Roman Polanski is a master. You can think he’s not up to snuff after Chinatown, you can debate about the importance of The Pianist, but after icons like Welles, Kubrick and Altman have left us, Polanski remains one our greatest living filmmakers. An artist who's crafted numerous iconic classics, and one who could have rested on Chinatown alone, he’s still here -- creating challenging, compelling, smart, darkly funny and yes, masterful pictures. It seems impossible for Polanski to not be interesting.
He’s also an extraordinarily controversial figure, a man currently under house arrest in Switzerland for a 1977 sexual assault case in which he pleaded guilty to statutory rape and then (through various reasons that have been argued, defended, explicated, the list goes on and on and I know it all too well) fled before he was to be formally sentenced in 1978. Living as a fugitive until September of last year, he will now face sentencing in the United States, and the circus will begin again. Through a tumultuous life of surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, the loss of his mother in Auschwitz, the murder of his wife (Sharon Tate) at the hands of the Manson family, and his own personal demons, Polanski seems predestined to have an irregular life -- a life of darkness, absurdity and controversy. A life much like his movies.
And yet, even while enduring his current predicament, Polanski managed to finish another picture, which, no matter how you feel about him, is pretty damn impressive. The mesmerizing, political thriller, The Ghost Writer, (an adaptation of the Robert Harris novel The Ghost) stars Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson and the great Eli Wallach. With McGregor in lead as the titular ghostwriter, hired to pen the memoirs of a former British prime minister (a fantastically funny and sleazy Brosnan), the movie throws the young writer into a series of doomed, dangerous situations, punctuated by strange characters that are subtly ominous and absurd and perfectly Polanskian.
With the excitement that the filmmaker has not lost his touch, here's a look at eight of Polanski's greatest (a nearly impossible task for me since I love nearly every picture he's made -- even the "minor" ones. And please leave me alone about Macbeth and The Fearless Vampire Killers, Frantic, Death and the Maiden, all of which I love). Through both real life and cinematic tragedy and triumph, absurdity and horror, sensuality and perversion, beauty hideousness, what a long, strange and brilliant trip it’s been Mr. Polanski.
Knife in the Water(1962)
It's evident. Roman Polanski emerged from the womb knowing cinema. Proof lies in his glorious first feature, Knife in the Water, a tense, complex, three-character study in which cruelty, violence, sexuality, absurdity (all of the Polanski hallmark obsessions and more) are laid out in pitch perfect sequences and characterizations, confined to one space (Polanski loves nothing more than to trap his characters in apartments, boats or creepy houses. And water continually means something). The story finds a vacationing couple, Andrzej ( ), a sportswriter, and his wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), picking up a nameless, young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). The young man joins them on their boat trip. Good idea? Not when jealousy arises via Andrzej who can't contend with the younger man's golden boy loveliness. And then there's that knife suggested in the title (filled with violent and phallic meaning) hanging over the proceedings with menace and cruel sexuality. The movie was a critical hit, earning top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Darkly funny, sexy, scary, claustrophobic while agoraphobic at the same time (Polanski excels at this particular predicament). The young Polish director was on his way to many more masterpieces to come.
Through the beautiful visage of ice goddess, Repulsion remains one of the most frightening studies of psychosis ever filmed. It's also one of the most sexually mysterious. Deneuve plays Carol, a nervous young manicurist who goes about her days in the salon, quietly tending to bossy old ladies' fleshy cuticles; but eventually finds herself languishing about her apartment, where, her pathological shyness, sexual repression and repulsions spiral into madness. Perplexing hallucinations haunt Carol as she's holed up in her pad: sexual acts with a greasy man whom she simultaneously loathes and lusts; greedy hands poking through the hallways and kneading her soft flesh; and the moving and cracking of walls. Left alone, she is able to act out what she is so afraid of: the dark sludge of desire. The obscure, slippery and decayed complexities of such desire are conveyed brilliantly and the diseased atmosphere of Carol's apartment/womb is meticulously created through Polanski's inventive camera angles, sound effects and images of clutter.
Polanski's use of ambient sounds (the ticking of a clock, the voices of nuns playing catch in the convent garden, the dripping of a faucet) is masterful,conveying Carol's unsettling fears. Polanski also dresses the film with pertinent details that further exemplify both Carol's madness and the aching passage of time: potatoes sprout in the kitchen; meat (rabbit meat, no less) rots on a plate and eventually collects flies; various debris of blood, food and liquids form naturally around Carol. The use of black-and-white film, wide-angle lenses and close-ups creates an unsparing vision of sickness, and Deneuve's performance is effectively mysterious. As Polanski cameraman Gil Taylor muttered during filming, "I hate doing this to a beautiful woman." A masterpiece of madness.
Oh, this movie is so much weird, sexy, subversive, screwy fun. And so brilliant. And so underseen. When will it be released in the United States on DVD? Soon please. It remains one of Polanski's best, and a precursor to themes he would continually dabble in: tortured relationships, bizarre blonde behavior, infidelity, cross-dressing, even film noir via the stalwart Lionel Stander (best known here for his role in Hart to Hart but who should be known as the blacklisted, veteran hard-boiled American character actor). Donald Pleasence plays a strange fellow who happens to luck out with a gorgeous wife (Francoise Dorleac; sister to Catherine Deneuve and a tragic beauty, Not long after completing this picture, Dorleac would, in real life, die too young in an auto accident) who he keeps in a strange, enormous, isolated house on a tiny island off the northeast coast of Britain. Playing a lot like another nor, The Desperate Hours, the bizarre couple will be forced to host two escaped criminals (Stander and MacGowran) who land on their island and essentially hang out to mess with them. But it's not just crime and entrapment that make the story interesting, it's all of the Polanski touches.
Dorleac is cheating on her weirdo husband (who takes to wearing ladies clothes), she also seems perpetually bored, and engages in childlike activities like running around in a gown barefoot, putting on exaggerated eyeliner, playing with rifles and lighting a sleeping Stander's toes on fire with burning pieces of newspaper ("It's called a bicycle" she taunts). The movie is dark but also uniquely funny and starkly beautiful. You feel the isolation, you feel the strange sexuality and you feel the bleakness of it all. The cherry on top? It's all so kinky sexy. A film that only Polanski could create.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
One of Polanski's most famous, iconic and unforgettable movies, Rosemary's Baby is just as effective as a dark comedy as it is a horror movie. It also works as a strange celebration of one woman's love for her baby, no matter what, and the institutions that attempt to control her (yes, you can read Rosemary's Baby as a feminist work). We all remember young-mother-to-be Rosemary (Mia Farrow) moving into a lovely, though creepy, apartment building and eventually finding herself impregnated by Satan himself. Her ambitious actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), is mostly to blame -- he strikes a deal with their eccentric, Devil-worshiping neighbors the Castevets (a wonderfully spellbinding and a charmingly though frighteningly coarse Ruth Gordon) -- and poor Rosemary is the vessel, enduring he Castevets' pregnancy tips, and even agreeing to see the famed Dr. Sapirstein (played by a condescendingly evil Ralph Bellamy in a switch from his usual nice guy roles of yore). A powerfully desperate and touching performance by Farrow carries the picture, but Polanski's colorful, tense and at times, surreal direction (the dream sequence/Satanic seduction is a particular standout) and attention to detail is superb. And again, it's at times, hilarious. "What about Dr. Sapirstein? What about ME!"
Chinatown isn't just one of Roman Polanski's great masterpieces (perhaps his greatest), it's also one of the true masterpieces of the 1970s, a true masterpiece of neo-noir (some even contend Chinatown a pure film noir, removing the neo from the appellation, and the last one of the genre), and the last true studio picture, a movie that slammed the doors of Paramount, where the infamous Robert Towne, Polanski's tour-de-force direction and both an iconic Jack Nicholson (as private dick Jake Gittes) and fetchingly mysterious/neurotic Faye Dunaway (as the damaged Evelyn Mulwray), Chinatown works on all levels: thematically, stylistically, philosophically, historically, everything. It's a perfect movie. The labyrinthian plot (taking place in 1937) will find Gittes embroiled in a story of incest, greed, political corruption and a doomed
love (you will never forget Dunaway's infamous "my sister, my daughter" moment), wandering through a beautifully styled Los Angeles, that's meticulously recaptured in exquisite period detail and unique, beautifully muted cinematography (interestingly, and purposely, you never actually see anyone going to Chinatown). Polanski himself would have a memorable moment.
Emerging from the shadows, Nicholson's Gittes asks, "Where'd you get the midget" only to be met with a switchblade up his nose via Polanski "You know what happens to nosy fellows? They lose their noses." A classic on par with Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and The Godfather, Chinatown is truly one of the greatest movies ever made. And watching it today, knowing about Polanski's future to come, the picture's themes and dialogue are startlingly portentous. Think of John Huston's (as Noah Cross) famous line: "You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything."
The Tenant (1976)
Though Rosemary's Baby remains Roman Polanski's classic horror film, for psychological terror, hysterical paranoia, existential break-down and a man in a dress, The Tenant supersedes Rosemary in genuine horror. Polanski cast himself as Trelkovsky, a beleaguered, nervous Polish file clerk who takes an apartment after the previous tenant commits suicide. His neighbors are all kinds of creepy (gotta love a thoroughly disagreeable ), he's seeing strange things in the bathroom across the courtyard and, in one of the picture's more memorable moments, he's found a tooth in the wall. Yes, a tooth. And it's scary. And funny. And scary. Worse, for reasons we can only surmise as ghostly and psychotic, he begins dressing in the prior tenant's clothes, including a dress, wig and a thick smear of lipstick. When he jumps out of the window, not once, but twice in this get-up we are both horrified and humored – a tough combination to successfully convey, but Polanski, master of the dark humor, does so effortlessly. For instance, watch Polanski smack a kid in the park, or observe an especially frightening and imaginative moment when Polanski's head is bouncing like a basketball, and feel confused by your horrified bemusement. Try not to laugh. And then cringe. A Dostoyevskian inspired tale, The Tenant is supremely creepy, philosophically fascinating, funny and daring.
Bitter Moon (1992)
Polanski's boozy, bitter, sexually manic ode to demented dysfunction remains one of the most underrated, misunderstood pictures in his brilliant career, a movie that makes one laugh as much as it horrifies, titillates and illuminates. It's also a movie one can identify with (either literally or, one hopes, allegorically, though that's not always the case in life), which might be part of the reason so many viewers were turned off by it. Which couple do you relate to? The "nice" couple is Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas, a handsome, respectable British pair, enjoying a cheesy cruise, making the most of whatever excitement is left in their marriage. The twisted duo is a failed and rather hacky novelist (an inspired Peter Coyote) and his mysterious, French sex-bomb of a partner ( , Polanski's real life wife), whose story becomes Grant's main obsession as he listens to Coyote describe every detail of his relationship. And I mean every detail (simulated barnyard sex situations, urination, insane cruelty, paralyization etc.). Grant falls for Coyote's wife, but this will seriously (and literally) backfire on him during the boat's New Year's Eve party when, yes, lovely Seigner writhes in seductive abandon with, not Grant, but his wife. It's a wonderfully exciting moment of Sapphic sensuality, but one that'll lead to shocking tragedy.
A movie so underrated it's almost maddening. As shown here, I admittedly have a never-ending love of Polanski's work (including Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, a snaky rare-book dealer hired by a wealthy scholar of demonology, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), to authenticate a book of satanic invocation called "The Nine Gates of the Shadow Kingdom." He ventures to Europe to compare the book against two other extremely rare copies (if only book dealing were this exciting) and then things begin to get even weirder. For a book dealer, the investigation becomes pretty spectacular, right down to the Eyes Wide Shut-like moment (not at all intended to ape Kubrick's film) during which devil worshipping Langella storms in on a group of supposedly scary Satanists and hilariously calls them a bunch of losers. Though much more understated than Polanski's greatest works of terror (The Tenant, Repulsion) and not as psychologically tumultuous, The Ninth Gate is nevertheless an engaging, beautifully photographed thriller with a stately, graceful style of pacing that feels drugged and otherworldly. Perfectly perverse, playful, penetrating Polanski., the wonderful Macbeth and even Pirates, dammit), but so many critics missed the darkly humorous point of this picture. A wonderfully deadpan
And no, I did not forget. Two of my other Polanski favorites, Tess and The Pianist:
A rapturously beautiful Nastassia Kinski stars in just one of Polanski's great classic literary adaptations (his others include Macbeth and Oliver Twist) and indeed one of his finest. Lushly adapting Thomas Hardy's novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, may have seemed an odd choice for a filmmaker who just came off making the spare, scary horror thriller The Tenant, but the themes of doom, love, rape, chaos and the chains of fate were no stranger to the auteur. Kinski is the beautiful peasant girl Tess, bound in a relationship with the wealthy but cruel Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson). She becomes pregnant (in the novel the rape is a powerfully evocative and sympathetic moment), extremely unhappy and after a tragedy, leaves his estate to humbly work on a dairy farm. There, she falls in love with the very serious and very virtuous (and aptly named) Angel Clare (Peter Firth), who will take issues with Tess' past. Too much issue. Unfair issue. Extremely sympathetic to its lead heroine, who is trapped in a world of judgment, shame, social position and yes, fate, Tess is a powerful period piece aided by all of the actors and Kinski in particular. Her beauty is so heart-stopping it haunts the picture, becoming almost scary and strange , underscoring the film's lilting, yet hanging doom. As Hardy wrote, "The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes."
The Pianist (2002)
A triumph. And a personal one. Though based on the real life of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish composer and musician who survived the Holocaust, hiding from the Nazis after they invaded in 1939, the picture was also inspired by Polanski's own youth. Young Polanski, whose father was detained in an Austrian concentration camp and whose mother died in Auschwitz, would spend World War II hiding from the Nazis in Poland, escaping to the Krakow Ghetto and eventually roaming the countryside, living hand to mouth. Instead of making a purely autobiographical film about his extraordinary journey and survival, he crafted this masterpiece, in which Jewish musician Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) survives Warsaw during five years of German occupation. Unable to play his piano, scrapping for food, shivering with cold and, in some of the movie's most inspired moments, barely speaking a word, he lives. The Pianist is a deeply personal film, and Brody's performance is brilliantly internal, but the movie never panders or attempts to deliver an easy survival story. The dark and brutal truth to the picture, a truth Polanski well understood, is that Szpilman (and Polanski) did indeed survive, but through many random and lucky incidents (and that kind of luck can turn. Polanski's own heartbreak over the murder of his wife from a band of murderers cuts deep in his worldview) . Polanski knows his hero is special. We know he is special. But does the universe know he is special? Incredibly moving, gorgeously made, horrific and dark and, yet inspiring and beautiful, The Pianist is already a classic.
Here's Jack and "the midget":