Plays adapted into movies always feel naked by the time they make it to the screen, their theatrical bones showing through in a most unbecoming way. That's mostly true of Roman Polanski's screen version of David Ives's Venus in Fur, in which a playwright and first-time director, Mathieu Amalric's Thomas, expresses exasperation over the number of shallow, gum-snapping actresses who have had the temerity to audition for his Very Important Play -- only to be undone by shallow, gum-snapping Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), who understands his material better than he does.
At first, Vanda, with her chalky black eye makeup and smeary red lips, looks too tawdry to fulfill Thomas's ideal, with none of the depth he's looking for. But moment by moment, she masters the power game at the heart of Thomas's play. You can see the big reveal a mile away; it comes vamping right at ya, with exaggerated, swaying hips. But Venus in Fur ends up being more fun than it promises, thanks to Polanski's light touch and his unrepentant impishness. Though picture is modest in both its goals and its scope, even as Venus in Fur talks out its ideas, you can make out the curvy shape of eroticism beneath its surface.
Ives's material, purportedly exploring dark sexual gamesmanship, might not cut as deep as it thinks it does. Its ideas are clever and intriguing, but as with the play Thomas himself is mounting, their power depends on the ferocity and humor of the actors. But Seigner and Amalric are fun to watch, and Polanski orchestrates this cat-and-mouse game with devilish delight, dancing around Ives's play as if it were a pagan bonfire.