Venus in Furs seems to an astonishingly popular film title. I have no less than three movies of this name on my DVD shelves. What’s most surprising is that the three movies have almost nothing in common, but all are terrific movies.
The first was a truly bizarre and very surreal but absolutely fascinating 1967 American sexploitation flick, based very very loosely on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s famous novel. The second as Jess Franco’s 1969 psychedelic masterpiece, which has virtually nothing to do with the novel at all. The third is Massimo Dallamano’s version, also released as Devil in the Flesh (the Italian title being Le malizie di Venere). This is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel. And even more surprisingly, it’s a very successful adaptation.
Dallamano adopts the same method he used for his film version of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray the following year (and Dallamano’s film, known variously as as Dorian Gray or The Secret of Dorian Gray, is well worth seeing). He moves the action to the present day (which in this case is 1969 when the movie was made) and includes large helpings of sex and nudity. The end of the 60s proves to be an ideal setting for late 19th century literary decadence. And in both cases the generous amounts of sex and nudity are not only justified by the subject matter, they are essential to the overheated but decadent tone of the source material.
Severin is a wealthy and outwardly successful man, but he has some dark secrets. He’s been looking for a woman with whom he can share his special interests, and when he spots the beautiful Wanda (Laura Antonelli) he senses that she may be the one. He becomes even more interested in her when he watches her undressing through two conveniently located spy-holes in the wall of her hotel room. The hotel presumably belongs to Severin, and Room 171 has been provided with these spy-holes so he can watch women from an adjacent room.
Voyeurism is just one of his special interests. It’s a taste he acquired as a boy, watching the maid having sex with the gardener. On that memorable occasion the maid spotted him watching her and gave him a mighty slap for his troubles, and then (since she was actually very fond of the lad) having forgiven him gave him an equally enthusiastic hug. The combination of voyeurism, physical pain and then being hugged by a voluptuous naked woman formed his unusual sexual tastes, and these tastes have taken an ineradicable hold upon him.
When Wanda accidentally slaps him he takes the opportunity to tell her about his sexual proclivities, and he persuades her to marry him and to help him in playing out his fantasies. He wants to watch her having sex with other men, and he wants her to beat him. But he desires more than just physical cruelty from Wanda; he wants to be humiliated as well. He will play the role of Wanda’s chaffeur, driving Wanda to various engagements including her trysts with other men. She is not entirely happy with the arrangement, but agrees. It’s not that she objects to having sex with other men - she has never been monogamous anyway. But she’s not entirely comfortable with Severin’s strange mix of physical passivity and emotional manipulation. The arrangement soon comes under extreme stress. It also causes stress in the household. The two servants employed by Severin and Wanda are lesbians, and after watching Wanda disciplining Severin with a whip they start to play a similar game between themselves.
This is one of the few cinematic attempts to deal with the complexities and subtleties of a sado-masochistic relationship. While Severin wishes to be the submissive partner physically and sexually, he also wants to remain in psychological control of the games he and Wanda are playing. The dominant/submissive elements of the relationship are far more complicated than they appear to be on the surface, and there is in fact a power struggle being conducted by Wanda and Severin. When Wanda picks up a macho biker as her latest sex toy he too is drawn into these games.
Régis Vallée is quite good in the role of Severin, avoiding the temptation to play him as a milquetoast. The stunningly beautiful Laura Antonelli is equally good as Wanda, a dominatrix who is not sure she really wants to fulfill that role.
Massimo Dallamano is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Italian cult directors. His giallo What Have They Done to Solange? is excellent, and with Venus in Furs and Dorian Gray he shows himself to be extremely adept at combining sex, art and trash, a peculiarly 1970s skill that now seems to be lost to the world of film-making. Venus in Furs also has an abundance of visual style, with plenty of classic late 60s/early 70s sets. Régis Vallée as Severin wears either a business suit or a chaffeur’s uniform throughout the movie, so we’re spared the worst excesses of the men’s fashions of the period. Laura Antonelli oozes both class and sex, whether clothed or unclothed (and she’s unclothed for a considerable proportion of the movie’s running time).
The Region 2 DVD from Shameless lacks extras but looks superb. This is a true classic of arty eurosleaze, and I highly recommend it.