‘For as far back as I can remember, the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred,’ begins ‘Roman by Polanski’, the autobiography he published in 1984. ‘I have taken most a lifetime to grasp that this is the key to my very existence.’
Did he write that, I wonder, or was it ghosted? It certainly sounds like the real thing – not that we have any guarantee that the face this most esteemed - and in some circles, reviled - filmmaker chooses to present to the world is necessarily a true reflection of the man he sees in the mirror every morning.
At any rate, there is no doubt that Polanski captures the imagination. Nazis, vampires, death cults, Satanists, schizophrenics, child abusers and beautiful girls: his movies and his life are not easily kept separate.
He’s one of that surprisingly select group of contemporary European directors who have triumphed in Hollywood, enhancing both his critical reputation and his commercial standing (among Polanski’s generation, only Milos Forman compares.) His name commands immediate respect from his peers, but also carries a frisson of controversy; intimations of excess, and of sadness. He hasn’t been in the US for more than 30 years now, and if he does return it will be against his will.
The controversy and excess we all know about, they’ve been inescapable since he was arrested in Switzerland last September in deference to an extradition request from US authorities.
This isn’t the place to rehash the rights and wrongs of that case in any detail. The documentary Polanski: Wanted and Desired suggests that his celebrity weighed against a fair hearing in 1977, but no matter the circumstances, his crime – drugging and assaulting a 13-year-old girl – remains repellent.
Still it is important not to let this scandal blind us to the recognition that the recurrence of tragedy in his life has marked Polanski more deeply, both in his consciousness and in ours. Growing up a Jew in German-occupied Krakow, Polanski was orphaned by the war (his mother was murdered in Auschwitz; he was subsequently reunited with his father, who survived the holocaust).
You find his mature perspective on that time in The Pianist – a patient, disciplined, scrupulous film at pains to show the increments by which civilisation turns barbaric. But the experience is reflected equally vividly in the crazy mirror distortions of his grotesque 60s horror movies: in Repulsion (with Catherine Deneuve losing her grip in loneliness); Cul-de-Sac (sexual perversity on Holy Island); and Rosemary’s Baby (Mia Farrow’s phantom pregnancy).
In these bitterly funny, creepy, semi-reputable movies, Polanski paints a world where order is an illusion, subjectivities clash, chaos festers. Nothing and nobody can be trusted and that’s all there is to it. As the cop declares in the last line of Polanski’s most famous movie, ‘Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.’ This, after the devastating revelation that a major character (SPOILER) is a child rapist...
There is an unworthy suspicion that the author of this mayhem brought further violence on his own head – that Polanski is not implicated but still somehow tainted by the murder of Sharon Tate, his second wife, viciously murdered while carrying Polanski’s child by the Manson Family in 1969. This is manifestly unjust, Polanski was an innocent victim, no question, but it’s part of the blurring he writes about in his book and another aspect of human nature: consciously or not, we often give a wide berth to those touched by tragedy, almost as if the condition were contagious.
To his credit, Polanski has remained open to the world and retained his mordant sense of humour. I don’t think anyone would claim that the later films, including the glossy Hitchcockian thriller Frantic, the erotic-parodic Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden, Oliver Twist and this week’s The Ghost, are of the same caliber as the earlier work (though an exception might be made for The Pianist). But still, there is always a sense of mischief in these movies, that and an unassuming, transparent, even self-effacing artistry that speaks volumes for the man’s subtlety and wit, as well as his taste for open secrets.
Top 10 Polanski Films
4. The Tenant
5. The Pianist