Roman Polanski’s new film, Venus in Fur, has emerged from Cannes and is starting to grace the screen of more local and accessible movie theaters. The film is strange, whimsical, erotic, darkly funny, often jarring and explores the dynamics of power between a tyrannical director and his actress. In short, it is very Polanski in style, mood, and subject. Many of Polanski’s works explore the evolution and dynamics of unusual relationships, the delicate psychological states of his characters, or the revelation of secret desires. Venus in Fur, to some extent or another, deals in all three. So if you like Venus in Fur, or love Polanski but his newest endeavor hasn’t reached your local theater yet, here’s a list of works to look into to keep you busy.
6. Bitter Moon (1992)
Venus in Fur reminded me in a lot of ways of Bitter Moon. While the story and relationships are totally different – and also in many ways the filming style itself – there is a familiar element of eroticism and the exploration of alternative sexual preferences, including references to S&M. Rather than someone perhaps discovering and exploring this underlying interest as in Venus in Fur, Bitter Moon explores the relationship of a married couple who employ these alternative lifestyles in order to fan the dying flame of their sexual attraction to each other. As time goes on, these attempts feel increasingly forced and desperate – a pair of people unwilling to let their relationship take its natural course as time goes by. Perhaps it is because they fear there is nothing between them beyond their sexual attraction. Regardless of their reasons, this escalation takes a strange and tragic turn.
5. Chinatown (1974)
Chinatown is one of the few and most classically Hollywood Polanski films. While the plot is ridiculous and over-the-top melodramatic, it is meant to harken back to the old Hollywood film noirs from the 1940s, but with an explicit and dark twist. Jack Nicholson, as with anything he does, is electrifying as private eye J.J. Gittes and brings Polanski’s dark humor to vivid life. The entire production, from direction to acting, is shrouded in an air of perfect and intense seriousness, which is part of what makes it such a subtly funny movie. The humor often times gets under your skin in a sneaky way, causing laughter at what might seem like the most inopportune and inappropriate times. And given the underlying themes of incest that brought us the iconic sister/daughter slapping scene (which is itself a little hilarious), perhaps that humor is meant to bring home just how uncomfortable the whole premise is.
4. Frantic (1988)
For a movie called Frantic, this Harrison Ford vehicle about a man trying desperately to rescue his kidnapped wife moves frustratingly slowly. And that’s part of the genius of this movie – that the slowness and ineffectuality with which Ford goes about tracking down his wife and the ransomers increases the sense of desperation we feel with every step taken to ensure her return. And we can see it in Ford’s face every second of the movie, the growing tension and panic, the fear and sweat. There is a wonderful scene at a nightclub with Ford and the woman who is helping him (Emmanuelle Seigner), where their mismatched dancing seems to cause Ford awkwardness – but really its his barely contained panic and helplessness. There is a moment where he crumbles, breaks down and clutches her desperately in his arms, only to have her pull away in the course of their dancing an instant later. That is a moment that has stayed with me from the very first time I saw this movie and will continue to be one of my favorite moments in cinema. It is tragic and beautiful and brilliantly acted.
3. Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958)
This is one of Polanski’s early short films, but already clearly showcases his love of the absurd, the dark, and the humorous. The film is about two men who come out of the sea carrying a wardrobe. They wander around different parts of town with their wardrobe between them and interact with the town’s various residents. However, pleasant and polite as they are, they encounter scorn, contempt, and violence wherever they go. Finally, unimpressed with the life they find on land, they decide to return to the peaceful ocean with their wardrobe. Its easy to see themes of irrational prejudice in this film, that the villagers hate and fear what is different and react to the two men with disgust and eventually violence. There are very serious, dark things lurking behind this abstract and outwardly whimsical tale of two fanciful men from the sea. You can find this and most other Polanski shorts on youtube, which are all worth a look (even his later shorts, which are basically star-studded fun ads for luxury items like Prada and designer perfume).
2. Knife in the Water (1962)
This is Polanski’s feature length film debut and definitely promises everything and more that he brings to his future films. The movie is about an upper class aging couple going out for a sailing trip who decide to indulge a lower class young hitchhiker. The voyage is anything but pleasant as even the most innocent and polite of conversation holds hidden meaning, poorly disguised contempt, and dripping tension. Predictably, relations begin to spiral out of control, not only between the couple and their passenger, but between the couple as well. There is a steamy sexual tension between the woman and the passenger which enraged the husband, eventually causing violent action. Much of the dialogue and the way it is delivered reminds me a lot of Harold Pinter, who could lace the simplest of statements with promising menace and restrained tension.
1. The Tenant (1976)
This is one of my favorite Polanski movies because it showcases so wonderfully Polanski’s acting talents. The Tenant is part of what I like to think of as the unreliable narrator trilogy with Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Polanski started his career as a young actor in films like Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (1955) and often appeared in his own short films. While his passion and talent clearly leans toward directing, there is something wonderfully vibrant and unusual about Polanski’s acting that speaks to his easy flair and early love of the craft. I cannot imagine anyone being better than Polanski in The Tenant as the private, polite, neurotic, and increasingly paranoid Trelkovsky. As with his other unreliable narrator movies, it is increasingly difficult to know whether what the protagonist is experiencing is real or merely in his head – especially considering the often absurd turn of events or outrageous plot twists.