Venus in Fur / Roman Polanski and the man who invented masochism
Roman Polanski and the man who invented masochism
On the UK release of Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur Nicholas Blincoe returns to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novella, a sweetshop of seduction and suspense
by Nicholas Blincoe The Guardian, Friday 23 May 2014
Pulling strings … Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric in Venus in Fur. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar
Roman Polanski´s new film, Venus in Fur, sent me back to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella with every intention of writing a stern, authoritative appraisal. Inevitably, I was soon playing around with Google Maps as I plotted a journey from Lviv, the birthplace of Sacher-Masoch; through Nowy Sacz, home to Isidor Isaak Sadger, the psychiatrist who coined the term sadomasochist; to Krakow, the city where Roman Polanski was born. The entire trip would take no more than four hours by car, five tops, through the old kingdom of Galicia, now western Ukraine and Poland.
The term "masochism" first appears in Richard Krafft-Ebing's 1886 forensic reference book,Psychopathia Sexualis. So does "sadism", for that matter, but the Marquis de Sade had been dead for 72 years. Sacher-Masoch was very much alive, and aghast to discover how his name had been used. He was a famous author and social reformer, the editor of On the Highest, a radical magazine that fought for Jewish rights and female emancipation. Suddenly, he was a sexual preference. The term stuck. No one who has read Venus in Furswill be surprised to learn that Sacher-Masoch was a masochist, who was moderately successful at encouraging women to play along. Without his talent for persuasion, he might have been a very unhappy man – and he would certainly not have been a writer, because his gift for making the dubious seem plausible lies at the heart of his work. In Venus in Furs, Severin von Kusiemski convinces the lively and affectionate Wanda von Dunajew that her true, hidden self that he adores is cold and cruel. Wanda obliging turns herself into an ice queen. Sacher-Masoch is the kind of slave who is forever pulling the strings.
In Polanski's film, adapted with the help of playwright David Ives from his original play, Wanda is wise to the ruse from the start. The film opens in a theatre. Thomas, a director played by Mathieu Almaric, has been conducting auditions for his own faithful version of Venus in Fur (rendering the German title,Venus im Pelz, in the singular is part of this slavish fidelity. I like the conceit but I don't buy the translation: animals have fur, women wear furs, surely). Wanda, Polanski's real-life wife, actor Emmanuelle Seigner, sweeps into the theatre and cajoles Thomas into playing the opening and closing scenes of Wanda and Severin's affair. The theatre setting is a smart idea. In real life, playing along with a fantasist would be crazy. In theatre it is part of the essential contract between the actors, and with their audience. Wanda knows there is nothing innocent in Thomas's interest in masochism and that the theatre provides him with both a cover and an opportunity to explore his desires. The play revolves around a tease or mystery: is Wanda an actor or an impostor? A willing victim or Thomas's nemesis, sent from who knows where to make him really suffer, at last?
Polanski has often spoken of making films as disguised autobiographies. The parallel between his childhood and The Pianist, is fairly straightforward: Polanski's family was forced into the Krakow ghetto, his mother died in Auschwitz, his father survived Mauthausen concentration camp. His life appears in a more elliptical form in Oliver Twist, the story of an abandoned child; or in Amadeus, a play about a capricious talent that Polanski directed in Poland, taking the part of Mozart for himself. The suspicion that Venus in Fur is a covert memoir is strengthened because Polanski and Almaric look startlingly alike. Polanski was well aware of the similarity. Almaric is the lead in Julian Schnabel's film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and the role of his younger self is taken by Elvis Polanski, Polanski and Seigner's son, chosen because of this uncanny resemblance. According to Seigner, Polanski was anxious during filming that the similarity might be a distraction. Yet Seigner also remarked on the way Venus in Fur references an older Polanski film, The Tenant, in which Polanski appears in drag. When Seigner's Wanda forces Almaric's Thomas to wear women's clothes at the end of Venus in Fur, it is hard not to wonder if this is another example of both disguised memoirs and masochistic ruse. Could Polanski have staged the entire production for this one moment?
A masochist is a power-freak disguised as a slave. Perhaps this is why we speak of sadists and masochists in the same breath, and why Sadger's 1913 term "sadomasochist" gained such traction. (Sadger also died during the Holocaust, in Theresienstadt concentration camp). If we look for signs of compatibility in the literary styles of Sade and Sacher-Masoch, however, we are disappointed. They have nothing in common. Sade, for instance, is relentlessly obscene, while Sacher-Masoch is unimpeachable. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze remarked: "The most vigilant censor could hardly take exception – except perhaps to question a certain atmosphere of suffocation and suspense."
Deleuze wrote two essays on Venus in Furs, at either end of the 1960s. It was the start of a much larger critique of the significance of the oedipal complex in psychoanalysis. The reason that Sigmund Freud and, later, Sadger folded sadism and masochism together is that they saw them as mirror-images of each other, two different responses to the command to act like a father. In masochism the child recoils, and turns the implicit aggression of the demand inwards. In sadism, he is simply a little overzealous. Sade's brutal protagonists are often fathers, though they don't much care if their victims are their children or strangers. In 120 Days of Sodom, they devise ever more obscene and ludicrous punishments in a daily escalation of barbarism. In Sacher-Masoch's work, however, there is no sense of escalation. Indeed, there is almost no movement at all. The atmosphere of breathless suspense that Deleuze refers to is real, and undeniably arousing. There is always a sense that something dangerous is about to happen. The effect plays on one's skin; it is unnerving and it is entirely deliberate. This is where the pleasure lies, in the endless deferrals rather than the promised beatings.
Sacher-Masoch delivers an over-designed world, a sweetshop of seduction, filled with damask ottomans, rich tapestries and baroque paintings of goddesses and helpless mortals. He lavishes particular attention on the clothes. There is no mention of the "shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather" of the Velvet Underground song, but Wanda's clothes are recorded precisely, the satins, the linens – above all, the furs. The fashion and the soft furnishings suggest the lovers share the same tastes, and what we are seeing is complicity rather than coercion. The clothes are stipulated in the various contracts that bind Wanda and Severin (Wanda agrees, "I should always appear in my furs": Severin promises to wear the livery of Wanda's servant). Via these contracts, the lovers make their sexual identity into their legal identity, a very contemporary idea, that Sacher-Masoch might claim to have invented.
In his day, the kingdom of Galicia was the most ethnically diverse region of the Habsburg empire. Sacher-Masoch was of Spanish, Austrian and Slovakian descent and only learned German at the age of 12. Throughout Venus in Furs, sexual identity is confused with national identity. For instance, Wanda is spoken of as a tzarina, a Russian queen. Severin's uniform is "a Krakovian costume in [Wanda's] colours, light blue with red piping and a red toque decorated with peacock feathers … the silver buttons bear her coat of arms." Wanda employs black maids to tie Severin to a bedpost, and tortures a tragically voyeuristic German artist by commanding him to paint her portrait. Ultimately, she ditches Severin for a hot-headed Greek nobleman. The confusion of ethnicity and sexuality is apparent in Sacher-Masoch's very earliest fiction. He began his career writing compendiums of national folk stories, in which lovers play at being bears, or agree to be harnessed to small carts, or drink toasts from shoes. Given his later political activism, it is worth noting that he produced two volumes of Jewish folk stories. If his portrayal of Jews in Venus in Furs is any guide, he was not very different to the average antisemite, except that he imbued negative stereotypes with a positive sexual frisson. Severin buys his erotica from a Jewish print dealer; other Jews are portrayed as both panderers and seducers. His campaigns for Jewish and women's rights were no doubt sincere, but always hostage to his sexual imagination.
Polanski and Sacher-Masoch share a territory, this suffocating world of suspense. The three films known as Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" –Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant – show this most clearly. Polanski uses domestic interiors to build tension and deliver the most unexpected shocks; in Repulsion, the corridor walls grow hands and begin to paw at Catherine Deneuve. His two recent theatre adaptations, Carnage and, now, Venus in Fur revive these techniques, turning the limitations of theatre to his advantage. It is tempting to think of Polanski's heightened, sexualised world as a Galicia of the imagination. There is only one problem: the end. After all, you cannot defer a climax for ever, can you?