The Thrill of the Lash

Roman Polanski’s film version of Venus In Fur – a sexual tug-of-war between a submissive director and a mysterious, sexy actress – is smart, funny, entertaining, and very pervy.


I’m too tired to read when I get home, so start to watch Roman Polanski’s film version of David Ives’ play Venus In Fur. The film had such a short cinema run here that it was over before I or anyone else saw it – though I’m amused to see that it’s this month’s top-selling film on the Curzon film on demand website. It seems that les rosbifs would prefer to watch racy S&M-themed films at home with the net curtains drawn than in a cinema.

The film is great fun, and pleasantly kinky, befitting the text which it’s named after: Venus In Fur, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novella about a young aristocrat named Severin who convinces an older woman, Vanda, to dominate him and let him become her love-slave. Like the Marquis de Sade,  Sacher-Mosoch is better known for his name than his writing – the word “masochist” was derived from his name.

Ives’ play updates Sacher-Masoch’s story to modern times. A blowsy actress (the fantastic Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives late in the middle of a thunderstorm to audition for a stage adaptation of Venus In Furs. She’s dripping wet from the rain, dressed in a cheap hooker’s outfit, and hilariously uncouth. “It’s S&M porn, right?” she says of the script. The exasperated playwright-director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) splutteringly defends the novel as a love story and suggests she’s not right for the part. The actress begs and cajoles, and casually mentions that her name is Vanda – the same as Sacher-Masoch’s sadistic heroine. Sufficiently intrigued, or perhaps just worn out, Thomas lets her read.

As the audition progresses, things get very strange. Vanda is able to recite the entire play from memory (despite having said she only glanced at a few pages from the script) and vanishes into the role of the stately dominatrix with frightening ease. Thomas becomes transfixed, and quickly assumes the role of the submissive. Chaos follows.

Ives’ script, translated into French for the film, feels very Proustian in its exacting analysis of subtle shifts of power between the duo. Each line becomes a teasing riddle, as you try to make out where reality ends and performance begins, or who exactly is directing whom. Vanda’s identity is never quite made clear. One minute she’s effortlessly seducing Thomas, the epitome of Sacher-Masoch’s fantasy of the dominant sexualised woman; then just as quickly, she’s angrily attacking Thomas for the misogyny of the script. Is she the embodiment of his fantasies, an avenging goddess, or just a surprisingly gifted actress? Though the answer is “revealed” in the final scene, the film finds room to embrace doubt.

There’s an added level of delight (and dread) in Polanski’s casting. Amalric is a dead ringer for a younger, Chinatown-era Polanski, and he’s playing opposite Seigner, who is Polanski’s wife. We’re invited, playfully, to read the script as a slice of psychodrama from Polanski’s marriage. Or perhaps it’s Polanski’s tongue-in-cheek take on the sado-masochism existing in any director-actress relationship. Either way, it adds a deliciously weird layer of uncertainty to a story about the treacherous nature of identity.

As a film, Venus In Fur doesn’t quite pop with the explosiveness that the script promises. There’s a particular magic to watching two people interact with each other live on stage that simply can’t be replicated as well in film. That being said, the actors slug it out satisfyingly like a pair of prizefighters. It’s an engrossing tug-of-war that lasts right up until – and perhaps beyond – the final frame.

The referencing of Sacher-Masoch interests me, as he also seems to have been an influence on Proust. One of the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time features a gay character, Baron de Charlus, who the narrator later discovers in a male brothel. I seem to recall a scene in Time Regained, Raoul Ruiz’s 1999 film of In Search of Lost Time, in which Charlus (played by John Malkovich) is tied up and flogged. Less obviously, romantic masochism seems to form an extensive part of In Search of Lost Time, which is filled with hapless lovers like Swann, suffering exquisitely at the hands of the withholding Odette, or the narrator himself who is obsessed with Albertine.

It’s curious that despite our modern openness about sexuality, and the “release” of S&M practices into the mainstream, we’re no nearer to understanding or navigating human sexuality. All we have, it seems, is the dance (or in Venus In Fur‘s case, the tug-of-war) – and what a splendid thing it is, too.




Savage Proust

Savage Grace tells the tale of the Mother of all dysfunctional mother-son relationships. There’s a Proustian quality to its depiction of the idle, supremely unhappy rich. 


Tom Kalin’s 2008 film Savage Grace is based on the very creepy true-life story of Barbara Baekeland, an insecure gold digger who marries into money and forms the centre of a severely dysfunctional family. It’s that most rare of things – an American film that attempts to parse the subtle vibrations of class warfare and social exclusion.

In an early scene, Barbara (played by Julianne Moore) is out of her depth at a dinner party with her husband’s friends, and is desperate to be seen as high-class and sophisticated. So she does what every social-climbing arriviste does – drops French phrases into conversation, and randomly references Proust. “Was Proust truly a homosexual? Qu’est-ce que tu penses?” she asks a disinterested literary critic. Cue stunned silence as the critic smiles nervously and fumbles for a response, and everyone else rolls their eyes at her gauche pretensions. Barbara follows it up by having her son Tony (then aged at about 10, I’d guess) read aloud to the dinner guests from the Marquis de Sade’s pornographic novel Justine, presumably to show everyone how avante-garde she is by allowing her children to read “transgressive” literature.

Unfortunately for Barbara, the horrors described in Sade come to life in her own story. Her husband Brooks, the heir to a plastics fortune (his father, Tony’s grandfather, invented Bakelite), is a soulless dilettante, with a fondness for rough anal sex with his wife in hotel rooms. Barbara develops a suffocating co-dependent relationship with Tony, the kind of which all great Oedipal dramas are born. True to form, Tony grows up to be painfully shy and a closeted gay. Brooks sweeps in and carries off Tony’s girlfriend, eventually divorcing Barbara. Mother and son move closer together, and eventually settle in London, where they start to resemble husband and wife. Barbara develops an incestuous relationship with her adult son Tony, in an apparent attempt to “cure” him of his homosexuality. In the film’s hair-raising conclusion, Tony, clearly in the grip of a psychotic breakdown, stabs and kills Barbara in their Chelsea flat. Leaving her on the kitchen floor to die, he calmly uses the telephone to order a delivery of Chinese food.

Unfortunately for Tom, the Proust reference turned on him, like a bad prawn in Tony’s Chinese takeaway meal. Reviewing the film for the New York Times, A. O Scott, compared Savage Grace unfavourably to Proust:

Even as it tries to be suave and nonjudgmental, “Savage Grace” has some of the breathless salaciousness of Barbara’s question about Proust. It lays out the facts of the case with the false nonchalance of a seasoned gossip, professing not to be shocked by anything even as it expects you to be.

Bisexuality! Marijuana! Anal sex! A father who sleeps with his son’s girlfriend! A son who sleeps with his mother’s boyfriend! All of great intrinsic interest, to be sure, but “Savage Grace” doesn’t seem quite sure of how to communicate its own fascination with such doings, whether to convey shock, envy, pity or bemusement. Proust might have known what to do with the Baekelands, but Mr. Kalin and Mr. Rodman [the screenwriter] don’t make much more of them than the mess they apparently already were.

Ouch. A little Proust reference sure goes a long way.


Little Monsieur Sunshine

Steve Carrell’s wonderful performance in the film Little Miss Sunshine is a Proustian moment all of its own – and a surprisingly accurate insight into our fears of tackling big Proustian missions in our own lives.

The mere mention of Proust’s name seems to conjure high-minded intellectualism and an autistic inability to connect with the headier pleasures of modern life.

An amusing contemporary reference to Proust is the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, which features Steve Carrell as a morbidly depressed gay Proust scholar. At the start of the film, Carrell’s character attempts suicide after losing his post-graduate student lover to a rival colleague who’s overtaken him as “America’s Foremost Proust Scholar”. After his suicide attempt, he’s required to move in with his sister’s family, and gets taken along like damaged goods on an ill-advised road trip to a Californian kiddie beauty pageant.

Like his literary muse, Carrell’s character is withdrawn, pedantic, narcissistic, self-involved and self-pitying. It helps that Carrell looks rather like Proust, with the same straggly beard and those big mournful looking chocolate lozenge eyes, expressing an affecting sense of confusion and uselessness out in the big wide world. He pulls off a remarkable feat of making an audience feel sympathy for a withdrawn elitist, who before long is throwing his lot in with the regular people. “I’m the foremost Proust scholar in America!”, he pants as he helps kick-starts the family’s ailing Combi van and runs behind it, throwing himself through the van’s sliding door into safety.

Carrell’s character articulates the secret fear that many of us have about reading Proust, falling in love, or attempting anything that requires time and energy and requires us to focus on certain things and exclude other possibilities. What if you get to the end of it all and it wasn’t worth it? I have this fear about reading Proust, as I have fear about almost anything I do. What if, in choosing to do something, I lose the chance to do something else which may be more rewarding? How do I know that the choices I make will be worth it in the end? What if I finish my year of reading Proust and find myself a year older and no more enlightened, enriched or shaggable than I am now? Is there any guarantee in life that the result will justify the process to get there?

If you stick with this line of thinking for too long, you start to wonder how anyone gets out of bed in the morning, and the thought of Marcel’s cork-lined room seems more and more appealing. But I’m not ready to be a shut-in yet. I want to see if Proust is more accessible than his reputation suggests – to see if he’s funny, to see if he can get me off, or to see if he can teach me something.