Polanski: The Highs and Lows
Here he comes again: Roman Polanski has a new film out this week, and although he hasn’t set foot in the United States since he fled from a prison term on charges of statutory rape in 1977, like his last film, The Ghost, it’s set in an entirely convincing America, in this case a handsome New York apartment, and it’s performed by a quartet of Hollywood stars (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C Reilly and Christoph Waltz).
Carnage fits very easily into a body of work that isn’t exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness. Adapted from the play The God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, it’s a cynical, misanthropic comedy about two sets of parents, one lower-middle class and painfully liberal, the other more affluent and mostly paying lip-service to progressive ideas about child rearing and reconciliation. As the story goes on, the civilized veneer of the politically correct couple begins to crack too. A happy ending is not on the cards – but then this is a Polanski film… the birth of the antichrist is about as close as he ever gets in that regard.
On set he’s said to be an exacting perfectionist, he butted heads repeatedly with John Cassavetes on the set of Rosemary’s Baby because he couldn’t abide the actor’s loose, improvisational approach, and reportedly treated Faye Dunaway brutally during Chinatown – though no one would complain about the results. He’s one of those filmmakers with an unerring sense of where the camera should be, what lens is required, and just when to cut. The movie is already laid out in his head.
But even perfectionists have their limits, and Polanski’s list of misfires includes some rare doozies, including the lubricious What? (which even the DVD cover calls “an amoral, depraved disaster”), and Pirates, a rollickin’ high seas romp that sank without a trace everywhere except France. Then there was The Ninth Gate, with Johnny Depp, which the New York Times reckoned was “about as scary as a sock-puppet re-enactment of The Blair Witch Project and not nearly as funny.”
Still, the good out-numbers the woeful by about four to one and at his best Polanski combines a mastery of film with a subversive, mischievous sensibility and the courage to confront humanity at its very worst. Here are some recommendations for anyone inspired by Carnage to embark on further research…
1. Chinatown (1974)
What better place to start than Chinatown? It’s surprising to think that Polanski only ever made two Hollywood movies on US soil. Both are classics, but Chinatown, especially, seems rooted in American history and mythology. This is one of the finest films ever made about Los Angeles, a neo-noir private eye mystery set in the 1930s but seeded with the cynicism of the 70s. Credit is due to Robert Towne’s script, still regarded as a model for all aspiring screenwriters, but it was Polanski who insisted on the ending. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” a cop advises Jack Nicholson’s JJ Gittes – as if he ever could.
2. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
His first American film could have been pure shlock, but instead this restrained, chilling study of a woman (Mia Farrow) who moves into a strange new apartment building – the Dakota building, where John Lennon would live and die - and becomes terrified for the unborn child she’s carrying. Veteran actress and screenwriter Ruth Gordon is the overly solicitous next door neighbour, and John Cassavetes is Rosemary’s not so reliable husband. As much as Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby changed the face of the American horror film and paved the way for The Exorcist, The Omen, and a thousand and one imitators.
3. Tess (1979)
Not one to shy away from controversy, Polanski decided that his first film after fleeing the US after having sex with a minor should be Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel about an innocent country maid seduced and betrayed by an older and more powerful man. This beautifully shot film (with France standing in for Wessex) made Nastassja Kinski an international star and earned Polanski an Oscar nomination for best director. He dedicated it to his murdered wife, Sharon Tate, who had first recommended the book to him.
4. The Pianist (2002)
Ronald Harwood adapted the autobiography of Polish-Jewish Wladyslaw Szpilman for the screen, in particular his memories of surviving the Holocaust. Polanski was the perfect director for such a film, as it mirrored his own experience of WWII. Adrien Brody lost 31 pounds to play the role, but won the Oscar for it – as did Polanski. It’s a muted, painstaking work of historical reconstruction, and perhaps the filmmaker’s most compassionate.
5. Repulsion (1965)
In some ways a dry run for Rosemary’s Baby, this is another psychological horror movie about a lonely, possibly paranoid woman who becomes consumed in her own nightmares. Repulson was shot in London at the height of the town’s swinging reputation, and stars the young Catherine Deneuve in one of her breakthrough roles. If you ever wondered where Darren Aronofsky dreamed up Black Swan, well, a lot of it surely started here, in this super-slow but utterly disturbing black and white freak out. Repulsion is the first of Polanski’s so-called “apartment trilogy”, along with Rosemary’s Baby and the surreal, underrated The Tenant (1977).
6. The Ghost (2010)
This coolly witty suspense film casts Ewan McGregor as a writer hired to ghost the memoirs of ex British PM Tony Blair. Umm, “Adam Lang” (Pierce Brosnan). Lang is charming, charismatic, and highly elusive. He’s also at risk of being hauled up before the International Court of Human Rights as a war criminal. Meanwhile, Ewan is wondering why the previous ghost writer threw himself off a ferry…? This is another superbly realized slow-burner of a thriller, Polanski’s best in the last decade.
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