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Thoughts on Polanski

I have been overwhelmed with academic work of late.  My blog postings have obviously suffered and countless thousands of grief-stricken readers around the world have made complaints.  In the evenings I ‘ve also entered into an intellectually lazy mode and done the Norm-like, Bogan thing.

For recreation I have enjoyed playing with my new Mac computers. I have also been watching some vintage and more recent films by director Roman Polanski.   Along with Robert Altman he is one of my favorite movie directors.

Polanski is indeed one of the more interesting modern directors. He has a sense of deviance that throws a new light on drama and on the human condition.  Polanski is above all else a technically capable director who has been a long-term serious student of film. He has a mastery of the technical side of movie photography and is simultaneously interested in exploring all film genres.  Polanski has a perceptive grasp of character and an ability to arouse intense atmosphere.  His dramatic films are intensely suspenseful and draw you into their visions. You want to know.

I bought most of the movies I discuss below. Almost unbelievably local video stores carried only a couple of this director’s work.  Democracy and free markets provide movies for the masses and do not deliver quality movies.

As background here is a biographical wiki on Polanski that I liked.  Now to his films.

As far as I know the earliest of the Polanski movies are unobtainable – a few might be available on illegal download sites.  These were non-commercial enterprises that have great interest given that some of his early films were just so good.  Some have been lost forever but most still apparently exist.  Only his commercially reasonably successful releases are discussed below.

Knife in the Water (1962) is the Polish film that established Polanski as a major director.  It is in black-and-white and, in Polish, so for most of us, it needs subtitles.  It is a masterpiece and one of his best-ever movies.  Brilliant photography and an almost student-like attention to detail. The plot involves an older authoritarian man, his his bored wife and a young male hitchhiker with a knife , They end up together on a yacht competing for the single female’s attention.  Ego competition emerges, with the young man apparently drowning following an altercation over the knife – in fact he doesn’t drown but his male companion believes that he has.   The ambiguous ending is perfect. The woman dons her severe secretarial spectacles and returns to being a disgruntled, bored wife as the husband ponders whether to report the assumed fatality. The movie has a European feel and the tension sets in with the first appearance of the knife.  This film is essential Polanski and a most unusual, intriguing first effort.

Repulsion (1965) with Catherine Deneuve (photos here) is more vintage Polanski. I think it is one of his best movies.  Again it is in black and white. The beautiful Deneuve is interested in, but fearful of, men. Indeed she is repelled by them. The screw slowly turns in this film from a characterization of these fears into a psychological thriller where, when isolated, Deneuve becomes psychotic and kills both a suitor and an amorous rent collector.   There are flashbacks to a rape scene that suggest some past trauma but the source of her fears is unknown. This is a cult classic which is a making a ponderous point and, although a little contrived, an excellent insight into the limitations of mutuality.  The DVD I purchased had as a special feature an interview of Polanski by Clive James where, among other things, James asks about Polanski’s affection for young girls – his 1977 charge for carnal knowledge with a 13 year old was quickly followed by his escape to Europe and further escapades with the gorgeous – 15 year old – Natassja Kinskii. Polanski is unapologetic claiming that most men have this affection.  An excellent interview.

Cul-de-Sac (1966). An utterly bizarre film and probably my favorite Polanski movie. It is an extraordinary absurdist comedy in black-and-white with a lovable roughneck criminal, a mismatched couple and a strange atmosphere in a fantastic coastal setting.  A study of character that is somewhat misogynist but joyful and light.   I found myself laughing at the absurdity and the spirited acting. The roughneck’s unapologetic spitting on the floor captures his personality exactly. Just classic Polanski.

Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is a comic horror movie featuring Polanski himself as, Alfred, a bumbling student apprentice of an eccentric and aged professor intent on hunting down vampires in Transylvania.  Panned at the box office this is a fun spoof with quality cinematography.  It, again, has a  European feel to it and one can imagine that American audiences would not applaud the spoof aspect. Features the luscious Sharon Tate as the subject of Alfred’s bumbling affections.  Alfred inadvertently helps her escape Count Dracula’s castle to inadvertently launch a race of vampires in the world.

In a grim sequel to the movie in 1969 Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate was horrifically murdered near Los Angeles by the Manson family.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The memorable performance in this film – by Mia Farrow has stuck with me for the 40 years or so since I last saw it. Her long spindly legs barely seem to support this youthful innocent as she raped and impregnated by the devil and then surrounded by a conspiring, coven of witches. She resists and then her maternal instincts take over.  This is a horror classic.

Macbeth (1971).  Polanski likes to try new types of movies but this is really is quite strange. It is a relatively classical performance – although there are very definite liberties – of Shakespeare’s Macbeth coupled with superb photography. Hugh Hefner produces it! The film is not a masterpiece but it is gripping throughout.  The theme developed is that of a bleak ‘law of the jungle’ view of the human character that is a caricature of Shakespeare’s more subtle intentions. The film has has graphic violence and so on.  It did come after the murder of Sharon Tate.

The Macbeth couple are a little too cute and attractive to be the utter rotters they turn out to be. But this is still  a fine movie version of this classic play. For comparison I recently watched a more BBC version of the play starring Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire. This  isn’t the best performance around  but still the contrast is stark.   Polanski produces a fine movie but not an epic piece of drama that competes with good stage-based performances of the Bard’s masterpiece.  Hear the voice of the Bard for the real thing but enjoy this simplification!

What (1973). An X-rated, total nonsense film that has an unflappable half or totally naked femme (Sydne Rome) being pursued by rapacious beasts seeking to consume her in an Italian mansion located by the sea. Also stars, as a syphilitic pimp, Marcello Mastroianni along with a cast of perverts and crazies. The film is not at all erotic  and is in the main weirdly comic. The film is the least known of Polanski’s films and was lost for years.  Apparently the master copy was stolen from Carlo Ponti. Finally it was released on DVD in 2008. It is amusing and I enjoyed it but probably a lessor Polanski.

Chinatown (1974).  In my limited experience this is  one of the greatest modern American movies. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and marked the arrival of a youthful, talented Jack Nicholson as a superstar. Nicholson is a  superb gruff Humphrey Bogart-type detective. Faye Dunaway is also perfect as the intriguing wealthy plotter-cum-victim.  John Huston has a minor though disturbingly sinister role as the incestuous father. Nicholson dominates the movie.  The story itself has an intriguing twist and the photography associated with the mysterious water resource project and the corrupt property deals that form the basis for the plot is marvellous   There is enormous attention to detail. For example the  scene in the orchard is intriguing as is the attention-grabbing photography of old cars. A great detective story with a  Polanski twist.

The Tenant (1976).  An unusual drama starring Polanski himself as a mild-mannered new tenant who has rented a room where a young woman has recently suicided.  The central character is persecuted in various ways by the other tenants and, fairly abruptly, loses his mental grasp and replicates the young woman’s clothing and habits and eventual suicide.   This is an unusual, unnerving and to my dullard wits not an entirely successful film.   It moves a bit slowly, initially, as a film and then makes an abrupt shift towards psychosis. Not convincing although perhaps not intended to be. I got a bit lost in this film.

Pirates (1986). A strange pirate film that is a comedy that mostly degenerates into slapstick sendup, Walter Matthau stars as Captain Red the one-legged tyrant, manipulator who lurches in a convoluted tale from being a destitute sailor on a raft, with his youthful offside Frog, to seizing control of a Spanish galleon to eventually reemerge as a destitute in in much the same circumstances again.   It’s a bit of fun but not my favorite Polanski film. It won an academy award for costumes, which were very good.

Frantic (1988). This is an excellent Polanski drama. Harrison Ford is an American doctor whose wife is abducted has a gripping non-romance with a blood-heating Emmanuelle Seigner (eventually Polanski’s wife) whose sexual interests Ford deflects.   Ford gives as good a performance as I have seen from him. Gripping and suspenseful. The film is a superb straightforward, commercially viable drama that works very well indeed.

Tess (1979). A romantic film where lack-of-love is the theme. The gorgeous, vulnerable Natassja  Kinski is a young girl seduced by an older man in a classic Victorian story.  She shows an interesting strength that provides a core to the movie  The cinematography is again superb – almost a redundant remark as it is excellent in all Polanski films but it is absolutely delightful  here.  I liked this review.

Bitter Moon (1992). A prim couple on a cruise (Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas) involve a young French woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) and her, by then, paraplegic lover (Peter Coyote) in a dark tale of sexuality and mutual sadism.  A somewhat misogynist take on female desire and the need to maintain boundaries. It is the blackest of black comedies with dramatic intensity.  A masterpiece of film making with a very good cast.  Coyote and Seigner are superb.   Watch it twice if you miss the comedy the first time around – it is a dark comedy.  I think this is the best Polanski film since Chinatown and one of his greatest.  Overshadowed in the US because its release was delayed until that of Death and the Maiden.

Death and the Maiden (1994). This is an extraordinary movie full of suspense and drama.  Ben Kingley isn’t any Gandhi here. He is a truly evil doctor who was drawn into torturing and raping his patients in a South American banan republic.  The tables are turned when a former victim – Sigourney Weaver – catches up to him by chance and seeks a confession. Her ambitious politician husband  completes the trio. Unlike anything else Polanski has done but it would almost surprise if Polanski did not surprise. The Schubert music, which provides the title of this movie, is performed at various stages. The music is poignant, but almost violent in its intent and appropriate.  It is a Bartokian-style song of death to a young girl:

“Give me your hand you lovely and tender creature, I am your friend and do not come to punish, Be comforted I am not wild, You will sleep gently in my arms.”

I found this a very moralistic film.  Confroting it identifies some ugly aspects of male sexuality.

The Ninth Gate (2002). A scary movie with a solid performance by Johnny Depp.  It is about Satanism and reminded me of Rosemary’s Baby but, on balance, the latter was a much scarier film. This has an intriguing plot that stems from attempts to establish the authenticity of an old book.  Like Frantic this is quality, conventional drama which works.

The Pianist (2002).  A much-awarded Holocaust film featuring Adrian Brody as a sensitive classical pianist whose Jewish family is swept up by events as Poland is invaded by Nazis.   Brody’s performance is convincing and memorable – intelligence and sensitivity stomped on by a brutal regime.  It is a lot more than violent pornography although there are chilling scenes. The simplicity and innocence of the pianist shine.

Clearly this is autobiographical. Polanski was one of the Jews who as a child fled the Nazis.  His mother was killed at Auschwitz.  Polanski recalls this story as a 6 year old:

“I had just been visiting my grandmother . . . when I received a foretaste of things to come. At first I didn’t know what was happening. I simply saw people scattering in all directions. Then I realized why the street had emptied so quickly. Some women were being herded along it by German soldiers. Instead of running away like the rest, I felt compelled to watch. One older woman at the rear of the column couldn’t keep up. A German officer kept prodding her back into line, but she fell down on all fours, . . . Suddenly a pistol appeared in the officer’s hand. There was a loud bang, and blood came welling out of her back. I ran straight into the nearest building, squeezed into a smelly recess beneath some wooden stairs, and didn’t come out for hours. I developed a strange habit: clenching my fists so hard that my palms became permanently calloused. I also woke up one morning to find that I had wet my bed.” (my bold)

The clenched hands are experienced by the audience in this superb, touching film.  The photography of rooms and street scenes is superb.    One of my favorite movies among anything I have seen in recent years.  Great Polanski.

As I wrote these notes Polanski’s latest film Carnage is about to be released. Can’t wait, it will be out this year.

Overall what I think like about the Polanki movies is their element of surprise and inventiveness.  He  specialises in creating dramatically intense moods but is also good at absurdist comedy and what are good straight commercial drama  like Frantic. The impression is always that the film was directed by a master who understood the technical side of making a film to perfection but who thought carefully about using technique to capture the mood and atmosphere sought in any scene.

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