What are we to make of Roman Polanski? The gifted auteur behind some of the great films of modern times like Knife in the Water, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. A man who has known tragedy intimately and as a result has needed all the fantasy he could muster, he says, ‘simply to survive’. Yet he is also someone who exploited a minor. If it’s not okay to use the artist’s life to interpret their work but the converse is okay, it is nevertheless impossible to ignore the events of Polanski’s life while looking at his artistic achievements.
An opportunity to take another look at this perplexing filmmaker is on its way. During the last week in November, Palace Electric Cinema will be showcasing a retrospective selection of Polanski’s work curated by film scholar and former critic for the Age newspaper, Adrian Martin, and his co-collaborator Cristina Alvarez Lopez.
The ten Polanski films due to screen are drawn from five decades, though the majority come from the 1960s-1970s, when his work was at its best. Also attached to the program is Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008), one of two documentaries made by Marina Zenovich on the statutory rape case that ultimately led to Polanski’s flight from the US to Europe in 1978.
Polanski has not returned since, not even to collect the best director Oscar for the holocaust drama The Pianist in 2003, an adaptation of an autobiographical book of the same name by a Polish Jewish musician and composer. It is well known that for this feature, Polanski drew on his experiences in the Warsaw ghetto, as a Jewish youth on the run from the authorities, and witness to Nazi atrocities.
The retrospective opens with Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, a great choice. His feature film debut from 1962, it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. A tautly drawn suspense thriller, it involves three people caught in a web of deception and betrayal. Masterfully directed in handsome black and white, it is one of the best first films ever. Four years later, Polanski won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival with Cul-de-Sac, an original absurdist dark comedy with Donald Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac (sister of Catherine Deneuve) about gangsters on the run, also screening.
The director had a penchant for appearing in his own films, often, but not always in minor roles for which he sometimes became notorious, like the thug who slits Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown (also screening). He appears as the main character in The Tenant, in which he plays an alienated clerk who struggles to hold himself together after he moves into an apartment in which the previous tenant tried to commit suicide.
Polanski shares the lead in his genre spoof, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), as assistant to a bumbling vampire expert. A damsel in distress that they set off to rescue is played by Sharon Tate, Polanski’s soon-to-be-wife. This penchant has resulted in a long list of acting credits, nearly as many as the films he has directed.
It was intriguing to see in Polanski’s most recent piece on sexual power games and role reversals, Venus in Fur (2013), his wife of nearly 30 years, Emmanuelle Seigneur. She plays opposite Mathieu Amalric, the slight, elfin-faced French actor who looks so much like Polanski when he was young. It has not been included in the retrospective.
Chinatown will need scant introduction, but it’s a rare opportunity to see it again on the big screen. This classic of 1970s new American cinema pushed the envelope in its day, from the chiaroscuro of its film noir origins and into the bright light of day. The youthful Faye Dunaway may have never been better and who can forget J. J. Gittes’ (Nicholson) response when asked if his slit nose hurt? ‘Only when I breathe’.
Catherine Deneuve made an unforgettable appearance early in her career in Polanski’s Repulsion, as a timid, unstable young woman in extremis when left alone in a London flat for a few days. It is a masterpiece of psycho-sexual horror. No less disturbing is the nightmare of demonic possession, Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow appears as a young woman carrying her first child. Just who is the father? Both films helped to consolidate Polanski’s reputation for stylistic assurance and mastery of atmosphere. An aspect of the Polanski vision that Martin describes as ‘a world of sensation in which we can no longer clearly distinguish external stimuli from internal imagination’. And, as he also observes, few filmmakers ‘cherish the grotesque’ quite like Polanski, with films that ‘court fantastic extremes of sexuality and violence, sometimes celebrating such giddy excess, at other times standing back as a social moralist and judging it.’ Here is a filmmaker with something to say. And he says it so well.
The season concludes with The Ghost Writer from 2010, a political thriller in Hitchcockian vein about a wordsmith (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to ghost the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). He learns, at his isolated seaside writer’s retreat, that the previous incumbent drowned in mysterious circumstances.
The chill of fear is never far away, and again and again, Polanski’s films convincingly assert that there is no safe refuge from the demons of our unconscious. Few filmmakers have routinely incorporated, so intensely and credibly, the nightmare world of dreams into the everyday. A very challenging filmmaker, indeed.
ROMAN: 10 x Polanski screen at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, Canberra between 24 and 30 November.