Published on September 6th, 2011 | by L. Caldoran0
Director Roman Polanski, now pushing eighty, has become a familiar pop-cultural figure in his own right. He inspired the Psychic TV song “Roman P” (“Roman in your destiny . . . Are you free, are you really free?”) and the name of Nicki Minaj’s gay male alter ego, though Polanski himself is rather fervently hetero. He even made an appearance in, of all things, “Rush Hour 3.”
This week kicks off MoMA’s retrospective of his career as a filmmaker (organized by curator Charles Silver), from acknowledged masterpieces like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” to his (deservedly) most obscure film, “What?,” an extended exercise in frivolity in which a naïve hippie chick stumbles into a chemistry-free “love affair” with an eccentric former pimp (Marcello Mastroianni) who likes to dress up in a tiger skin as a prelude to seduction.
Polanski’s own life has been indelibly marked by tragedy, both as victim (a harrowing childhood in Poland during the Holocaust; the savage, senseless murder of his heavily-pregnant wife Sharon Tate) and, at times, perpetrator (his infamous sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl). Clearly the guy’s got some issues—which may be apparent from an extensive viewing of his work.
The typical Polanski narrative takes the form of a tumble down the rabbit hole. An outsider arrives in a foreign location—generally a major city or overlooking the expanse of the sea—almost always alone or perhaps with a spouse (but never children). S/he soon finds him/herself deeply out of his/her element, entangled with natives who have ambiguous or hostile motives. S/he receives a warning of potential danger, which is obscured or disregarded. Tension escalates: rooms are ransacked in the inhabitant’s absence, important items stolen or disposed of. Murder to maintain silence or power is disguised as suicide or accident. This is often revealed to be the result of widespread corruption among the wealthy and powerful, leading to a major conspiracy in which even spouses and lovers are not to be trusted. The protagonist’s story ends in death, capture, surrender, or—if lucky—escape. It’s certainly a grim view of the world: even Polanski’s early student shorts are marked by violence and menace, including the otherwise-jaunty “Two Men and a Wardrobe.”
Two of his first films, “Knife in the Water” and “Cul-de-Sac,” as well as “Death and the Maiden” some thirty years later, transfer this atmosphere of oppression to a more intimate scale focused on mundane interpersonal tensions, each following a seaside married couple whose private dynamic is disturbed by an intruder. This alteration is most pronounced in “Cul-de-Sac,” which ends, after a Buñuel-esque deconstruction of bourgeois façades, with the husband’s abrupt descent into madness.
Polanski often undercuts his bleakness with absurd Kafkaesque humor. Early parts of horror farce “The Fearless Vampire Killers” can often feel like a post-Nazi version of Kafka’s “The Castle,” with ostensible hero Alfred (Polanski himself) correlating to the novel’s hapless land-surveyor. Alfred ends up having much better luck than Kafka’s protagonist in penetrating the local castle, though in neither case is the hero’s goal ultimately achieved. “The Tenant,” in which Polanski also stars, is prone to darkly-surreal comedy, as in a drunken monologue in which he questions the right of the human head to consider itself the seat of one’s personality (“If you cut off my head, would I say ‘me and my head’ or ‘me and my body?’”)
In both of Polanski’s starring roles in his own films, he’s subject to a great deal of derision and condescension, often based his nationality or height. (Even his more odious minor turns in “What?” and “Chinatown” see other characters labeling the 5’5” actor/director “midget,” “dwarf,” etc.) One generally doesn’t fare well as the star of a Polanski film, especially in his adaptations of classic English literature. These period pieces contrast the grandeur of natural landscapes with the detailed, unsparing grit and grime of human civilization. Comely young “Tess“ (Nastassja Kinski) is used as a pawn by her father, raped by one man and deserted by another, driven to murder and eventually hanged offscreen. Hanging is the same fate repeatedly predicted for timid, put-upon “Oliver Twist“: “They’ll hang you for anything these days,” advises Fagin (Ben Kingsley). “That’s ‘cos they’re so very fond of hanging.” (Most of the “respectable” adults in “Oliver Twist” look like putty-faced Georgian political caricatures, reflecting a child’s-eye view of the grown-up world.) “Macbeth“ and his wife are quite young when their story begins, looking more like a couple of flower children than power-mad murderers, which makes their actions appear all the more disconcerting. “Macbeth” is more visibly brutal than most prestige pictures of its era: even today, how much Shakespearean Oscar bait would show the crumpled, bloody bodies of Macduff’s murdered children? One macabre sequence sees Macbeth having a paranoid hallucination about his own future after consulting a roomful of naked, elderly witches, recalling the impregnation scene of “Rosemary’s Baby.”
Polanski revisits “Rosemary”’s Satanist theme in “The Ninth Gate”—which, along with “Frantic,” lacks the poignance and psychological intimacy of his earlier work but remains a precisely-assembled, largely-enjoyable genre film. Both follow the above-mentioned general Polanski narrative—urbanites in foreign cities are snagged into dangerous international conspiracies—but to more commercial ends. Each also features Emmanuelle Seigner coming to the hero’s aid: in contrast to the frequent May/December pairings that appear in Polanski’s films, “Frantic”’s distraught hero (Harrison Ford), happily married for twenty years, is indifferent to the barely-legal charms of Seigner’s fashion-punk club kid. (The same was not true of Polanski, who went on to marry her.)
Sexual politics frequently play a significant role, with films from “Knife in the Water” onward exploring the private conflicts and power shifts between heterosexual couples, often composed of a cowardly, ineffectual middle-aged man married to a sly, libidinous younger wife. Women’s sexuality is a perpetual source of fear and fascination, with female characters often typified as naïve victims (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Tess,” “What?”), young spitfires (“Frantic,” “Cul-de-Sac”), or sophisticated femmes fatales (“Chinatown,” “The Ninth Gate,” “The Ghost Writer”). The “war between the sexes” can turn literally violent: women in Polanski films often find themselves slapped, beaten, whipped, raped, and generally abused. Even featherweight sex comedy “What?” begins with its baby-voiced heroine fleeing an attempted gang rape.
The most exhaustive exploration of this subject is “Bitter Moon.” Darkly, cynically comic in the mode of Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession” (though far less surreal and blood-drenched), “Bitter Moon” recounts the sexual exploration, disillusionment, and merciless power games of a wheelchair-bound fortysomething American expat (Peter Coyote) and his sexually voracious wife (Mrs. Polanski again, paraded around in a series of skintight micro-dresses). “She’s a walking man-trap,” he warns a thoroughly square Brit (Hugh Grant) who lusts after her. A failed Henry Miller wannabe, he describes Seigner’s character as his “sorceress in white sneakers” whose clitoris is like “a little duck dabbling in a pool of pink flesh” (not to mention the ludicrously purple prose he uses to describe receiving a golden shower from her . . . and he wonders why he can’t get published?).
Polanski followed “Bitter Moon” with the more taut, sober “Death and the Maiden,” again portraying a couple who casually quarrel and make up within a span of minutes, as couples do. Here, though, the central pair are living in the aftermath of a fictitious dictatorial regime that sanctioned torture. The high-strung, traumatized wife (Sigourney Weaver) proceeds to restrain and interrogate a man who may or may not have used his position to repeatedly torture and rape her as a young woman. The film ultimately suggests that the most appropriate punishment for such crimes is simply living with the fact of having committed them: an uneasy conclusion from a director who was himself charged with a sex crime.
Abuse of power by those with wealth and authority recurs again and again. Oliver Twist is condemned to malnourishment, menial labor, and criminality by those in charge due to the mere fact of his being an orphan. Nobody believes Rosemary’s tale of pursuit by a Satanic cult because one of the accused cultists is a respected physician. Macbeth, once crowned king, thinks nothing of sending his minions out to murder his political rivals and their families. The peasant populace of “Fearless Vampire Killers” silently accepts their rule by a literally-vampiric aristocracy. “What?”’s wealthy ex-pimp dons a Napoleon costume and abruptly demands the heroine produce identification, slapping and cuffing her too roughly to be a mere sex game when she can’t. In “Chinatown,” private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) asks a corrupt water magnate, “What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”: the answer, of course, is “the future!”
This theme is prominent throughout last year’s “The Ghost Writer.” The film’s initial premise is basically that of a more politically-oriented “Ninth Gate” (but with a subtlety more in the line of “All the President’s Men”): in both cases our hero is hired for his skills in a literary line of work, but has dangerously little actual knowledge of the subject at hand. Here, a professional ghostwriter is hired to punch up the trite memoirs of a former Prime Minister (roughly inspired by Tony Blair) accused of sending terrorist suspects to the CIA for torture and generally serving as America’s lapdog. It’s a staunch critique of contemporary US foreign policy and international complicity.
Among Polanski’s best-known, most representative films are his “Apartment Trilogy”: “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and the underrated “The Tenant.” In each film, an outsider who has moved into an urban setting (respectively, a Belgian in London, a Midwesterner in Manhattan, and a Pole in Paris) starts being menaced by the real-or-imagined harassment (sexual, Satanic, and xenophobic) of his or her neighbors, gradually growing more paranoid and potentially delusional before turning to flight, violence, and even self-destruction in a futile attempt to escape. The women of “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” are nervous, fragile, unable to connect with loved ones who dismiss or misread their concerns, while the male protagonist of “The Tenant” actually becomes feminized by his persecutions, adopting the tastes of the suicidal woman whose apartment he moved into and even crossdressing alone at night.
“The Pianist,” among Polanski’s most personal films, may form a sort of addendum to the Apartment Trilogy, half of it taking place in a series of isolated Warsaw apartments—though the threats and dangers our hero seeks to hide from are most emphatically real, not the result of urban paranoia. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is more psychologically stable than the Apartment Trilogy’s protagonists, maintaining a casually stoic attitude typified by an early scene where he continues to play piano live on Warsaw radio right up until the station is bombed. Unlike many Holocaust dramas, its emphasis is on pure survival (Szpilman supports the efforts of the Resistance, but his actual participation is peripheral at best) with minimal sentiment, more in the vein of fellow Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s “Europa Europa.” Szpilman doesn’t need to travel to another country to feel like an outsider: he’s been forcibly made into an Other within the borders of his own home city.