm. We do because we feel all that second by second, here. This actor's paradise film is almost entirely dialogue but is so constantly involving that we never think it's wordy. Seigner and Amalric, already familiar with each other from the dependency drama of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, go to town, overacting here and there because they can but also kid-gloving but beautifully subtle moments. I particularly love Alamric's take on Thomas' performance as Vanda as it channelled Polanski's own as Trelkovsky in The Tennant. Clever but effective even if you don't know that.

Through these two way mirrors, Polanski has taken us into the darker corners of adaptation and the contracts between the word, its speakers and we the audience. At the end of this process we had nothing to look at but ourselves but even that was fun. Here's an example: as I was watching it I imagined the final scene without the bamming Prokofiev music, imagining instead the sound of feet on the surface of the stage. It was good but it wasn't better.

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