Arriving late for an open-call audition, an actress, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), tries to convince a first-time director and playwright, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), that she’s perfect for the lead role in his production, a staged version of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel, “Venus in Furs” (the author’s name is where the term “masochism” originates, so that should give you a taste of the novel’s themes). Coarse, shallow, and a bit ditzy, Vanda doesn’t seem to fit the elegant vision Thomas has in mind, but when he reluctantly agrees to let her read anyway, she gradually reveals herself to have a significantly better understanding of the material than he does.
Despite claiming to have only skimmed the script, Vanda seems able to recite the writer’s words as if they were her own. As the pair read off the scripted pages, slipping in and out of character, the lines between and performance and reality begin to blur. The audition escalates into a competitive game of dominance between director and actress, creating a provocative exploration in gender roles and power dynamics. Director Roman Polanski deftly adapts David Ives’ 2010 Tony-nominated play, but the film belongs to Seigner. Polanski’s real-life wife, the actress gives a magnetically ferocious performance, appropriately alternating between sexy and terrifying. Amalric plays Thomas as a dead-ringer for a young Polanski, adding more layers of meta commentary to sift through.
Aside from the confounding artistic decision to use italicized subtitles to distinguish when the characters are reading lines from the play, which has the effect of making their interplay significantly less ambiguous, Polanski brings a light touch to the material as he examines sex, power, art, and the place where the three intersect.