Never underestimate Roman Polanski. He has a habit of following box-office bombs like “What?” with classics like “Chinatown.” The dismal “Pirates” could have been a career-ender, but he bounced back with the Oscar-winning “The Pianist.”

Polanski’s latest, “Venus in Fur,” turns out to be a vast improvement on his last stage adaptation, “Carnage.” This smart, playful treatment of David Ives’ witty play (staged earlier this year at the Seattle Rep) marks a career peak for Polanski and his wife of 25 years, Emmanuelle Seigner.

Working with material that goes back to Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel about role-playing and masochistic impulses, Polanski and Ives have fashioned a near-perfect vehicle for their star. Updated to the 21st century, the story allows Seigner to shift through several very different personalities, beginning with an aging, desperate, apparently unprepared actress who shows up at an audition and makes a terrible impression on a Parisian playwright (Mathieu Amalric).

Just as he starts to call it a day, she turns into someone else entirely. Suddenly confident and in control, she transforms herself and the situation. More than an actress, she becomes a goddess, a dominatrix, a creature more mythical than real.

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But what is she, and how did she turn the tables so decisively? There are no easy answers.

John Hartl: