Where to start with the highly personal, variable works of Roman Polanski
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Roman Polanski
Why it’s daunting: Although he’s an intensely personal filmmaker, Roman Polanski is also a highly variable one, not only in terms of quality but also in approach. Those who respond to the restrained mastery of Chinatown or The Pianist may be repelled by the id-driven allegory of The Tenant or Knife In The Water, while others may prefer the works that feel as if they’ve sprung directly from the maker’s psyche.
That psyche can be a forbidding place, and not only because of the notorious 1977 incident where Polanski gave drugs to a 13-year-old girl he was photographing for a fashion magazine and then sexually assaulted her, fleeing the U.S. rather than face criminal charges. (The 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired argues that a plea bargain that would have cleared the director of most charges collapsed due to the intervention of a publicity-hungry judge, but doesn’t seriously challenge his guilt.) Polanski’s life was a parade of horrors before he began inflicting them on others. As a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Poland, he witnessed the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and saw his father being marched off to a concentration camp; his mother died in Auschwitz, and he later recalled being used by Nazi soldiers for target practice. In 1969, shortly after finishing the film that would win him his first Academy Award nomination, Polanski got the news that his wife, Sharon Tate, had been stabbed to death by cult followers of Charles Manson, two weeks before she would have given birth to their first child. If the world of Polanski’s movies is often a dark and depraved one, it is undoubtedly because his life’s history has followed an equally horrific path.
Possible gateway: Rosemary’s Baby
Why: In addition to being one of Polanski’s best movies, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby also most neatly reconciles his disparate directorial personae. It’s as masterfully accomplished as his most controlled works, and as intuitive as his most delightfully off-the-rails ones. Adapting Ira Levin’s novel, and working for the first time without a writing partner, Polanski downplays the surreal and psychodramatic elements of his preceding films, grounding the story in what feels like a palpable reality. That reality begins to shudder after struggling actor John Cassavetes and his accommodating wife Mia Farrow move into a Manhattan apartment building (the Dakota, later the site of John Lennon’s murder). With a lack of reserve that would make any native New Yorker suspicious, their elderly neighbors immediately embrace the young couple, whose fortunes suddenly begin to rise. He gets a promising role after a competing actor is suddenly struck blind, and suddenly the baby they’ve been putting off having is a pressing concern.
The most stylistically subdued of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy,” which also includes 1965’s Repulsion and 1976’s The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby lets its horrors surface slowly, insinuating rather than exploding in your face like a booby-trapped birthday present. (Old lady-next-door Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar, manages to do both, instilling her insistent friendliness with a hint of unease before her smile broadens into a nest of fangs.) Although Polanski often gives his female characters short shrift, no movie since—with the possible exception of Alien—has more palpably embodied the drifting horrors that accompany the joy of pregnancy, the sense of a creature growing within that both is and is not you.
Next steps: Proceed to the greatest of Polanski’s greatest hits: Chinatown (1975), in which private eye Jack Nicholson drinks deep from Los Angeles’ poisoned well. Replacing the monochrome palette of classic film noir with sunburnt ochres and the scarlet of freshly spilled blood, the movie functions as a revisionist creation myth for a city, and a nation, built by moving forward heedlessly and never looking back, paying no mind to the bodies ground up in the gears. With a script by Robert Towne, cinematography by John Alonzo and an uncredited Stanley Cortez, and a score by Jerry Goldsmith (replacing an earlier effort, and turned out in a mere 10 days), the film represents Hollywood craftsmanship at its peak, although the proliferation of voices in some ways reduces the distinctive sound of Polanski’s own. It’s a masterpiece, but a cold, deliberate one.
The Tenant, which Polanski made next, is the flip side of Chinatown’s elegance: a primal blast of undigested anxiety and rage that’s like a fever dream captured on celluloid. Polanski plays the lead, a mid-level bureaucrat who moves into an apartment recently vacated by a would-be suicide. As the dingy room’s former occupant convalesces, her body obscured by a head-to-toe cast, Polanski’s character finds the world around him rapidly collapsing into madness, his own identity fraying in the process. While the other movies in the “apartment trilogy” focus on female protagonists, The Tenant finds Polanski slowly turning into one, effectively taking the place of his predecessor. It’s a troubling film, and more than a little insane, but it’s also a work of unadulterated, unrestrained genius, the product of an artist working in perfect tune with his unconscious.
Next, in the words of Mo Fuzz, complete the trilogy with Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve as a woman consumed by her sexual hangups, and then backtrack to Polanski’s first film, Knife In The Water, as well as the short films included with Criterion’s edition. Then, follow the chronology, skipping over the occasional unavailable title (What?, Pirates) or dud (see below). The oft-overlooked Macbeth (1971) was the first film Polanski made after Tate’s murder, and it’s unsurprisingly bloody and bleak, faithful to Shakespeare’s text but not bound by accreted convention. (The production benefits substantially from the input of storied drama critic Kenneth Tynan, who collaborated on the adaptation.) Skip the decade following the sexual-assault charges, when Polanski was consumed with his own purported victimhood and adjusting to life in exile, and, if you’re in a hurry, the following one as well, missing out on the comparatively minor Bitter Moon (1992) and Death And The Maiden (1994). Pick up the thread with 2002’s The Pianist, which uses hollow-eyed Adrien Brody as a stand-in for the young Polanski, watching the Warsaw ghetto emptied before him and then inhabiting its abandoned ghost. The controversy generated by the film’s Oscar nominations revived the debate over Polanski’s criminality—the victim, who sued Polanski in civil court, has said she’d prefer to let the matter rest—but the film’s general acclaim energized him, fueling his heartfelt adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the existential thriller The Ghost Writer, and the joyously heartless Carnage, a technical tour de force whose deft camerawork and acid-etched performances give life to the concentrated cruelty of Yasmina Reza’s play.
Where not to start: What? and Pirates remain out of print in the U.S., but The Fearless Vampire Killers and Cul-de-sac tempt unwary neophytes whose first Polanski movie might be their last. A lysergic gloss on Hammer horror movies, Vampire is a lopsided grotesque, a farce from a director whose humor is best administered with a scalpel and not a sledgehammer. Cul-de-sac, in which a crass American gangster gets marooned on a remote British island, ranges from purposefully abrasive to simply out-of-control, taking Polanski’s dour vision of humanity to its extreme. Still, better that than Frantic, an ill-starred attempt to make a straightforward thriller with impassive star Harrison Ford.