Art, Gender, & Desire: “Venus in Fur” (2013) starring Mathieu Amalric & Emmanuelle Seigner

Based on the Tony-winning Broadway play by American writer, David Ives, Venus in Fur is a 2013 French film by famed/controversial director Roman Polanski. Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), complains to his fiancee (on the phone) that no actress has what it takes to play the lead female character. Thomas is about to leave the theater when actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) bursts in, a whirlwind of energy. At first, she is pushy, desperate, and not prepared- or so it seems. Under her coat, Vanda wears a risque black leather and lace outfit (w/ a dog collar). Thomas reluctantly agrees to let her try out; he is stunned by her transformation. Vanda is perfect (even sharing the character’s name); she obviously researched the role, learned the lines by heart, and brought along some props! As the audition continues, Thomas’ feelings go from from attraction to obsession, and Vanda takes on a more dominant role in the story. Vanda comes to tower over Thomas as she becomes stronger.

This was Polanski’s first non-English feature film in over 51 yrs; I saw it several years ago (and didn’t realize he was the director). I re-watched it on YouTube (it’s available for rent). The lighting is superb and the music (composed by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat) is used very well. He moves the story from NYC to Paris, b/c Polanski wanted to work w/ his wife in her native language- French. Originally, Vanda was a 24 y.o. actress (thus her short resume) and Thomas was a young playwright (w/ a few plays under his belt). On Broadway, then recent NYU grad- Nina Arianda- made a name for herself (2010-2012) as Vanda opposite Wes Bentley and Hugh Dancy. In London, Natalie Dormer (The Tudors; Game of Thrones) played the role opposite David Oakes. Louis Garrel (who is young and conventionally handsome) was originally cast as Thomas for this movie. Amalric is middle-aged, w/ a small build, and dark/intense eyes. As some viewers noted, he resembles a younger Polanski. Amalric’s mother comes from a Polish/Jewish family; she was born in the Polish village where Polanski lived w/ his family before WWII. Directors don’t make decisions w/o a reason!

Forget that badly-written and adapted Fifty Shades trilogy! There are several layers to this clever story of power imbalance: woman vs. man (in the play set in 1870), actor who wants the role vs. director who decides who gets the role (in the theater), and man vs. goddess (Venus AKA Aphrodite). It’s also about life imitating art, hidden desires, misogyny, and role playing. Thomas has to read w/ Vanda b/c none of the actors are there; it turns out that he’s really into it. Thomas starts out directing Vanda, but later she doesn’t hesitate in directing him. She even knows how to adjust the lights in the theater- hmmm. They put on and take off clothing to create these characters, as is common backstage in the theater. They quickly and easily switch from being themselves to the characters in the play!

[1] Thanks to the brilliant connections between literature, stage and reality, and thanks to the many things that remain unclear about the character’s real identities and motivations, this movie sounds much more like a question than like a an answer…

[2] The characters conflict with each other perfectly, I don’t mean that they completely disagree on everything, I mean that they disagree on a certain number of things and they agree on a certain number of things for their characters to have great chemistry.

[3] What was most surprising for me is how much we laughed during the film. It was really hilarious…

[4] The mystery of who exactly Vanda is keeps getting bigger until it reaches deific proportions…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Shakespeare’s Globe: A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (2014)

This is a very appealing production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays that should get wide attention. The cast is good, John Light ably doubles as Theseus and Oberon, and Michelle Terry impressed me as Hippolyta and Titania. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Trailer for the production

The play (which I saw last week on YouTube) opens w/ a dance/battle, showing us that Hippolyta (Michelle Terry), the leader of the Amazons (a tribe of women), was captured by Theseus (John Light) during war. Terry reveals intelligence, sensitivity, and power. She makes a connection w/ Hermia when she is threatened w/ death or life as a nun (if she doesn’t marry Demetrius- her father’s choice). As the play goes on, Hippolyta’s proud manner turns to teasing of Theseus; they share chemistry and could have a happy marriage.

The fairy land ruled by Oberon and Titania is decorated w/ animal heads and full of mischief. The quarrel between the long-married king and queen (over an orphaned Indian boy) has upset nature. Light’s Oberon is charismatic and full of energy in his gymnastic moves; he can act tough, but also has a soft side. He sympathizes w/ Helena when she’s chasing Demetrius, the man she loves. Terry’s Titania falls for (the ass-headed Bottom) after being tricked by Oberon.

The young lovers (Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander) are cute, funny, and energetic.They become muddy and disheveled as they tumble through the woods together. Hermia (Olivia Ross- also seen in Killing Eve) and Helena (Sarah MacRae) show real pain and confusion as their friendship is tested. The young men, Lysander (Luke Thompson) and Demetrius (Joshua Silver) try to one-up each other. The mischievous fairy, Puck (Matthew Tennyson), is there to make sure they don’t hurt each other.

The Mechanicals are also clog dancers; the sounds of their arrival breaks into the goings-on of the lovers. This group of Athenian workmen are planning to present an entertainment for the Duke’s wedding. Led by the comic/anxious, Peter Quince (Fergal McElherron), they attempt at presenting the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe w/ seriousness (despite their lack of talent). Flute (Christopher Logan) plays Thisbe w/ sensitivity, though he is rather clumsy. Snug (Edward Peel) has to use his joiner’s skills to repair their little stage, even during the performance- LOL! Bottom (Pearce Quigley) starts out wanting to play all the parts; he also flirts w/ the (live) audience. The Renaissance music helps to bring it all together.

“What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) starring Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement

[1] The more you “know” about vampires, the more you’ll enjoy this!

[2] It pokes fun at every part of the vampire mythology without resorting to simply being a parody of other movies.

[3] …the wide range of comedy used, from slapstick to satire and everything in between, is probably the biggest reason why this movie does not feel forced.

[4] Some comedies try too hard to make you laugh and end up the character are being ridiculously stupid and unlikeable, but this isn’t the case, their character’s goofiness is so believable that you find their stupidity quite adorable.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The story follow the lives of Viago (Taika Waititi- before he hit it big in Hollywood), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Vladislav (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) – three flatmates who are just trying to get by and overcome life’s obstacles, like being immortal vampires who must feast on human blood. Hundreds of years old, the vampires are finding that beyond sunlight catastrophes, hitting a victim’s main artery, and not being able to get a sense of their wardrobe w/o a reflection-modern society has them struggling w/ the rent, chores, getting into clubs, and overcoming personal conflicts.

About 125 hrs. of footage was shot for this comedy/horror/mockumentary (which I saw on Amazon), most of which was improvised by the cast. Editing that down to a 90-minute movie took almost a year. Waititi and Clement (who are also the writers/directors) held screenings in the US after a successful Kickstarter campaign. This is the kind of fun/quirky movie that we need in these difficult (quarantine) times! There are a few scenes which include blood. The humor can get dark, which I’ve read is common in New Zealand. The actors- professional and amateur- have easy chemistry w/ each other. I was surprised by the quality of the special effects, which seemed quite good for a low-budget movie.

Each vampire is modeled on one from a famous vampire movie. Petyr (the oldest one) is silent/scary, resembling Count Orlok from Nosferatu. Deacon is like Bela Lugosi’s flamboyant Dracula. Vlad is like Gary Oldman’s Dracula. Nick compares himself to Edward from Twilight. Viago is sensitive/stylish like Louis- Brad Pitt’s character in Interview with the Vampire. Vlad refers to himself as “Vlad the poker,” a joke on “Vlad the impaler,” the 15th-century Transylvanian who was the main inspiration for Dracula. There is also a housewife/wannabe vampire (Jackie), a low-key IT guy (Stu) who befriends the vampires, and a pack of werewolves (headed by Rhys Darby- one of New Zealand’s top comics). Watch the trailer below.

“Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela” (2013) starring Ranveer Singh & Deepika Padukone

This Bollywood movie (directed by the prolific, yet shallow, Sanjay Leela Bhansali) uses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a frame; it is also influenced by works of American director Quentin Tarantino and (in my opinion) Aussie director Baz Luhrmann. In a village in Gujarat, Ram (Ranveer Singh) is more of a flirt (Romeo) than a fighter. Though his hardened father’s gang deals in guns, Ram manages a small theater showing porn films. In another part of town, Leela (Juliet) is the spirited daughter of a petite boss lady dealing in spices. Of course, their families hate each other; these communities (the Saneda and Rajadi) have been enemies for 500 years. Ram sneaks into Leela’s part of town for Holi w/ his pals; they fall in love at first sight. This movie brought these two actors together (in real life); they were recently married.

The landscape of this movie (shot primarily in Udaipur) reminded me of Westerns (of the American Southwest), This movie has (for the most part) good/catchy songs, most notably the mega-hit Nagada Sang Dhol (sung by one of Bollywood’s best voices- Shreya Ghoshal- and Osman Mir). In order to perform the fast-paced/energetic choreography for this dance, Padukone had to learn to do garba (dance). The costumes are unique, intricate, and colorful, as seen in other recent Bhansali films (Bajirao Mastani; Padmaavat). There is a mix of modern (incl. ripped jeans) and historical fashions. The chemistry between the leads is obvious; the director had them spend time together alone and at various events.

If there weren’t cell phones, movies, bullets, or guns shown, it could easily be a historical film. Guns are fetishized throughout; this may put off some viewers. The title translates to A Play of Bullets: Ram-Leela. Rifles are being sold openly in the village market, a visitor is shocked to see. At the slightest insult, men and boys from opposing gangs start shooting (like the Wild West). There is very little blood shown, as that’s the norm in Bollywood. Even the chilled out Ram wears an embroidered pistol holder at his waist. The lovers flirt using pistols; it was unexpected and ironic. There are Gujarati slang terms and curses which Ram uses, some viewers/critics pointed out.

This movie clocks in at 2 hrs and 30 mins; this isn’t unusual for this genre. Padukone comes off as confident and natural; her large/expressive eyes are her finest asset. There are not many well-developed supporting characters. Leela’s mother, Baa (Supriya Pathak Kapur), makes a big impression as the villain She has very imposing looks and a rough/world-weary voice. We don’t learn much re: Ram’s father, his older brother, or Leela’s scheming male cousins (who want to succeed Baa). Instead of the old Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (or feisty Anita in West Side Story), we have Leela’s sister-in-law, Rasila (Richa Chadha). She tries to help the star-crossed lovers escape town. Bhansali chose Chadha for her more “typical Indian features and dusky skin” (which is in contrast to the leading lady). In one standout scene, Rasila (who has confidence and toughness) escapes being raped by Ram’s friends! I’m sure that scene will be upsetting to some viewers, though it is a common trope in Bollywood.

Priyanka Chopra dances during the song Ram Chaye Leela Chaye Ram; she was up for the role of Leela years earlier (after Kareena Kapoor turned it down). Chopra (now famous worldwide) is a rather limited actress. I though that this dance was unnecessary; it didn’t flow w/ the movie and mainly involved moving her (quite toned) stomach. Chopra got a more meaty role in Bajirao Mastani. Speaking of abs, Singh was put on a diet of mainly fish, broccoli, turkey, and green tea to help achieve his look. He also worked out at a gym built specifically for him. However, great (or defined) abs don’t equate to great acting. I don’t see the point of having actors (male and female) go to such lengths when their time would be better spent in acting classes. Also, with this type of (shallow) material, actors can’t do much!

A Perfect Man (2013) starring Liev Schreiber & Jeanne Tripplehorn

The summary of this small, indie film is wrong. The man- James (Liev Schreiber) doesn’t fall in love w/ his wife- Nina (Jeanne Tripplehorn)- all over again when she pretends to be someone else over the phone. He has always loved her; BUT there was something lacking w/in himself. At the start of the story, the attractive/middle-aged/American expat couple have a VERY comfortable life in Amsterdam, Holland. James is the lead architect on an unique high-rise building; Nina is an editor working on the autobiography of a glamorous/world-traveling fellow American woman. They live in a spacious apartment, have many friends, and a big/friendly dog- Larry. 

She’s his “context,” but their relationship is NOT enough for him (as he has cheated several times in their 9 yrs of marriage). James’ definition of what it is to be a man is based on how many women desire him. Nina let him “have his space” and he found other women (incl. the wife of his older business partner). Nina finally reaches her limit and leaves their home. This makes him reevaluate what matters most to him in life. 

As Nina’s friend/writer- Lynn (Joelle Carter)- says: “Men are dogs. But I like dogs.” Nina and Lynn (who took her in) drink, dance, and discuss their lives one night. Lynn explains that she’s been thinking re: the differences between men and women TOO long. Yet Nina still wonders what she did, or didn’t do, that caused their relationship to break down. This movie (in my mind) raises more questions that it answers! Are people TOO blase re: cheating? Is marriage (in the traditional sense) dead? Why can’t we communicate better w/ the opposite gender?

This film (made w/ only $5M) could’ve been SO much better! Scenes abruptly end sometimes, as if they ran out of editing dollars. The leads are quite good; they have that unspoken chemistry (which is needed to portray a long-term couple). I always like seeing Schreiber; he immerses himself into every role (though he still has that recognizable NYC accent). It’s TOO bad that Tripplehorn (who has a VERY expressive face and looks amazing) didn’t get more meaty roles in her 30s and 40s. I wanted to know more re: the supporting characters, incl. James’ outgoing mother- Abbie (theater vet Louise Fletcher)- who had several marriages. I did like how the movie ended- full of hope and possibility. When people share so much history, it’s hard for them to walk away from each other.