Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ 10.1.14

It’s great to start off a new month with a much anticipated new film by one of your favorite directors. Polish director Roman Polanski is one of maybe 10 directors that have been around for decades that I can think of where I can honestly say that I’ve probably seen about 75 – 90% of their entire body of work.  That’s saying a lot considering the guy has been around making and producing feature films since the early 1960’s. If Alfred Hitchcock became the real first “psychological horror” director with his 1960 release “Psycho”. Then one could argue that Polanski was his successor. Polanski’s 1-2-3 punch of “Repulsion” (1965), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and still my favorite – “The Tenant” (1976) took art house audiences by storm. Polanski broke new ground in psychological horror and became one of if not the most influential directors in the genre during that time. Period. These days almost every time I hear about a newly original and inventive psychological horror film people will use the tagline “it’s reminiscent of early Polanski”. And with a couple of rare exceptions (Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” (2009), Rob Zombie’s “The Lords of Salem (2013)) it doesn’t turn out to do be true. He is the master of the slow burn, wait for it, pound you over the head structure But rather then being pigeonholed to one specific genre Polanski went on to make such great films as his 1974 masterpiece “Chinatown”, 1979’s “Tess”, and the 2003 film where he won his first Oscar for Best Director – “The Pianist” (though was not present to receive because he is exiled from America). Along with the aforementioned films I also thoroughly enjoyed Polanski’s 1988’s “Frantic”, his 1994’s psycho-sexual thriller “Death and the Maiden”, as well as his more recent efforts like 2010’s “The Ghost Writer” and 2012’s “Carnage”, the latter of which was adapted from the famous stage play of the same name. It was in this film that we first got to see Polanski start to get in touch with his more theatrical side.

“Venus in Fur” is yet another stage-to-screen adaptation based on David Ives’ Tony Award winning play which derives from the source novel by Leopold von-Sacher Masoch. The story revolves around a theatre director (played here by the instantly recognizable character actor Mathieu Almeric) who’s holding auditions for his new play. It’s getting to be after hours and auditions seem to be over. That is until a young, rather attractive woman (played remarkably by Emmanuelle Seigner) stumbles in though looking rather disheveled. The director at first seems put off by her neediness. His first impression is that she’s just an amateur just looking to land a role so she can get a paycheck. And because of this he practically shuns her off. However, she continues to be persistent and doesn’t seem to want to take no for an answer. So eventually he winds up throwing his hands up in the air, lets his wife know that he’s going to be late, and gives her the audition she so desperately wants. That’s when things really start to get interesting and the line between being able to tell their stage selves apart from their real selves becomes blurred.

I’ll first start off by saying this film really took me by surprise. Even given that it was Polanski I didn’t necessarily have high expectations for it. But even at the ripe old age of 81, Polanski once again proves to us here that he can really deliver the goods and shows us why he has been able to prevail as a film maker and still remain relevant throughout all these years. It’s simply a master class in the art of theatre. He does an incredible job grabbing the audience’s attention with the play’s razor sharp dialogue which would be nothing without the two exceptional leads. Both of which whom give very fine performances. The fact that it takes place on one single set with only two actors involved for the entire duration of the film yet still somehow manages to be so effective is astonishing. Polanski practically demands interest on behalf of the viewer, grabs a hold, and doesn’t let go. If anything the grip keeps on tightening. The chemistry between the two leads is nothing short of spellbinding. As if they couldn’t have possibly paired up a better set of actors with one another. It’s a total actor’s showcase. Anybody interested in what lies at the core in the art of acting is absolutely going to love this movie. It also boasts an incredible score by Alexandre Desplat who has achieved the remarkable feat of having been nominated for 7 Oscars in 7 years for his wonderful original scores. This highly effective one utilizes both strings and piano in equal measure perfectly to help drive the suspense on stage. The only reason why I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone is you really have to have a love for the craft of theatre to get into a movie like this. It relies solely on its two lead actors and very little action happens outside of the interplay between them. So in that respect I can see some people maybe being a little put off by its concept. However, for everybody else, it will be one of the more exciting, devilishly fun, suspenseful and thrilling stage-to-screen adaptations you’ve seen in awhile. It earned Polanski a Palm d’Or nomination (the equivalent of Best Picture) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and took home the Cesar (France’s Academy) Award for Best Director. This is the best Polanski picture I’ve seen since “The Pianist”. And, next to “The Selfish Giant”, is the second film I’ve seen this week that has already earned a spot on my top 20 films I’ve seen so far this year.

Grade: B/B+

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Review: ‘Stranger By The Lake’ 5.14.14

 

Already in contention for my top 10 films of the year. Certainly my favorite foreign film so far. I had known about this one during its short theatrical release at one of the art house cinemas in town, and had my radar on it beacuse I knew a couple of things – one, that it was a murder mystery & two, that it garnered some of the better reviews from every source around. So my expectations were that it was going to be something special. And boy did it live up to the hype. I also remember it being described in one review as “Hitchcockian”, but that’s such a loose term when talking about film I can only take it with a grain of salt. That being said, it reminded me a lot of the Hitchcock films I’ve seen, particularly the ones that emphasize evoking a sense of dread and paranoia. But almost as if it were by way of a Pedro Almodovar film (who incorporates a lot of Hitch’s ideas interwoven with themes of his own throughout his films). Without giving away plot details it takes place in one setting (a lake, hence the title) where men go around “cruising” (a nod to the Pacino film of the same name). There are 4-5 key players that make up the primary players, and a murder unfolds (done in a very observant way where he allows you the viewer in on the mystery unfolding while also questioning what you’ve seen). The rest of the film has you guessing character motivations, done masterfully might I add, as if you’re trying to solve the case yourself. Add in some exquisite cinematography, along with a very engaging and involving murder mystery, and you have most, if not all, of the elements a person could look for in a film of this genre. Highly worth seeking out.

Grade: strong B+

To Note: This film was nominated in almost every category at this year’s Cesar Awards, France’s equivalent of the Academy.