Carnage - and as we await his long-gestated Dreyfus affair project - Roman Polanski returns to the Croissette this year with Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure, 2013), a two-handed adaptation of the play by David Ives. The Ives production itself tells the story of an attempt to mould Leopold von Sacher-Masoch book Venus in Fur - which gave masochism its name and Lou Reed a classic song - for the stage. Mathieu Amalric plays Thomas, a busy theatre director and writer, who has spent a day unsuccessfully auditioning actresses to play Vanda, the role of the girl turned dominatrix of von Sacher-Masoch's novel.
Emmanuelle Seigner turns up late as an apparently inappropriate actress and demands to read. She obviously has very little understanding of the play, is something of a vulgarian, and Thomas is reluctant to waste any more time. His fiancée is waiting for him at home and there is a storm outside. However, Vanda is not all that she seems and when she begins to audition for the part, power begins to shift between the two; the roles of director and directed, man and woman and master and slave become increasingly open to negotiation. As with Carnage, Venus in Fur is a chamber piece, its theatrical setting suggesting that Polanski - for the moment, at least - has retreated into a more intimate filmmaking frame of mind.
A great deal rests on the ability of his main actors to entrance and interest the audience, and this is the film's strongest suit. Amalric is marvellous as the initially pompous but increasingly unsure artist, who is irritated, challenged and finally dominated by Vanda. Physically, he resembles Polanski and the casting of Polanski's wife of many years, Seigner, will obviously stir up comment about the autobiographical sources for this battle of the sexes. "Why does it always have to be about child abuse?" Amalric complains, and although this might provoke an uncomfortable shifting in the seats, it's Thomas who is the most challenged and criticised.
Of course, the most obvious criticism of Venus in Fur is that Polanski is simply advertising the theatre rather than moving cinema forward. His minimalism will certainly not suit all tastes. However, this is a clever and often hilarious two-hander, with Amalric and Seigner both giving the type of tour de force performance which could see either (or both) snatch an acting nod from the Cannes jury.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.