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The actual actress in the role — Emmanuelle Seigner, who is also Polanski’s wife — delivers a masterful performance in which she embodies not one but two characters, and switches between them on a dime. In previous Polanski roles Seigner mastered the art of the femme fatale and here she brings it to a fever pitch. Mathieu Amalric is equally brilliant as playwright Thomas Novachek, perfectly capturing the character’s mixed feelings of innocence and guilt. It doesn’t hurt that he looks almost exactly like a young Polanski.
At the outset of the movie, the roles of the characters are clear: Thomas is the director, powerful in his domain, while Vanda is the struggling actress who is lucky to get an audition. Within the play, however, those positions are neatly reversed. There it’s Wanda who is in control, while Severin is her hapless admirer. But the deeper into the play Vanda and Thomas go, the more the two sets of relationships become confused. At one point she calls him Thomas in the play, effacing the distinction between the roles. Later in the story, when Wanda repents of her dominance and wants Severin to be master over her, the actress maintains her position by getting the director to switch parts. By the conclusion of the play Thomas is reduced to a blubbering mess in makeup and women’s clothing, a spectacle reminiscent of Trelkovsky’s end in “The Tenant.” Here, as in Sacher-Masoch’s novel, a situation that which was meant to be just an act turns out to be all too real.
In the documentary “The Making of ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’” also included on the 2007 DVD set, Shandling explains how he started doing stand-up comedy:
I went to The Comedy Store one night and got up on amateur night. And I walked off that stage and I thought: “My God, this could be a way to find out who I am. Because I’m so self-conscious up there that clearly I’m scared to death of being whoever I am.”
Unlike Shandling, I have never attempted to be a stand-up comic. Nor have I ever aspired to be an actor, or a theater director, or a filmmaker. I was never a theater kid in high school, and to be honest, theater people, with their — how else to put it? — theatricality, made me a little uncomfortable. I have never been at ease displaying emotion in front of strangers, and certainly not in front of whole audiences. Perhaps, like Shandling, I should view that discomfort as an opportunity to find out who I am.
But the truth is that I think I know pretty well who I am. I’m the kind of person who likes to sit by myself and watch movies and then write essays about them. I’m the kind of person who enjoys solitary work, but has less affection for group projects. And as much as I might appreciate the art of acting, I am not an actor. I like to have the kind of control over my output that is easier in writing than onstage.
And yet there are more similarities than there might seem to be. I, too, traffic in different versions of myself. The self I put on the page is a persona, and the truer I can make it, the more effective it is. Like Gregory’s conception of acting, the creation of a written self is a two-way process; it isn’t just the persona I project that I try to make as genuine as possible, it’s the self I “really am” that takes its cues from the person on paper. In order to create the writer that people want to read, I also have to become that person in real life.
At one point in “The Larry Sanders Show” documentary, we hear Roy London, a legendary acting teacher, describe his own ideal of acting. “What most people would like to do is figure out how to do it right before that camera ever shows up,” he says. But “to discover something about what the script is about, and yourself in the script, while the camera is running — are you willing to do that? Very few people are willing to do that.”
I don’t claim to do anything like that. Writing is a perfectionist’s medium in which you can keep making improvements, at least until publication. In comparison with film it’s more like what happens behind the camera than what happens in front of it. For me it’s the opposite of the “in the moment” situation London describes.
But there is courage required for writing too — the courage to become oneself in public, as truthfully and painstakingly as possible, one piece at a time. There’s the courage needed to avoid a false front — to be honest about oneself rather than merely get it “right.” As with any creative endeavor the rewards for such efforts are inconsistent, and the possibility of failure is ever-present. But I put my faith in what Gregory said to his students, and which I believe applies to us all: With a small room, and with time, we can make miracles.