A Roman Polanski Film is A Roman Polanski Film. There’s simply no other way to describe his trademark tone, foreboding subtext, subtle humor and well-balanced atmosphere. Polanski has been prolific throughout his career, delivering everything from classics that will be forever studied and revered, to surefire misses that went away as quickly as they appeared. For all his hits (and, what the hell, his misses too), I’ve always hailed Polanski as one of my favorite filmmakers. I had a great time making my way through his filmography, and I hope you enjoy my thoughts on his entire body of feature film work.
While en route to the lake for a weekend of sailing, a couple picks up a young hitchhiker and invites him on their trip. Shortly into their sail, the only woman on board begins casually flirting with the hitchhiker, sending both men into a frenzied state of sexual tension. No need to describe what ultimately happens, so instead, I’ll use my time here to encourage people (young filmmakers especially) to track down Knife in the Water by any means necessary. As far as I’m concerned, this film should be taught in every film school around the world. It’s a perfect example of what a young, first time director can do with very few actors and one location. A perfectly tense little pot boiler that thankfully doesn’t go where you expect it to. A
Repulsion is one of the best psycho-sexual mindfuck thrillers ever made. The film chronicles, in painstaking detail, the slow and increasingly horrifying emotional decay of Carol (Catherine Deneuve). The reason for Carol’s emotional state is never implicit, though her repulsion of sexual desire seems to motivate her violent demise. While Knife in the Water is a strong debut, it’s Repulsion that gave us the first real insight into Polanski’s true greatness. Denueve, in a mostly silent role, delivers a near career-best performance. It’s one of the finest, most dedicated performances of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown (a film topic I’m fascinated by). Both Polanksi and Denevue contributed fearless work for Repulsion, which is why, 50 years later, the film is as celebrated as it’s ever been. A+
Roman Polanski’s penchant for comedy (absurdist, subtle, or otherwise) has haunted much of his career. He’s clearly a man with a unique sense of humor, but rarely does that humor make for amusing cinema. Cul-de-sac, however, might contain the best of Polanski’s absurdist charm. The film is about a gruff thief who holds a young couple hostage after his car breaks down. A familiar concept, but one that Polanski attempts to make his own via his distinct brand humor. For example, while the thief waits for his mysterious boss to arrive, the film occasionally cuts to the thief’s injured partner who is confined to the broken down car as the ocean tide slowly, humorously floods the automobile.
To be clear, Cul-de-sac isn’t an out-and-out comedy, nor is it solely a thriller. It’s a bit of both, with (slight) touches of Fellini and Bergman mixed in for good measure. The film is Polanski’s worthy attempt at a new genre, but one that’s not nearly as accomplished as it could be. B
Watching The Fearless Vampire Killers today, it’s difficult to believe that the same man made this film between two of his masterpieces. But hell, perhaps that was precisely Polanski’s point. You can’t fault a director for trying something new, but it certainly helps if the film is actually good. Sadly, The Fearless Vampire Killers is a spoof film that isn’t funny and a horror film that isn’t scary. Polanski casts himself as a bumbling, frightened vampire hunter who often widens his eyes in fear with the subtlety of Ed Wood. Not even Sharon Tate, filling the damsel in distress role with her effortless magnetism, can save this film from itself. D
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Holy hell, I get chills just thinking about Mia Farrow’s creepy little lullaby. It’s such a fitting song to accompany this perfect psychological mystery. Rosemary’s Baby is a great example of a director being so taken with a theme that, upon already mastering it once (with Repulsion), he felt the need to revisit it again. And although the scope of Rosemary’s Baby is somewhat larger, it’s as fine a film of its kind that has ever been made. I love revisiting this movie every year and falling under its devilish spell. Truly, there aren’t enough words of praise I can throw this film’s way. A+
As potentially alienating as this is to admit, I’ve always had trouble with Shakespeare. Of course, I appreciate the unparalleled impact he has had on art, but most of the film adaptations of his work are lost on me. Polanski’s dark, foreboding and important Macbeth is a welcome exception. The film was released a mere two years after the Manson Family brutally murdered Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and his anger bleeds through most every frame. While not the most accessible of his works, it’s clear that this was the only film Roman Polanski could have made at that exact point in his life. B+
One of the smartest things I’ve ever done was crash college classes after I had already graduated. I went to college in a city, so even though I had finished school, I still lived very close to campus. Cinema classes were always taught at night, in three hour blocks. So twice a week, I’d crash film classes like Revisionist Westerns, The History of the Documentary, and Existential & Surrealist Cinema.
This is how I saw Roman Polanski’s muddled headtrip of a film, What? The film is about a young American girl who, after almost being raped, hides out in an Italian villa and befriends a pimp, played by Marcello Mastroianni. At least that’s what I think it’s about. This surrealist comedy makes little to no sense, and isn’t nearly as good as it hopes to be. I’m glad I had the chance to see it, but What? is an example of the experience of seeing a film actually outweighing the film itself. C
Chinatown is Roman Polanski’s very best film, and, in no uncertain terms, a crowning achievement of the cinematic art form. Jack Nicholson, in what could very well be his best performance, is a force as J.J. Gittes. He speaks Robert Towne’s words with seamless ease, and occupies Polanski’s magic hour frames with boundless poise. The character arc of Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is one of the best, most tragic arcs on film, and John Huston’s turn as Noah Cross will forever haunt the screen.
Everything about this film oozes perfection. So confident is Polanski’s direction, so tight is Towne’s script, so fluid is John A. Alonzo’s cinematography and, well, you get it. This film has been, and will continue to be, discussed and scrutinized for as long as cinema exists. To see Chinatown is to love it; to miss it is to commit a violation. A+
A kind and reserved man rents in apartment in Paris, despite the fact that the previous occupant attempted suicide by jumping off the apartment balcony. Strange things begin to happen, and the new tenant finds himself clinging to whatever sanity he has left.
An interesting plot, and one that Polanski has had great success with. Problem is, The Tenant is the kind of slow brew suspense thriller where nothing remotely suspenseful or thrilling happens until very late in the film (and even then, it’s a matter of opinion). The film is edited well, shot to perfection by Sven Nykvist, and anchored by a nuanced lead performance by Polanski himself. Basically, because Polanski is such a competent filmmaker, I kept holding out hope that the mystery of the film would pay off. And although it contains dashes of genuine intrigue (a running motif involving a shared bathroom is playfully mysterious), the film never adds up to much of anything. The Tenant is not a bad film, just a painfully dull one that fails to deliver on its promise. C+
Several years before Polanski made Tess, his then wife, Sharon Tate, gave him a copy of the book, “Tess of the d'Urbervilles.” She said it would make for a great film, and that she’d love to play Tess if Polanski directed it. Polanski agreed, but before they could shoot the film, Tate was murdered. A decade later, Polanski made the film as a cinematic love letter to his late wife. Given those sentiments, it’s certainly no coincidence that Tess remains the director’s most reserved and tender film.
The film is a Victorian-set tale of a young woman who continually gets run over by the men in her life. She’s abused, walked out on, led astray – all for reasons that she does not understand. What makes the film so special is how delicately Polanski handles the material. The film is rated PG and runs over three hours, which allows Polanski to take his time. We get to know the woman, as opposed to defining her only based on what she endures. Tess is a long film meant to feel long, but it’s also exquisitely made and worthy of respect. B+
A shipwrecked captain (Walter Matthau) and his first mate get aboard a pirate ship and quickly stage a mutiny to take the ship over. It’s pretty clear that Pirates is Polanski’s attempt to pay homage to the swashbuckling B-movies of yesteryear, but even as tribute, the film is an utter failure – boring as all hell, unexciting and unspeakably long. It also contains Walter Matthau’s worst performance. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t feel phoned in and full of ham. In short, Pirates is the worst film Polanski has made. The only way I can recommend it is if you’re a Polanski completist like myself. Other than that, there is simply no earthly need to venture here. D-
A renowned doctor (Harrison Ford) and his wife arrive in Paris for a conference. Moments after they check into the hotel, the wife mysteriously vanishes. With his mental and emotional state growing more, well… frantic, the doctor searches Paris feverishly for his better half. Each seemingly random piece of evidence keeps the search going, which leads to a conclusion you can likely guessed, as you’ve probably seen dozens of movies like this already. Ford’s performance is fit for his everyman-turned-tough guy persona, likewise Emmanuelle Seigner (playing a young woman who helps the doctor) who delivers the kind of fiery performance we’ve come to expect from her. Yet, Frantic is simply nothing new; just a generic whodunit that fails to stand out. C
This movie is fucking insane. Seriously. The basic premise: after a proper British couple (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas) meet a seductress (Emmanuelle Seigner) and her paraplegic husband (Peter Coyote) on a cruise ship, the Coyote character spends hours telling the Grant character about his life. He recalls how he met his wife in Paris, and the sordid and dangerous sexual lifestyle they quickly fell into. Of course, Grant begins to fall for Seigner, but that’s not nearly as interesting as the film’s extended flashback sequences, in which Bitter Moon turns into an (unintentionally) humorous romp.
First off, there’s the horribly mismatched pairing of Seigner and Coyote (which, admittedly, is done to service the plot). Their lengthy sex scenes are anything but sexy, and terribly uncomfortable to watch. Seigner looks so freaked out and unnatural during these scenes that I kept begging for them to end. And the fact that Polanski and Seigner were already married when they made this film is just baffling to me. However, it must be said that once the sexuality calms down, Seigner adopts a sort of Lady Macbeth persona that I found utterly captivating. She singlehandedly saves the movie from being a complete disaster. C
Very early in Death and the Maiden, an emotionally combative and easily startled housewife named Paulina (Sigourney Weaver), is serving dinner to her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson). His car broke down and he was late getting home, and Paulina starts giving him unneeded shit for it. In a moment of pause, Paulina stops what she’s doing and barely says “Be a good girl,” under her breath to herself. It’s such a poignant, subtle moment, that I had to rewind the film to make sure it was real. From then on, I knew Death and the Maiden deserved my attention.
Moments later, Paulina hears the voice of the stranger (played by Ben Kinglsey) who drove her husband home, and she is convinced that it is the man who raped and tortured her while she was in captivity some years ago. Paulina quickly takes control, tying the stranger up and holding him at gunpoint. Gerardo (a prominent lawyer) attempts to gauge if his wife is justified, or simply confused. Paulina demands a confession, but the stranger pleads his innocence. The film is based on a play and its tight narrative is in full control of the material. While far from the best thriller Polanski has made, I quite appreciated this film’s emotional complexity. B
A greedy rare book dealer (Johnny Depp) is hired to authentic a copy of “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows,” a book that was adapted from an older book that was written by the Devil. Naturally, the book haunts whoever comes into contact with it, leaving our shifty book dealer to assess all that is right and all that is wrong in the crumbling spiritual world around him. While the majority of the cast (including Seigner, Lena Olin, and Frank Langella) deliver solid performances, the movie is anchored by Depp and Polanski, who both phone in their work. I suppose ardent fans of these spirituality-in-crisis films will get more out of The Ninth Gate, but it’s never done anything for me. D+
Polanski’s most personal film is also one of the finest he’s ever made. In retelling the story of Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman, Polanski very wisely but very riskily chose to infuse the film with his own experiences from the Holocaust. This makes for a deeply engrossing picture, one that is painfully true on a number of levels. The Pianist is the rarest of films – consistently unflinching, occasionally brutal (but never sadistic), sometimes sentimental (but never maudlin), yet very rewatchable. It’s a damn difficult film to take, but I’ve always appreciated the candor of its pain.
Adrien Brody’s work as Szpilman is a towering performance, one that justly earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. Every single thing Brody (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) does in the film feels wholly authentic. The entire production is a glorious cinematic marriage between actor and material, between event and creator. I have yet to see a better film about the events that The Pianist depicts. A+
I was quite heartbroken when I saw Polanki’s Oliver Twist in the theater. And, granted, your first film after winning the Best Director Oscar is never going to be an easy one. You’re leading off with the most esteemed award in your profession, and, as a result, perfection is demanded. This adaptation “Oliver Twist” seemed like a splendid idea on paper, with Polanski hiring Ronald Harwood (the Oscar-winning writer of The Pianist) to draft the script, and casting Ben Kingsley as Fagin. But at 130 minutes long, this Oliver Twist is one of the longest films I’ve seen. Boring, misguided and narratively muddled from start to finish. Though many will disagree (Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott quite enjoyed it), I can’t say that a single thing beyond its impressive production design felt worthy to me. D+
An accomplished ghost writer (Ewan McGregor, playfully unnamed in the film) is hired to complete the memoirs of a former Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan, at his entitled best), after the original ghost writer’s mysterious “accidental” death. Days into the job, the McGregor character realizes that his predecessor’s death may not have been an accident, and so begins this enjoyable if not predictable little whodunit.
The Ghost Writer is the type of film in which knowing who made it actually works against the movie as a whole. By now, we’ve come to expect greatness from Polanski, especially in the suspense and thriller genres. And The Ghost Writer, while a perfectly decent suspense thriller, is far from a great film. But is it fair to expect greatness from a filmmaker with every passing film? Or is it fine to simply sit back and enjoy a moody and effective thriller for the duration of its running time? The Ghost Writer doesn’t necessarily feel like A Roman Polanski Film but I suppose not every Roman Polanski film has to. B
Two unhappily married couples meet to discuss a recent scuffle between their sons – a minor altercation that left one child with broken teeth and another with shattered pride. The parents’ extended conversation deviates from the problem at hand, opening itself up to a litany of insults regarding class, stature, appearance, and so on. The characters in the film whine about themselves, one another, their children, whatever. And here is where Polanski and co-screenwriter Yasmina Reza (adapting her own play) succeed: they made a film about annoying people, but the movie itself manages to (mostly) be anything but.
There’s not much more to the movie than a solid script, steady acting, and a fine Alexandre Desplat’s score, but it carries itself well, right up until its final scene. I’ve only seen Carnage once, the week it was released in American theaters, and the main thing that stands out is its cheap conclusion. I’m all for ambiguity in cinema, but the lazy ending to this film still makes me question if watching Carnage was even worth it. B-
It’s always nice when a director circles back to the type of film that made them who they are. Watching Polanski’s latest, Venus in Fur, I was so pleasantly reminded of Knife in the Water. Both films are mostly set in one location, star a few people, and are about the effect that a woman’s sexuality can have over a man. In Venus in Fur, we meet Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), an embittered playwright who’s pissed that he can’t find an actress to play the lead in his new play. As Thomas is about to leave the Parisian theater where he’s been hosting auditions all day, in walks Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a seemingly ditzy, extremely flirtatious new actress who convinces Thomas to let her audition. What develops is a film in real time, in which sexuality, emasculation, and obsession are only the appetizers of the conversation.
As Vanda, I’m not sure Emmanuelle Seigner has ever been better. Her role in Bitter Moon demanded stark sexuality, but that was 20 years ago, and, as mentioned, Seigner looked like a scared little girl. In Venus in Fur, she’s developed into a confident woman who knows how to get what she wants, and does. Mathieu Amalric uses the same snarky, elitist attitude he brings to so many of his roles, to great effect as Thomas. The two are on fire all throughout this film, making it Polanski’s best work since The Pianist. I’m dying to know what the man will deliver next. Here’s to hoping it’s A Roman Polanski Film. B+
Knife in the Water
Venus in Fur
Death and the Maiden
The Ghost Writer
The Ninth Gate
Just Plain Bad
The Fearless Vampire Killers