IN Roman Polanski’s hands, David Ives’s Broadway play of the same name, based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel about the giving and receiving of pain as a sexual stimulus, is remarkably effective cinema.
People expecting an erotic buzz from it are backing a loser. Sacher-Masoch was concerned to bring masochism into the light and explain its sexual links. The intellectual processes underlying its plot are the dialogue-driven film’s predominant focus, with references to anatomical bits by words rather than explicit pictures.
A woman arrives late at an otherwise empty Paris theatre to audition for a play written by its director adapting Sacher-Masoch’s novel. They have never met. It’s his first play. At first sight, it seems that it’s her first try for an acting job.
She presents as an ill-informed ditz whom no director would engage in a fit. But after reading the first three pages of the script with her, he begins to realise that her behaviour to that point is indeed a virtuoso performance. Her desperate campaign to get the role piques his curiosity enough to continue.
As the pair proceeds with discovering each other, life begins to imitate art. The actress becomes Vanda, the woman in the novel. He falls into the thrall that her unabashed words and spectacular carnality impose.
Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner, magnificent as Vanda, and Mathieu Amalric as Thomas the playwright/director, bring impressive skills to a work redolent of live theatre and cinema. The material shines a useful light into the shadowy world where doms (dominants) and subs (submissives) play out the emotional and physical pain games that bring them sexual pleasure. And who among us may gainsay how consenting adults do that?
At Palace Electric