Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Top 10 Roman Polanski Films

Paranoia runs deep under Roman Polanski's work, an obvious feature of a man who has lived under the pressure of social scrutiny since childhood. The main reason he attracts that scrutiny today serves as the elephant in the room for any discussion of Polanski's work, not least because of how often the paranoia of his films manifests itself through rape and sexual violation. His grotesque ties to that subject matter make his considerable empathy almost disturbing: what does is say about the general state of commercial filmmaking that a convicted rapist is one of the great directors of women?

As a stylist, Polanski is almost without peer, with lighting, blocking and camera placement always timed for maximum impact. Perhaps the most famous example of this can be found in Rosemary's Baby, in which he had cinematographer William Fraker frame Ruth Gordon partially behind a door frame, causing audiences at the time to crane their necks as if it might help them look around the block and see all of her. This exacting formal perfectionism turns skewed genre fare into enduring works of pure cinema, which gives even his slightest work an aesthetic and thematic rigor. It also makes ranking his films a hell of a task, and by limiting this list to 10 films I leave out several unjustly underrated features like the excellent Ninth Gate, the muscular Frantic, the neorealist and brutal take on Macbeth, even the deeply personal The Pianist. But the 10 that remain showcase the immense skills of one of the great filmmakers of the modern era, and one who can still shock longer after he broke nearly every taboo you can name.

10. Death and the Maiden

In some ways, Polanski's adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play about the scars left by South American dictatorships is a deeper exorcism of his Holocaust demons than The Pianist. By parsing out its revelations throughout the film, Polanski shows us revenge isolated from its motive, which makes it only violence, then asks how we feel about it when the full extent of Paulina's (Sigourney Weaver) trauma is made clear. Her thirst for justice is further complicated by the doubt cast over whether her captive (Ben Kingsley, in a beautifully, and literally, restrained performance) is really the person she believes he is. But then, the need for revenge can override such trivialities as fairness. In the film's most striking exchange, Paulina's husband impotently protests, "What if he's innocent?" to which she replies, "If he's innocent, then's he's really fucked." Has there ever been such a succinct, blackly comic summary of the grotesque hypocrisy of reprisals against dictatorial crime?

9. Knife in the Water

I cannot think of a more appropriate feature debut for Roman Polanski. It is not a landmark, seismic event like, say, Citizen Kane or Breathless, yet the perfectly composed, contained psychosexual thriller shows how innately Polanski understood how to hook a crowd and how to casually display technical mastery. With only three characters (and only two of them named), Polanski crafts a rich triangle of sexual competition, sociopolitical commentary (the unnamed, virile outsider is a working class schlub alternately enervating and energizing the bourgeois couple) and repressed violence. The deep focus shots give a greater sense of claustrophobia than even shallow focus would have allowed, giving the yacht-confined characters nowhere to hide even within the frame, much less the lake. Watching this, there could be no doubt that Polanski would become one of the great Hitchcock disciples, and one of the few to add anything of his own to the master's legacy.

8. Cul-de-Sac

A little bit of everything about Polanski is in this film. Transgressive sexual terror, an isolated setting, a smattering of noir parody, and much more filter in and out of this loopy, indescribable funhouse of a movie. Time seems to freeze on the tide-surrounded home where Donald Pleasance's cross-dressing, submissive husband and his wife (played by Catherine Deneuve's sister, Françoise Dorléac) find themselves held captive by a stranded, bleeding out gangster (Lionel Stander, voice made of pure gravel) as his partner slowly dies. Gradually, however, the tables turn, and that which was already odd becomes full-on madness. Even by the director's standards, this is loopy, yet its character tics, location types and extreme sexual comedy would reverberate through Polanski's entire career.

7. The Ghost Writer

A music box of a film, a throwaway trifle that, upon closer inspection, reveals the intricacy of great craftsmanship that makes its simple pleasures possible. Hell, with Alexandre Desplat's glockenspiel-heavy score (his quirkiest work to date), it even sounds like a music box. Polanski takes to the political content of Robert Harris' book with relish, stressing every hypocrisy of international crime the United States commits (and its lack of recognition of the ICC) with just a hint of self-justifying scorn for the country that turned on him so massively. But these wisps of self-martyrdom cannot overpower the peevishness with with Polanski approaches the War on Terror, brilliantly casting Pierce Brosnan not only as a stand-in for Tony Blair but a vague extension of his post-Cold War Bond, ostensibly liberal but still spoiling for a fight somewhere, anywhere. With the former prime minister's war crimes widely publicized, Ewan McGregor's titular writer finds himself caught up in an even more sinister cover-up, and Polanski's stately but uncomfortable compositions never fail to give the impression that McGregor is powerless, constantly watched and one too-bold move away from meeting the same fate of his predecessor. Among the director's most delicate gems.

6. Tess

Tess’ stately frames lack the darkness aggressively eating away at Polanski's filmography to this point, but the tranquil foliage that delicately frame subjects of interest also have the effect of surrounding the characters, imprisoning them and blocking off the light of day. Polanski keys into the vicious satire of a poor man who finds he has old, irrelevant ties to an ended line of nobility and instantly puts on airs, even sending his daughter try and marry into another branch of the line. Instead, she is raped and left to uncaring judgment of the world, finding it even in the arms of her next lover, whose sense of honor is so ironically misogynistic that he can only look his beloved in the eye when she murders the man who used her. And through it all, Tess is cursed with the ability to see this system for what it is. “Once victim, always victim. That’s the law,” she says. And as the brutally removed dénouement reveals, she was all too right.

5. Rosemary’s Baby

As a horror film of a woman bearing the child of Satan. Rosemary’s Baby is a shiver-inducing work of icy formal precision, in which even inanimate objects loom over Mia Farrow’s titular character in judgment and domination. But the movie becomes even more terrifying, and terrifyingly relevant even today, as an allegory for the manner in which society forces victims to carry their rapists’ babies to term. Rosemary’s husband is named Guy, his name making him a stand-in for men in general. As played by John Cassavetes, Guy savages the actor’s macho tics: following the film’s straightforward depiction of Guy as an actor who literally sells his wife’s soul to gain fame, we can see the man as someone who still holds the view of spouses as property and objects to be used for their own gain. But when Guy casually takes credit for the scrapes on his wife’s body when she awakens from her “dream” of being raped by Satan, he suggests a dark alternate reading of Guy himself being the demon figure that takes his wife, and the doctors, neighbors and friends who won’t listen to Rosemary become an entire system of misogynistic thought that punishes women well after their humiliation. Nothing churns the stomach like Rosemary being goaded into caring for the demon spawn at the end. “You’re trying to make me be his mother,” she exclaims in disgust. “Aren’t you his mother?” the man replies, sealing the poor woman’s fate.

4. The Tenant

It is so easy to read the personal in Polanski's work that the final film of his Apartment Trilogy, starring Polanski himself as the psychologically assaulted tenant, almost seems a reaction against the media firestorm around his rape even though the film came out a year before his crime. Macabre humor pervades the trilogy, but The Tenant is the funniest of the series, its circular, nonsensical story played for uncomfortable laughs. Yet of the three films, this has the closest connection to reality, its tension based not in the constant threat of sexual invasion nor the careful monitoring of equally violating satanists but instead the relatable (if comically exaggerated) irritations of asshole neighbors. Slowly, the banality of their demands drives him insane. A scene in The Pianist of a woman spotting Adrien Brody's character in a complex and screaming "Jew!" may hold the key to this movie, a lavishly absurd analogy for the fear Polanski might have felt every day as a child that the normal pettiness of people sharing the same space might at any moment get him killed. The director loves to laugh in the face of his hardships, and The Tenant laughs hardest to beat back the memories.

3. Chinatown

Only Polanski could take the bleakness of noir and create a revisionist work that painted the genre as too soft in comparison. Most L.A. movies establish the town's seediness through Hollywood via ironic self-flagellation, but Polanski and Robert Towne dig into the city as innately corrupt, created out of a perversion of the natural order by bringing water to the desert and immediately spawning greed and manipulation. The film features one of Jack Nicholson's most controlled, nuanced performances, as if the sheer, awesome madness of the microcosm around the actor managed to cow his own showy instincts in meek fear. Jake's arrogance is a smokescreen that quickly evaporates as he sinks into a morass of murder and incest that leaves him rattled and as catatonic as Nicholson would be after a lobotomy in perhaps his most famous role. Subversive casting choices occasionally pepper Polanski's work, few better than the casting of John Huston, maker of the "first" noir, as the gruff and deceptive kingpin of this fever dream. Many of the director's films build in claustrophobic intensity as they approach their climaxes, but Chinatown impressively does this against the backdrop of one of the nation's largest cities, shrinking the whole place until it is small enough to fit into the palm of its true owner, who promptly crushes it like a bug.

2. Bitter Moon

Chamber horror is Roman Polanski's speciality, with his Apartment Trilogy setting the high-water mark for claustrophobic terror. Bitter Moon isn't confined to one location, though its story visually springs from a tale told in a confined ship cabin to a man held captive by propriety and his own morbid curiosity. The twisted sexual nightmare that Polanski paints takes his sexual dynamics to their extreme, with lust and heartbreak turned from inward pains to outward torture. The noose ever tightens around the smattering of characters, one couple grotesquely joined but divided by their perversion uniting for one last hurrah, the corruption of a stiff, bourgeois couple who individually find themselves lured into the couple's sick openness until they get in too deep. How does one even describe this film's protracted, abhorrent joke, strung along by Polanski at his stylistic peak to make everything as unwittingly irresistible as Oscar's sad saga? A shagging dog story?

1. Repulsion

Polanski entered the English-speaking world with a shockingly confrontational thriller that paid no never mind to any sense of propriety. In fact, {Repulsion} is all about the ways that social conditioning and an obsession with maintaining good reputations do not overcome the evils of the world but mask them and allow them to move more freely. Catherine Deneuve plays Carol as a woman who has fallen prey to these evils and is thus broken from the society that shrouds them. She can therefore see those forces moving freely even within the supposed "castle" of one's home, and the total lack of any secure, safe ground gives the film its primary drive. This gives maximum impact to its demented sexual hysteria, with its nightmare visions of hands always groping, figures always intruding, fissures always forming, and time literally rotting away as the protagonist withdraws ever more in a futile attempt to hide.


  1. No love for THE PIANIST, eh? I still have a few gaps in my Polanski know-how, but I covered a lot of the man's filmography when we covered him on The Film Locker last year.

    From that Polanski bender, I think I have to stick with CHINATOWN as my favorite, though ROSEMARY'S BABY would be a close second.

    The one Polanski-ism that I always recommend is for newbies to watch his "Apartment Trilogy" all in one go: ROSEMARY, REPLUSION, and THE TENNANT.

    1. Oh, I love THE PIANIST. I mentioned up top that it was one of the ones I regretted leaving off, but he's just made too many great films and I would probably pick at least two of the other honorable mentions before getting to it.