Peter O’Toole has had many magnum opuses (opi?). And many a magnum. In Venus, as Maurice, he is simply out of this world. Always one of my favorite actors, he absolutely beams here. Vanessa Redgrave, as Valerie? Ditto for her. In this film, both of these stars shine as they have never shone before. Despite their advancing age and longevity on film and stage, they have lost none of their edge-of-your-seat ability to communicate.
Venus is the story of a young girl and a very old man—actually, two very old men.
Venus is also supposed to be a story of redemption and self-discovery. For Jessie, meeting these old men will be her undoing. Naturally, undoing Jessie is just what the doctor, and civilized society, ordered. She is a stinker, a real handful of resentment and hatred. Of course there is a reason for this; no one has really ever loved her or treated her right without taking advantage of her—until Maurice. His problem, of course, is that he too has ulterior motives for treating Jessie right. He loves her. He imagines she could be his girlfriend, doddering old fool that he is.
Jessie comes to live with her great uncle Ian, who is curmudgeonly, lovable. He thinks that Jessie is coming to help him with his medications and housework. Yes, that happens; but to his great disappointment Jessie can neither cook, clean, nor care. She is too self-absorbed. But so is Ian. Maurice, by contrast, is jocular and semi-famous, and tries to treat Jessie like a lady. So he gets the nod as her main companion. He is enraptured by her and begins to dream that he is still a ladies’ man. Jessie dreams a different dream.
Yes, Venus manages to be about redemption and self-discovery. It is all that, and the message is clear enough. What makes the message a bit foggy, though, is that Jessie’s redemption takes a weird turn.
Early on, Maurice gets Jessie hired as a nude model in his art class. (By the way—this is truly an hilarious scene). She won’t pose for anyone she knows, so Maurice excuses himself from the class. Her modesty is not genuine, but it is modest nonetheless. She feels a little betrayed and pimped; but she gets over it and shyly poses. She is curious why Maurice calls her Venus.
He takes her to a museum and shows her the famous nudes of Venus from the classical period. There, she starts to get it. She finally loses her modesty and proudly poses nude—later, of course, after she has found redemption. I told you it was foggy.
The film makes use of a bit of fast-motion photography that seems a bit of a distraction—not that it is irrelevant; it is just jarring. For the most part, the pace of the film is relaxed and comforting. Yet this short high-speed transition, employed while marking a change in the story and a transformation in Venus/Jessie, is a bit abrupt.
That being said, one of the truly artistic aspects of this movie is its keyhole-style cinematography. Lots of closeups of objects alongside actors’ faces. Lots of shots behind banisters and from unusual locations. Closeups of a coat sleeve, shots in which someone appears to be walking in front of the camera; stuff like that. Despite the old-age pacing of the movie, this photographic style lends a strange counterpoint to the story. Director Roger Michell and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos use the technique to enhance the tension between Jessie and Maurice—especially as these shots are employed mostly when Jessie and Maurice are together. “The screen is our keyhole,” as Pauline Kael once commented, “and we are the voyeurs.”
The sexual tension between Maurice and Jessie doesn’t quite work, though. Jessie, true to her adolescent revolving character, is impish, serious, sensual, flirtatious, and manipulative. She tries to share part of herself with Maurice but is also repulsed by him and ends up frustrating him. I admit that I did not understand any of this. Jessie bribes or rewards Maurice in ways that come across as suggestive and erotic, but out of reach. In short, mean. She at once titillates and denies him. But perhaps that’s an intentional metaphor for this film.
Venus is an arthouse film, filled with dark humor that may or may not play well in Peoria. Despite great characters and one of the best displays of acting by seasoned actors since On Golden Pond, the story is too dark and obscure. It is heavy and irresolute—another case of art being too sophisticated for its own good.
Venus is rated R “for language, some sexual content and brief nudity.” Yup, it should be. There is one overly raunchy scene with attending sound effects. There is nudity. Not a lot, but enough to predictably earn Jodi Whitaker high critical marks for courage and a “break-through” performance as Jessie. Like so many other young actresses have proven before her: she will be remembered for being naked, not for acting. Removing clothes is a sure ticket to further roles. Maybe then we’ll see if she can really act.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Mike attended a press screening of Venus.