Feb 27, 2015
Due to the fact that it has crossed my path countless times in my life, I recently decided it was about time that I read Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s most famous novella Venus im Pelz (1870) aka Venus in Furs, even though I am not a masochistic mensch who enjoys being whipped or generally mistreated by women in absurdly expensive fur coats. Originally a part of a rather ambitious epic six volume cycle (with each volume featuring six novellas) envisioned by the author entitled Das Vermächtnis Kains aka Legacy of Cain that was ultimately never completed (Sacher-Masoch only completed two of the six projected novellas), the work ultimately inspired psychiatrist turned sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to coin the word ‘masochism’ in tribute to the book’s perverted flagellation-fetishizing author and would go on to influence everyone from the Velvet Underground (who included a single entitled “Venus in Furs” with their debut album) to kraut carpet-muncher filmmaker Monika Treut (who directed a modernist lesbian reworking of the novella under the title Verführung: Die Grausame Frau (1985) aka Seduction: The Cruel Woman). In fact, von Sacher-Masoch’s novella has been adapted by a number of other filmmakers, including sexploitation hack Joe Marzano, slightly underrated Italian giallo maestro Massimo Dallamano, and most recently Roman Polanski, but none of these works are more faithful to the original work than a little known and considerably underrated black-and-white Dutch adaptation. Indeed, Venus in Furs (1994) aka Venus im Pelz was the stunning directorial debut of real-life lovers Maartje Seyferth and Victor Nieuwenhuijs, who are easily two of the most underrated filmmakers working in the Netherlands and have created a half dozen or so highly idiosyncratic and rather dark yet aesthetically resplendent features, including Lulu (2005), Crepuscule (2009), and Vlees (2010) aka Meat. Originally co-written by South African auteur Aryan Kaganof (whose contributions to the work were apparently mostly unused for whatever reason, though he is credited in the film under his birth name Ian Kerkhof in the film), the film is unquestionably one of the most elegant and seemingly visually immaculate and exceedingly exquisite S&M/BDSM-themed films ever made, as a work that makes being beaten and humiliated by a bitchy and superlatively shrewd woman seem almost pleasurable and ultimately makes Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) seem like a tasteless and equally soulless piece of senseless pseudo-erotic softcore swill on big budget Hollywood steroids. Aesthetically speaking, Venus in Furs is a positively penetrating piece of pure and unadulterated cinema of the rather refined risqué sort that oftentimes resembles a chiaroscuro and owes much of its absolutely entrancing majesty to German Expressionism, film noir, Dutch avant-garde auteur Frans Zwartjes (who was once Nieuwenhuijs’ teacher), and the black-and-white works of Ingmar Bergman and Mai Zetterling. In short, Seyferth and Nieuwenhuijs’ film features a sort of aberrant yet arousing aristocratic elegance and dignified decadence that is completely absent from contemporary cinema, be it European arthouse or otherwise. Indeed, if you're looking for a cheap and sleazy masturbation aid featuring used-up sluts with silicone tits and spastic editing, Venus in Furs is surely not for you.
Based on a cryptically autobiographical novel inspired by author von Sacher-Masoch’s experience of voluntarily making himself the the slave of a novice novelist named Fanny Pistor (who used the Slavic noble alias ‘Baroness Bogdanoff’) who carried out the writer’s fantasy to be regularly whipped by a cruel and wickedly demanding ice queen wearing nothing but a fancy fur coat, Venus in Furs depicts the doomed BDSM roleplay-based (anti)romance of an effeminate dark-haired aristocratic writer/artist and self-described ‘suprasensual man’ named Severin von Kusiemski (André Arend van Noord) who coerces his busty blonde lover Wanda von Dunajew (Anne van der Ven) into becoming his cruel master and even draws up a contract to make sure she will carry out their aberrant arrangement, which surely no sane man would ever think of, let alone obsessively desire. Told in a partly nonlinear yet seamlessly constructed fashion, Seyferth and Nieuwenhuijs’ superlatively sadomasochistic piece of intricately stylized celluloid will certainly be much more accessible to those that have read von Sacher-Masoch’s novel (in fact, I highly recommend reading the book before daring to watching the film). Near the beginning of the film in a strangely soothing yet foreboding scene where the two lead characters are lying on the ground after sex, prospective femme fatale Wanda mentions to her beau that she wants to go on a journey, so protagonist Severin asks her if she will sign a contract that he has written to make him her slave, cuckold, personal gardener, and all-around personal bitch boy so long as she agrees to become his ‘Venus in Furs’ and regularly whip him while wearing nothing but a fur coat. Notably, as written in the source novel: “Venus in this abstract North, in this icy Christian world, has to creep into huge black furs so as not to catch cold.” Of course, Christ's presence is totally absent from the film and Wanda ultimately becomes Severin's dark goddess in a hermetic sadomasochistic world somewhere between heaven and hell, though most viewers will certainly see it as more of the latter.
Although Wanda is initially reluctant to go along with Severin’s warped fetish-based fantasy, she ultimately gives in and eventually comes to love the power she holds over her increasingly weak and meek (non)lover, who she soon naturally begins to lose all empathy for, as no sane woman can genuinely respect a feeble man who takes orders from a member of the fairer sex. As Wanda’s slave and servant, Severin is forced to drop his aristocratic title and take on the common servant name ‘Gregor,’ which he is proud to be called to the point where he gets rather mad when his malevolent mistress mistakenly calls him by his real noble name. As Severin explains via narration, he developed his rather idiosyncratic tendencies when he was a young man after a distant aunt of his tied him up and whipped him until he begged for her forgiveness and kissed her feet in a life-changing experience that, to quote the protagonist, made him realize, “A fierce passion was awakened in me and ever since my aunt has been the most attractive woman in the whole world.” As Severin also explains, “At the age of ten, I laid my hands on a copy of THE LEGENDS OF THE GREAT MARTYRS. I read it with a revulsion bordering on voracious ecstasy.” While a handsome nobleman, Severin has dedicated his life to drawing sadomasochistic images and he is not even very good at that, or as he describes, “I live as I paint and write. I progress no further than an intention. A plan…A first act…A first line. Such people just happen to exist…People that start all kinds of things, but never finish anything. I am someone like that…A dilettante.” Unquestionably, as his undying dedication to being debased by a devilish dame demonstrates, Severin is only truly motivated by being brutally whipped by a beauteous babe wearing a fancy fur coat. In fact, Severin is so dedicated to his contract with Wanda that he makes a mockery of his noble bearing by carrying out proletarian jobs that include serving drinks to his master and giving her baths, mopping floors, and tending to a garden, among various other dull and tedious forms of unskilled labor. While in public, Wanda walks Severin around like a dog on a leash that is hooked to his nipples. While it seems like Severin will accept any and every form of degradation from waywardly wanton wench Wanda, the protagonist ultimately learns that every man has his limits when it comes to receiving abuse from a brutish blonde beastess.
While Severin is so severely and unwaveringly masochistic that he allows a trio of topless negresses to hunt him down and hook him to a cart like he is a horse so that he can give them a ride, the protagonist begins to feel some real internal torture when Wanda forces him to track down a marginally handsome and masculine Greek aristocrat (Raymond Thiry) that she has become infatuated with so that she can go on a date with him. Ultimately, Severin becomes extremely angry when he realizes that Wanda is simultaneously afraid of and infatuated with the Greek, who is depicted as a Byronic hero in the novel and who gives her the sort of martial masculinity that she hopelessly craves and the protagonist completely lacks. When Severin calls Wanda out on her infatuation with the other man and she responds by stating, “I will torment you until you hate me,” the protagonist becomes so irked that he falls out of his ‘Gregor’ character, grabs his ‘master’ by the throat, and forces her to get on her knees, thus momentarily obtaining the little lady’s respect again for the first time since the two began their master-slave relationship. That night, Severin suffers a nightmare that foretells his brutal fate and pathetically complains to Wanda that, “I dreamt you betrayed me.” The next day, Wanda ties Severin to a large pillar and asks him, “Do you still love me?” to which the protagonist replies in a groveling manner, “Insanely. You’re divine.” After a period of time of leaving Severin tied to the pillar by himself, Wanda returns, though she brings two friends that include a Sapphic lover and the stoic Greek. Needless to say, Severin feels betrayed and demands that he be released as he refuses to be beaten by anyone else aside from his mistress, so his master’s lesbo lover reads the protagonist’s contract that gives Wanda the full right to do with him whatever she sees fit, including allowing him to be brutalized by a rival male. Despite begging “not him,” Wanda gives the Greek the whip and the stoic fellow subsequently begins violently beating the protagonist. After Wanda and her carpet-muncher friend drop their fur coats and walk out of the torture room completely naked, the Greek brands the protagonist in a conclusion that is more delightfully dark than von Sacher-Masoch’s novel.
Notably, the real-life collaborative filmmaking relationship between Venus in Furs co-directors Maartje Seyferth and Victor Nieuwenhuijs does not seem all that different from the lead characters in the film, as while the former is responsible for ‘dictating’ to the actors what to do and penning most of their scripts (aka creating the oftentimes fetishistic filmic ‘fantasies’), the latter is somewhat the ‘servant’ and certainly the laborer as the man responsible for most of the technical aspects of the work, including the cinematography (in fact, Nieuwenhuijs is responsible for shooting every single one of their films). Of course, whatever the dynamics of their romantic relationship, I think it is rather revealing that Seyferth and Nieuwenhuijs would opt to adapt von Sacher-Masoch’s novella as their first feature film, as most men would probably be too embarrassed to co-direct a film with their partner where the male protagonist is a macabre masochistic cuckold who is violently whipped and branded by his lover's new ultra-masculine male fuck-buddy. In terms of its pleasantly preternatural structure, refreshing faithfulness to its source material, consistently oneiric essence, and erotic yet dark and forlorn aesthetic prowess, Venus in Furs is quite arguably Seyferth and Nieuwenhuijs’ most immaculate work to date. It should also be noted that the film is faithful to the message of von Sacher-Masoch’s source novel in regard to the perennial war between the sexes as reflected in protagonist Severin’s words, “That woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man's enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.” Of course, history has proven that von Sacher-Masoch was wrong in regard to his belief that both sexes can become companions when women are “equal in education and work,” as modern career-obsessed Occidental woman more or less acts as if she no longer needs man and even resents him, hence the increasing proliferation of S&M/BDSM and cuckold porn. Undoubtedly, it was to my great surprise that the novel features almost Weininger-esque criticisms of the fairer sex like “Woman’s character is characterlessness,” which are mostly expressed in a subtle and somewhat esoteric visual fashion in the film. As someone that finds cuckolds to be the height of emasculation and spiritual castration, I certainly could not relate to the pathetic figure of Severin, yet Venus in Furs ultimately proved to be an exquisitely erotic celluloid experience that brings a sort of moribund and decaying spirit to classical Occidental pulchritude, as a work that seems like it was directed by the sadomasochistic deathrock-obsessed bastard brood of Teutonic sculptor Arno Breker and true cinematic avant-gardist Frans Zwartjes.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:46 AM
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