Venus ascending

I keep hearing about Venus lately.

There’s the novel by Sacher-Masoch, namely Venus in Furs.

Yes that’s the Sacher-Masoch whose name has been immortalized in the word masochism, a reminder that sometimes fame isn’t always desirable.  You write a novel and your name is immortalized as a pathology?

Great.

Then there’s also the play called Venus in Fur, by David Ives that premiered in 2010.  It was produced in Toronto a couple of times.

I avoided it, at least until now.  Why?

Ives adapted the novel in 2010. I also took a stab at it, writing an opera called Venus in Furs back in 1999.  It was a very quick and hasty adaptation that had to be rushed to the stage at the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama (as it was then called).  When opportunity knocks, such as a festival with an apt theme for such a work, you get it done; nobody ever gives you enough time.  And so, knowing that I wasn’t really happy with my 1999 adaptation and hoping to return to it again, I avoided seeing the play.  You might call that something like anxiety of influence, but when I know I’m going to be revising something I would prefer not to see how someone else has done it.  Please God let no one accuse me of stealing someone else’s idea.

And so it’s a funny thing that last week I heard about Roman Polanski’s 2013 film adaptation of Ives’ play, and decided to grab the DVD and see it, finally confident from what I’d heard that we really were so completely dissimilar –me with a crowded stage, him with only two personages, me setting it more or less back in the time, him modernizing it– that any fear I might have had was groundless.  Our approaches are so different that there’d be no danger in seeing the film or the play.

I’m wondering if it’s an omen that lately Venus is coming at me from all sides.

In the last week

  • A friend quoted passage from Sacher-Masoch’s novel on Facebook
  • Ives’ play came up in conversation with strangers, praising the Canadian Stage production
  • Another friend said he’s seeing the play in England
  • …and published his review

And I’ve been talking to a director about a revival of my own piece.

What stunned us as we watched Polanski’s film was the conflation of several realities.  Sacher-Masoch is almost forgotten, or perhaps irrelevant in this modern treatment of the subject.  Ives uses the novel as a pretense for something more up to date.  The novel is clumsy and wooden in comparison to what Ives accomplishes. And Polanski doesn’t leave himself out, as his own sordid past, or at least the popular mythology about that past, becomes part of the frame for the picture.  That’s amplified by Mathieu Amalric’s remarkable resemblance to a younger Roman Polanski.  At first we wondered: were we watching Polanski himself on the screen?

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, notice the resemblance.

And so, in this script about a playwright adapting and directing Sacher-Masoch’s novel, there’s that additional layer when we see the film-maker also implicate himself.  Do we really know what he did, what he’s been accused of?  Nope. But that mystique, that aura, lurks in the air like cheap perfume, something that Polanski is perhaps using to play with us, having it both ways I suppose.

There’s almost no Sacher-Masoch in the film or the play, just a couple of indirect allusions.  It’s rather funny when you realize that everyone knows who and what Sacher-Masoch is, while most people have not bothered to read his tawdry little book.  Ives creates something quite different, and Polanski brings it faithfully to the screen.  Emmanuelle Seigner is literally a towering presence in the inevitable power struggle that is at the heart of the play & the film.  I’m not sure how interesting it is. Yes we see where it’s going, and isn’t it clever the way the novel and the modern reality of staging an adaptation seem to melt together.  Beyond that cleverness, I’m not sure there’s much more to it than that.

I want to be persuaded and moved, I want passion and excitement, and somehow I wasn’t given the magic I craved.  I may have a conflict of interest, naturally, so maybe my opinion can’t be trusted. I wanted it to be really good. Perhaps it’s better live in the theatre, watching the tussle between the two principals.

Now I have to go find a production somewhere to find out.

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