05/01/2014 11:54 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2014

The Sexual Battlefield of Polanski's Venus in Fur

From the starting gate, master filmmaker Roman Polanski has shown a predilection for power plays in claustrophobic situations. His unsettling 1962 debut, Knife in the Water, follows two men locking antlers over a woman set almost entirely within the confines of a small yacht. Carnage, his most recent outing, records the savage meltdown during a trivial dispute of two "civilized" couples in an apartment. Now the terrific new Venus in Fur, an erotic two-hander (adapted from David Ives' hit play, itself adapted from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella), follows a director and an actress as they jostle for domination, ever raising the stakes, in the single locale of a darkened Parisian theater.

While Carnage anatomized the struggle for class and status, Venus highlights a battle royale for sexual domination. Yet Venus is also about class, which may be lost on American viewers. The actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) is crude, gum-snapping, working class. The director Thomas (Mathieu Almaric) is an Intellectual, which in France would place him leagues above her. Not so much in the United States.

The plot is simple, classic and very French in its observation of the unities. Following a tedious day of auditions for his new play, writer-director Thomas despairs of finding an actress who can play the lead female character: a woman who makes a pact with her male counterpart to dominate him as her slave. The male character is in thrall, you see, to the erotic memory of a childhood whipping on a fur spread.

As Thomas is about to leave the theater, Vanda bursts in mid thunderstorm like an apparition, shutting the door on realism. Desperate and pushy, she's just the package Thomas hopes to avoid. But when she finally persuades him to let her try out for the part, voila, she's the perfect Vanda -- even down to sharing the character's name -- has researched the role, learned all her lines, and even brought her own props. Oh, and she's also handily wearing a dog collar. In a feat of craftsmanship, Polanski intertwines the pair dancing their master-slave tango in the play with Thomas's real-life craving for abasement and Vanda's eagerness to supply it.

Like Carnage, Venus is a filmed version of a play, with no effort to "open it up." It's even marked, as in a play, by "beats." And on some level the duel between Thomas and Vanda never opens up into some larger meaning or resolution. The titillating interplay and power struggle's the thing. Venus is all foreplay.

Yet Polanski has whipped up Venus into an actor's tour de force. It's hard to imagine a more electrifying -- at times sinister -- chemistry on screen. Though he holds up his end, Almaric is an acquired taste and I don't get why he's such a big deal in France. It's Emmanuelle Seigner who makes Venus a must-see film. In an additional twist, she happens to be the wife of Roman Polanski, who has brought to this fable a sulfurous whiff of his own past.

In David Ives' play, Vanda was a career-making role for Nina Arianda, who milked it for the dark humor. But the film incarnation offered by Seigner is nothing short of sublime. She has the features and commanding poise that reaches way back to the 17th century Comedie Francaise -- in fact, comes from a family of actors; the great actor Louis Seigner, star of the Comedie Francaise, was her grandfather. You can sense all that lineage, her face suggests the ancient face of Gaul. Which supports the uncanny quality Vanda must have, her provenance from Eros's dark side. Hardly a failed actress, Vanda has materialized from the mists of time, perhaps from the vault of Mr. von Sacher-Masoch.