Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Trapped in a room with Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski used to paint on big canvases.

A sprawling noir that penetrates every seedy corner of Los Angeles (Chinatown). A kidnapping thriller that meanders through modern-day Paris (Frantic). A holocaust drama about a preternaturally talented musician (The Pianist). An adaptation of one of the most beloved pieces of British literature (Oliver Twist). Actually, make that two (Tess).

Even when his settings were confined to comparatively small spaces, they dealt with heady, big-canvas issues (witchcraft/devil possession in Rosemary's Baby).

Lately, though, the walls have been closing in on the now-octogenarian.

The French language Venus in Fur marks Polanski's second straight film where his characters are like birds stuck in houses, flapping desperately at skylights, trying to get out of their prisons.

The first of these films, 2011's Carnage, is claustrophobia incarnate. With the exception of a brief scene at the beginning and a brief scene at the end (if memory serves), the entire story takes place inside one New York apartment, between two warring sets of parents. The movie runs a mere 80 minutes, but I felt every one of those minutes passing by.

Then Venus in Fur takes place entirely inside a theater between just two characters, as an audition by an actress morphs into an increasingly bizarre and in-depth reading of the play with the writer-director. This one runs 96 far-more-tolerable minutes.

I like Venus in Fur a lot better -- in fact, I like it a lot. But after finishing, I couldn't fail to notice that I had shifted viewing spots six times in those 96 minutes.

I started out sitting at the kitchen table. Then I moved out to the couch. Then, when I was getting too sleepy on the couch, I moved into the backyard for a little cool air. I repeated these same three hops before finally finishing the movie where I started: at the kitchen table. My laptop charged up a little of its battery on each pit stop through the kitchen table.

Feels a bit like I was that bird flapping at that skylight.

Like I said, though, at least all this claustrophobia is in service of a far worthier cause in Venus in Fur. Carnage I thought was just stagy and tedious. It did not seem like a remotely useful match between director and subject matter, and I wanted to punch all four of the actors by the time it was over -- actors I have liked, nay, loved in other contexts.

It was seeing one of Carnage's greatest flaws in Venus in Fur that brought the comparison to mind, though. One of the most annoying, overused devices in Carnage was characters almost leaving, but not actually doing so. It's the apartment belonging to one couple (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), so the other couple (Kate Winslet and Christophe Waltz) is always on the verge of beating feet. Except in the audience we know that they are never actually going to leave, because we've heard enough about the movie's format to know it all takes place in this one setting. So each time someone makes a move for the door but then calls an audible, it's incredibly frustrating because you can see right through the ruse.

Unfortunately, Polanski went back to this well in Venus in Fur, but not as outrageously. Not so that I felt a vein in my forehead start to pulse every time a character gestured toward an exit, anyway. But the math is a bit striking: There are no less than four separate occasions when the actress -- played by Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner -- fakes an exit and has to be coaxed back by the director (Mathieu Amalric). "Methinks she doth exit too much."

There's a funny literal meaning to the title of this post, as Amalric has basically been asked to do an impersonation of his director. Since I'm not familiar with the day-to-day Polanski, I can only be sure of Amalric's physical similarity, a surely intentional one. Amalric has the same hairstyle that Polanski wore in his younger years, and he looks enough like him in other ways that I almost have to wonder if this was one of the primary reasons he was cast. (Other than Amalric being one of France's most prized acting talents.) The fact that this is clearly a portrait of himself -- there's a running discussion of how much an artist appears in his own characters -- makes Polanski's project all the more interesting. Especially as it gets into the character's psychosexual proclivities.

What I wonder is why Polanski has chosen to shrink his scale lately. Sure, he has dabbled in claustrophobia before (Repulsion is a prime example), but before now he had plenty of open spaces in his films. I'd say that he's winding down now that he's in his 80s, but that hasn't stopped the likes of Clint Eastwood (84), Woody Allen (79) and Ridley Scott (77). (Yes, I get that only one of those guys is actually in his 80s. Leave me alone.)

At least the theater is used more dynamically than the apartment in Carnage. Not like the theater is used in Birdman, of course, but enough that it could generously be considered a character of its own. Even though that is a pretty hackneyed thing to say about a setting.

The real difference from Carnage is that Polanski seems to have something to say, and interesting actors giving dedicated performances with which to say it. This is an acting clinic by Seigner and Amalric, who explore the provocative themes from David Ives' play: gender roles and power dynamics, sado-masochism, the relationship between an artist and his/her subject matter, and so forth. It kept my attention, even if it didn't keep me in one seat.

One thing did bother me, though, so I'll just awkwardly squeeze it in at the end of the post, even if it doesn't really relate to the rest of what I'm talking about. Venus in Fur relies heavily on the two actors slipping in and out of "performing" -- they perform both real and improvised lines from the play, in character, and they also carry on a dialogue as actor and director. They can alternate between these two layers of reality with only imperceptible changes, and sometimes, we're meant not to know which lines of dialogue are spoken by the actor and the director, and which spoken by the characters they're playing.

Except we do know, thanks to a decision made in the subtitling phase. It was decided that the subtitles could be used to help differentiate between Seigner the actor and Seigner the character, and Amalric the director and Amalric the character. When the "real" version of each actor is speaking, the text appears in standard font. When they are playing the character in the play, though, the font switches to italics.

While this is superficially useful, it also spoon-feeds us something that a French audience wouldn't have. A French audience is left to detect whether it's the actor or the character speaking based on changes in inflection, tone and vocabulary. My argument, though, is that this is something you can figure out even if you don't speak the language. And I'd have preferred to figure it out myself, because these characters are supposed to be blending and blurring and crossing lines between reality and fantasy. There are moments we aren't supposed to know which is real and which is a performance, and that's kind of the point. Once I began fixating on the changes to the subtitle font, though, it left no doubt about how the director -- or somebody, anyway -- thought we were supposed to interpret the action currently on screen. I like being able to decide myself what any given moment means, and what degree of blurring these characters currently find themselves in.

Still, that's a tangential artistic decision and does not really have to do with the actual text of the film. Good job, Roman Polanski. You may still have some useful films in you after all.

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