Appraising Polanski

Reflecting on the career of filmmaker Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski

Few filmmakers have actually lived lives of controversy and drama that threaten to eclipse what they have depicted on screen, as has Roman Polanski. The infamous filmmaker has experienced incredible extremes of success and tragedy in his life. He has made several highly acclaimed films including the art-house psychosexual thriller Repulsion with Catherine Deneuve in 1965, horror classic Rosemary’s Baby with Mia Farrow in 1968 and the revisionist neo-noir Chinatown with Jack Nicholson in 1974. However, Jewish/Polish Roman Polanski spent part of his childhood in the Krakow Ghetto, he lost his mother to a concentration camp during the Holocaust and in 1969 his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Charles Manson Family.

Then there is the statutory rape charge that prompted Polanski to flee to France from the United States in 1978 in order to avoid imprisonment. The charge was in fact the result of plea-bargaining from original charges laid by a grand jury that included rape by use of drugs. Polanski’s victim was 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. Just like the fictional British Prime Minister character in Polanski’s latest film The Ghost Writer who can’t enter the UK where charges of war crimes await him, Polanski cannot enter the USA as he will be arrested for those outstanding abuse charges.

Polanski was creative from a very early age, stating in his 1984 autobiography Roman by Polanski, ‘Art and poetry, the land of imagination, always seemed more real to me, as a boy growing up in Communist Poland, than the narrow confines of my environment.’ He began his career in Polish cinema as a child actor and after World War II when went to film school, he continued his pre-war job as an actor. Even to this day Polanski stills acts not just in his own films but for other directors.

His first feature film as a director was Knife in the Water (1962), a tense Polish psychological thriller about a young married couple who invite a hitchhiker to go sailing with them for the day. As they set out, the attractive hitchhiker becomes increasingly forward with the wife, creating a very tense and uncomfortable situation. Knife in the Water introduced Polanski’s favourite theme of sexual anxiety where characters are tormented by the threat of infidelity and the violence that can result from sexual jealousy.

Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965)
Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965)

Polanski’s next feature film was 1965’s Repulsion, an English language film made in Britain with Catherine Deneuve in the lead role as Carol, a sexually repressed woman whose childhood fear of intimacy, sex and men causes her to have intense nightmarish hallucinations. Repulsion is a film of striking imagery used to convey Carol’s anxieties as she locks herself away in her small apartment. As she increasingly loses her grip on reality giant cracks start appearing in the walls, the apartment seems to grow larger and eventually actually arms grow out of the wall to grope her. It is an alarming film that combines a strong art-house aesthetic and intellectual curiosity in psychoanalysis with borderline exploitive subject matter.

Repulsion is not only a masterpiece of psychoanalytic cinema but it truly announced the arrival of Deneuve as an international star. While she had already charmed cinema-goers in The Umbrella’s of Cherbourg (1964), it was Repulsion and then Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) that defined her icy, mysterious and remote-beauty persona.

Remaining in Britain Polanski next made Cul-de-Sac (1966), featuring Donald Pleasence, which continued his previous themes of sexual anxieties becoming accentuated by tense situations and confined spaces. Cul-de-Sac also revealed Polanski’s sense of humour at the absurdity of the human condition, especially with Pleasence’s completely neurotic performance. Polanski’s sense of humour was also apparent in his Hammer Horror inspired 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers (originally titled Dance of the Vampires) although the film was significantly recut for its American release to make it more farcical than Polanski had intended.

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Polanski’s arrival in Hollywood owed a lot to the infamous producer/playboy, and at the time studio executive, Robert Evans. The New Hollywood era of filmmaking was at its height and Evans saw the potential to merge Polanski’s European sensibility with genre cinema. The result was the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, which similar to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) brings together the horror elements of its source novel with the director’s own psychological preoccupations. As Polanski explains in his autobiography he wanted Rosemary’s Baby to have a loophole: ‘the possibility that Rosemary’s supernatural experiences were figments of her imagination.’

After Sharon Tate’s murder Polanski fell into a deep depression and didn’t release another film until The Tragedy of Macbeth in 1971; at the time the most graphically violent cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare play. The famous New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael viewed its copious amounts of flowing blood as Polanski expressing his horror and anger at his wife’s murder. However, Polanski always denied this, writing: ‘Most American critics assumed that I’d used the film for some cathartic purpose. In fact, I’d chosen to make Macbeth because I thought that Shakespeare, at least, would preserve my motives from suspicion. After the Manson murders, it was clear that whatever kind of film I’d come out with next would have been treated in the same way. If I’d made a comedy, the charge would have been one of callousness.’

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974)
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974)

Polanski’s next film was the largely unseen absurdist comedy What? featuring Marcello Mastroianni and set in Italy. When he returned to Hollywood Polanski made Chinatown, the film that after Rosemary’s Baby he is best known for and after Repulsion is the film generally considered his greatest masterpiece. Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, Chinatown beautifully recreates the look and feel of the classic film noirs of the 1930s and 1940s. Nicholson plays a private investigator who gets involved in a power struggle over water rights. Being a film noir he also gets involved with a mysterious woman (Dunaway) and being a Polanski film she has a traumatic past of a sexual nature.

Polanski’s final film before he abused Gailey and then fled America was the French production The Tenant, which has been loosely described as the final part of his ‘Apartment Trilogy’ following on from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. This time, however, Polanski cast himself in the role of the neurotic and paranoid character who becomes increasingly unhinged over his obsession about his apartment’s former tenant – a young woman who attempted suicide.

During his self-imposed exile Polanski’s career has been less consistent. Tess (1979), his adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles starring Nastassja Kinski, was generally well received while his 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist went by relatively unnoticed. His adventure film Pirates was a major career low but he wowed audiences with his 1994 adaptation of the play Death and the Maiden, a powerful study of justice, revenge and truth starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

Polanski returned to his favourite theme of sexual obsession with Bitter Moon (1992), starring Emmanuelle Seigner, the French former fashion model whom Polanski married in 1989. Prior to Bitter Moon Polanski gave Seigner her first notable acting role in Frantic (1988), opposite Harrison Ford. One of Polanski’s more straightforward generic thrillers Frantic is an extremely entertaining film about an American man whose wife goes missing while in Paris. Polanski would return to conventional genre films with the less-effective 1999 occult mystery-thriller The Ninth Gate (with Seigner appearing opposite Johnny Depp) and now with The Ghost Writer.

Adrian Brody in The Pianist (2002)
Adrian Brody in The Pianist (2002)

It was 2002 that Polanski made The Pianist, his most significant film since Chinatown. It was his first and so far only attempt to directly respond to the horrors of the Holocaust, which he experienced first hand as a child. The Pianist won multiple awards including the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and Academy Awards for Polanski’s direction and Adrian Brody’s lead performance. What separates The Pianist from other Holocaust films is its focus on the everyday aspects of what Brody’s character does to simply survive. The camera views events from his perspective so that the audience witnesses what is happening often at a distance as if crouched below a window and peering out onto the street.

Polanski has been in and out of the news again over the past 12 months after his arrest last year in Switzerland, a country that unlike France was prepared to put Polanski under house arrest and extradite him back to the US for trial. The French authorship rights agency Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques (Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers) created a petition for his release on the ground that he is a ‘renowned and international artist’ and that extradition ‘will be heavy in consequences and will take away his freedom’. A number of highly acclaimed filmmakers signed the petition including Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Jonathan Demme, Wong Kar Waï, Emir Kusturica, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton and Wim Wenders.

In 12 July this year the Swiss authorities did release Polanski but on the basis on new doubts regarding prosecutorial and judicial misconduct during the original trial. The 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired certainly alleges that a heavily biased judge had too big an influenced on the original case and that is what compelled Polanski to flee in the first place.

Roman PolanskiThere is little doubt of Polanski’s significance as a filmmaker but the very ugly reality of what Polanski did to a 13-year-old girl continues to hang heavily over his career, regardless of legal technicalities. It is theoretically possible to appreciate his films in their own right but not always so easy to do so in practice. Samantha Gailey did not deserve what happened to her and Polanski’s considerable achievements as a filmmaker will never change that.

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 361, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. A GREAT write-up on a talented, troubled soul.

    Here’s a fun game: Watch Repulsion and Hitchcock’s Psycho back to back. You may find that although Psycho is the more expertly made (and scarier) film, Repulsion is better in conveying truly horrifying psychosis. It always annoyed me how they try and explain Norman Bates’ madness in the final moments of Hitch’s film. Polanski doesn’t dare do it in Repulsion.

    Anyway, that’s a bit of a non sequitur.

  2. Cheers Simon and I’m inclined to agree with you on your assessment of Repulsion and Psycho. I consider both to be masterpieces but, for the reasons you’ve explained, I think Repulsion has dated much better. Along with Chinatown it’s certainly my favourite Polanski film.

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