Venus in Fur

Last year I was at a bonfire on the beach when a woman mentioned to the group that she had just re-read Lord of the Flies and had found it lacking. The book is generally taught in classrooms as a treatise on human nature, so it was offensive to her that there are no female characters in the book. She wanted to know: how can you speak to all of our species when you don't even acknowledge half of it? Now, normally the punchline to this story is that I was drunk at that time and so my response to her coherent line of argument was: "if this was Lord of the Flies you would all be Piggy" - not "we would all be Piggies", mind you, but "you would all be Piggies" - but this time I'm not recounting this anecdote because I want to relate how charming I am when I'm drunk. No, I'm actually bringing this up because her point is valid: if you're going to try to represent the human race using a small sample size you have to be very careful about who you pick to be your sample.

Venus in Fur is a movie about an actor and a director rehearsing a play based on Sacher-Masoch's book, and the two performers keep moving back and forth between performing the text and fighting about what the text means in their "real" voices. Their interplay is constantly slippery, as there are points where they seem to have become the characters in the play, there are times when they yank us back into the meta-reality where they are "real" people pretending to be actors in a play, and there are even times when they seem to have completely switched roles with each other, both on stage and in "life". Because the movie is explicitly theatrical and because it intentionally blurs the lines between art and "reality" I can't really see either character as being people; they are clearly constructs that are meant to advance some positions and challenge other positions. The push and pull between the male and female character is obviously supposed to tell us something about who "men" are and who "women" are, but I don't think their stated positions actually have much relevance to most of the men and women I know.

The fact that the backdrop of the play is Sacher-Masoch's book is telling: his Venus in Fur is about the interplay of sadism and masochism, so any works based on that are going to be about the give and take of pleasure and pain. And while that's a perfectly fine thing for someone to want in a relationship, it seems cynical to me to assume that's something that everyone wants in their relationship. That cynicism becomes noxious if you push the point a little harder and claim that it's an inevitable part of any relationship; obviously there are give and takes in any partnership, but there's a real difference between incidental cruelty and intentional cruelty, and conflating the two strikes me as crass. I've been guilty of some of the sins that the man in Venus in Fur is guilty of, but never consistently; I'd like to think that being that condescending to women just isn't part of my constitution.

Because so much of Venus in Fur is a give and take between different perspectives on romance, that sort of objection is addressed in passing; I can't recall a single assertion that wasn't challenged inside the film's constantly adversarial back and forth. But that adversarial back and forth is why it's hard to give the movie credit for being ambiguous or balanced - it doesn't have an even tempered tone at all. Even if the text can be interpreted in open ended ways, in practice it obviously votes in favor of a "love is war" viewpoint. Which, again, is an acceptable viewpoint - but it isn't one that speaks to me at all, because while I can be argumentative, I'm much more easy going than either of the actor or the director are, because I'm basically not interesting in playing power games. I can see how the dynamic between the actor and director in Venus in Furs mirrors some relationships, but it also doesn't say very much about the many, many relationships I've seen which weren't driven by a need to "win". 

The comparison between Venus in Fur and Lord of the Flies is instructive in a lot of ways, since both are blatant allegories about how imbalances in power can lead to dissent and eventually revolt. But the real reason why I think the two are similar is because while they both have good points to make they both over-reach in a way that undermines their own relevancy. Before they can speak for all of us they would need to add a yin to their yangs; a female point of view to balance out the male point of view in Lord of the Flies and a generous point of view to balance out the antagonistic point of view in Venus in Fur. Until they do, they're only going to speak for part of us, even as they try to lay claim to all of us. 

Winner: Draw

Venus in Fur on IMDB