Tuesday, July 29, 2014

the Directors: Roman Polanski

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.

Knife in the Water (1962)
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 (1965)
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+

Cul-de-sac (1966)
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

The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967)
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

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
La la la laaa, la la la la la la la la la.

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+

Macbeth (1971)
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+

What? (1972)
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 (1974)
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+

The Tenant (1976)
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+  

Tess (1979)
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+

Pirates (1986)
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-

Frantic (1988)
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

Bitter Moon (1992)
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

Death and the Maiden (1994)
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

The Ninth Gate (1999)
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+

The Pianist (2002)
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+

Oliver Twist (2005)
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+

The Ghost Writer (2010)
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

Carnage (2011)
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-

Venus in Fur (2013)
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+

In Summation
Rosemary’s Baby
The Pianist 

Knife in the Water
Venus in Fur

The Tenant
Death and the Maiden
The Ghost Writer

Bitter Moon
The Ninth Gate 
Oliver Twist

Just Plain Bad
The Fearless Vampire Killers


  1. Brilliant take down of a legend. He's a brilliant filmmaker, and while everyone has their ups and downs, he rebounds really well. I love how you note in your summary of Venus in Fur that it's nice to see a director circle back to what made them so great in the first place. I can't wait to see that movie!

    1. Thanks man! So glad you like the post and Polanski's work. I liked Venus in Fur a lot, thanks mostly to Seigner 's incredible work in it. She's as good in that film as she's ever been, which is really saying something. Hope you have a chance to see it soon.

  2. Well done good sir (as always)! We are in agreement over most of these (though I have yet to see What? and Pirates... not that I'm eagerly looking forward to either based on your assessments) though I think the points we disagree on most are the man's most recent films. I wasn't a fan of either Carnage or Venus in Fur, both of which I didn't think were anywhere as cleaver or funny(Carnage)/thrilling(Venus) as they were intended to be. On the other hand I've always thought The Ghost Writer was a great thriller and one of my favorites from Polanski. But you are correct... Once you have seen Chinatown, you cannot unsee it. And that's a good thing!

    1. Also can't resist posting this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37lLqM-h-Ak

    2. Thanks buddy! I'm curious, what letter grade would you give Carnage? Honestly, if I rewatched it now, I bet I'd give it a lower grade, but oh well. I remember being very happy that it was only 88 minutes long. Anymore would've been too much.

      I really liked The Ghost Writer when I saw it in the theater. But I watched it last month and thought it was just okay. Not bad by any means, but not great for me either.

    3. Oh and haha, that song was insane.

    4. If I was to give a letter grade to Carnage I think it'd be closer to a C or C-, a similar score to what I'd give Venus as well. As for TGW, to each their own I guess lol.

      I think you'd find that entire album pretty interesting (though I doubt you'd like all of it lol) it might be worth checking out if you want to hear some more extreme versions of classic film score/title tracks.

    5. Good stuff. It takes a different kind of person to make music like that, and I dig it.

  3. Roman Polanski has become one of my favorite filmmakers in recent years as I think he's on a roll right now and certainly enjoying himself despite some of the personal issues he had been through. I like The Fearless Vampire Killers for its humor while I think Frantic is a well-made suspense thriller. Oliver Twist is alright but at least he made something that he wanted his children so see. Here is my list of the films (and shorts) that I've seen from him so far. I hope to get Cul-de-Sac, Tess, and MacBeth at the next Criterion sale along with some of his other films for a possible Auteurs subject on him very soon.

    1. Nice list man. I am with you on that point about Oliver Twist. I can't fault a guy for wanting to make something that his young children can enjoy. I mean... I doubt they'll be watching Bitter Moon anytime soon. So fair enough.

      I hadn't seen Tess or Macbeth before this post, but I'm very glad I have now. Would love to explore more about them on their Criterion discs. Great films there.

  4. Great article! I actually really love The Tenant, it's so extremely creepy. Ghost Writer was good too, mostly thanks to Brosman and incredible performance from Olivia Williams. My favorite is definitely Repulsion, it's perfect.

    1. Thanks! I wanted to like The Tenant more after this most recent viewing, but I just couldn't get into it. And that ending... I mean...

      Olivia Williams is by far and away my favorite thing about The Ghost Writer. I love her.

      And I love that you love Repulsion.

  5. Excellent breakdown of Polanski's career! I love Polanski, and I especially love what you said about his distinct style in the intro, there are only some directors currently working (Scorsese, Spielberg, Allen, Wes Anderson, Polanski and others) who make movies that when you're watching them, it's so very much their style.

    My personal favourite is Rosemary's Baby. Mia Farrow has one of the most expressive eyes in cinematic history.

    1. Thanks so much! Isn't Rosemary's Baby great? A timeless and creepy classic. Really appreciate you giving the post a read. Happy to hear you're a Polanski fan!

  6. Great post for one of the greatest filmmakers ever. I loved everything you said about "Repulsion" and "Chinatown". I'm a huge fan of "Carnage" but it's definitely not a film that can work for everyone. There's a sharpness and a cynical kind of humor I just adore. And those performances... My God, is Kate Winslet alien or something? How the fuck does she do what she does? I love it when she plays so against the type, like it happened with "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind" as well. Glad you liked "Venus in fur" so much. I'm so familiar with this play because a girlfriend of mine had understudied the role of Vanda for a theater production and I just know the play by heart, both in Greek and English. Definitely not in French, but my French aren't that bad either and I was glad to see that Polanski had decided to make his first French-language film with this play. His wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, killed it. I loved this film since watching it back in theaters in November, when it was released in Greece. The way Polanski shoots people who are trapped in an intentionally claustrophobic space is one of a kind (Repulsion, Carnage, Venus in fur). There's a brilliant metaphor for their emotional entrapment I simply adore. He's one of the greats, period. Everything that has been said about Polanski's unique filmmaking can't even make justice to his talent in directing a film. His body of work is phenomenal. "Chinatown" is definitely his best achievement ever for me. Also, the greatest screenplay ever written. Amazing analysis on his work, man. You did a hell of a job there. I really won't to watch "Knife in the water" and "Bitter moon" as soon as possible. Haven't seen "The tenant" also.

    1. I saw Emmanuelle Seigner in an odd little movie called Buddy Boy.

    2. Thanks Stergios! I really do think Venus in Fur could contain Seigner's finest work as an actress. She completely owned that role, definitely an Oscar-worthy performance. And you're so right, Polanski is a master of shooting people in trapped spaces. Really quite remarkable. I can't imagine how difficult a role Vanda is to play, so that's really cool that you got to witness someone work on it first hand.

    3. Oh yeah, man, it was such an interesting experience to watch a person in your life working on a part that's so demanding. And yes, I completely agree this is Seigner's finest work as an actress for sure. She totally went for it and beyond. This is by far the bravest and most compelling work she's done as an actress. And her and Amalric... I mean that happens so rarely. They both were fantastic.

    4. Irene McKenna, I haven't watched Buddy Boy, but I really like Seigner and I'll probably give it a watch. She's a really good actress, but her performance in "Venus in fur" remains her magnum opus for me.

    5. I haven't seen Buddy Boy either, but I'm definitely interested in checking out more of her work now.

  7. I am deeply ambivalent about watching Polanski's films because of his personal history. I have never been able to completely separate the art from the artist. A topic that, I realize, can be -- and has been -- extensively debated ... I won't go there right now. :-)

    That said, I love your description of his filmmaking style. On your list, I've only seen Tess, Rosemary's Baby, and The Pianist, and they were all good films and very different from one another. I have always been interested in Repulsion -- if I watch any of these other movies in the near future, that will probably be the one. Chinatown has also been on my list for a long time.

    I may also watch Tess again, since I haven't seen it since around the time it was first released. It might be good paired with Jude (with Christopher Eccleston) since, of course, both are based on Hardy novels and they are somewhat similar in theme and tone.

    1. I get where you're coming from - sometimes it can be damn hard to separate the art from the artist. I just rewatched Wanted and Desired and Polanski's longtime lawyer has a great quote in it: “People have a right to their own opinions about what happened, but they don’t have a right to their own facts.” I think people forget that, about any number of situations.

      But anyway, I'm glad you like the Polanski films you've seen, and I really recommend Repulsion and Chinatown highly. Two masterful films right there. Chinatown is perfect.

    2. I started reading your post about Wanted and Desired, and the "consensual" sex argument does not hold water with me. There is no such thing as consensual sex with a 13-year-old child, and alcohol and tranquilizers were involved. So even if it wasn't forced, it doubly meets the legal (and, in my opinion, moral) definition of rape, even if it was not forced. This filmmaker's seeming refusal to take responsibility for his actions and Hollywood's support of him have always angered me. I am the kind of person who sees few issues as black and white -- there are almost always shades of gray -- but, for me, this is definitely a black and white issue.

      That said, "people have a right to their own opinions ..." quote is a good one, even though I disagree with it in context, and it is true in myriad situations. Beautiful article and excellent discussion, Alex, as always! :-)

    3. Looking back at my last comment, I realize the tone sounded kind of judgmental. I have strong opinions about many things -- I hope I didn't come across as a serious douche. :-) One of the reasons I read so many interesting blogs, whenever I can make the time, is because I enjoy entertaining so many different perspectives and opinions.

    4. No, no, you didn't come off as a douche at all. Far from it. In fact, I completely get where you're coming from. Look, simply posting a review of that movie is enough to spark a debate. I knew that when I posted it, which is why I was very careful not to give my own opinion on the crime in my review. I just want to encourage people to watch the film (the first film, that is) so that it will better help inform their opinions. In fact, I would be very, very curious what you thought of the film as a whole. You clearly have well defined (black and white, as you say) views on the crime, but I’d love to know what you think about how the case itself was handled.

      I’ve always found it odd that Polanski brushed the matter off as well. As if it wasn’t that big of a deal. As if, quite frankly, it was something he has done before. Another interesting point of discussion: Geimer had had sex with similarly aged men before she met Polanski. Why weren’t they prosecuted? Do I think Polanski should’ve been prosecuted? My god yes, of course. But do I think the others should’ve as well? Absolutely.

    5. I'll read your review of the film tomorrow -- I am curious to read your thoughts and learn more about how the case was handled.

    6. Thanks so much for your comment on that post. I really appreciate you reading.

  8. I am not exactly sure how I feel about him. I have seen all of usual suspects. So your masterful column is checked + Cul De Sac and The Tenant and if I am perfectly honest, only Tess and Carnage were on my radar till now.

    As you said, films like Chinatown, Repulsion and Rosemary are crowning achievements, not only for Polanski but for Cinema in general. I agree with you on almost everything I have seen but I guess I would have to see some of his 'not so good' films before passing on any judgement.

    P.S.: Isn't Repulsion, The Tenant and something else suppose to form some sort of trilogy? I forget which is the third one.

    1. Yep, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant formed the unofficial Apartment Trilogy. Perhaps a better one, as Stergios pointed out, would be something like the Claustrophobic Trilogy (though it'd be way more than three flicks), because the man loves to shoot entire films in such tight spaces.

      He's definitely made some films that you can skip, but I would recommend Knife in the Water of the ones you haven't seen. It's really quite something.

  9. I would love Polanski if he had made The Pianist only but I'm a huge fan of Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby too. I've watched Chinatown in parts and I need to fix that soon. I also adore Carnage and Ghostwriter. I remember when I saw Ninth Gate during the height of my Depp-obsession. What a shit that was. I recently saw Macbeth in class and though not my favourite adaptation, it does some interesting things.

    But yes, The Pianist for me is like one of the greatest things ever made and it still blows my mind how someone can revisit their past like that.

    1. (sigh) The Ninth Gate... I blind bought that movie way back when. Big mistake. A pretty lousy film. Interesting that you watched Macbeth in a class. I wouldn't think a teacher would pick Polanski's version over others, but I dig that.

      The Pianist... so perfect, right?

    2. Oh we saw like EVERY adaptation. I'm so sick of the story. I hope it is out of my system by the time the Fassy one releases.

    3. Every one?! Jesus, was your teacher a masochistic or something? Ha. I'd go insane.

  10. Alex, this is ridiculous. I've never seen a Polanski film. Not a single one.

    But this is supposed to be a bummer free zone, so I'm going to take all the knowledge gained here and embark on this mission from the top. I've always wanted to see Chinatown and The Pianist. Maybe I'll even opt for some Rosemary's Baby...but Mia Farrow scares the shit out of me.

    Oh, and for the record, crashing film classes is fucking brilliant. If I weren't a 100, I'd give that a shot. And to think at my school, I remember dudes cutting our film classes.

    1. Well, the cool thing about not having seen a Polanski film is that you have the rare opportunity to ONLY see The Roman Polanski Films. For example, if you see the four under my Masterful section, then you will be a well versed Polanski-ite. But shit man, if Farrow scares you, Rosemary's Baby is going to freak you the fuck out.

      So many people used to cut out of film classes when I was in school. The professor knew it, so when people left he would say, "On the test, there will be a question that reads 'How many dogs does Professor Jones have?' The answer is none."

      Sure enough, a few weeks later, right there on the test:

      6: How many dogs does Professor Jones have?
      a. 1
      b. 2
      c. none
      d. I don't know, I skipped class.

      Dude was hilarious.

    2. Alex, I love your professor's style. :-) M. if it is any consolation, you are still younger than I am.

    3. He was such an insightful, obscure man. Could talk for hours about Fellini, Bergman, Ford, but literally, no bullshit, had no idea who Angelina Jolie was. This was 2008. Hilarious.

  11. Awesome work! I can't wait for Venus in Fur! Glad to see Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in the Masterful category. I'd put Cul-de-Sac and The Ghost Writer in Great, but I still need to see titles like Macbeth, Tess, The Tenant and Death and the Maiden.

    1. Thanks man! I'll be interested to see how Cul-de-Sac sits with me over time. I've only seen it twice now, and it does get better with each viewing. So we'll see.

      I'd be very curious to hear your thoughts on Death and the Maiden.

  12. I'm so glad you did this Alex! Funny enough I'm actually getting the chance to see Chinatown on the big screen in a few days!


    1. Thanks for reading man! Holy hell, I'd love to see Chinatown on the big screen. What a thrill that would be.

    2. Yeah I'm excited. Kenneth Turan will be at this screening for a discussion of the film and a book signing afterwards.

    3. Did you see it yet? How was it?

    4. It was wonderful! You don't realize just how funny the film can be until you watch it in a crowded screening. Also it's amazing how over 40 years later the violence within the film continues to shock audiences.

    5. Yeah, it actually is a very deeply funny film. Or rather, it has a few deeply funny moments. So cool that you got to see it on the big screen.

    6. I saw it for the first time on the big screen at the Prince Charles in Lester square and absolutely fell in love with it- instantly my favorite.

      The guy above is so right. Everyone there had seen it dozens of times and yet with each jolt and jump they were shocked too. There was such a tense, raw atmosphere to the whole place, and of course everyone laughed too- its a hilarious film.

      We sat in silence through the credits, and then applauded. The best movie-going experience of my lifetime, thus far, anyway :P

      One film (I wouldn't watch again) I would have wanted to go and see would be United 93. Mortifying, done just as it should have been, and wholly necessary.

    7. I love those life-affirming movie-going experiences. They're just the best.

      United 93 is such a rough ride. One of the most visceral movie-going experiences I've ever had was watching that for the first time. When it was done, people didn't move during the credits. When we got up to leave, everyone slowly stumbled out, as if we were leaving the funeral of a dear friend.

  13. Roman Polanski is a hard man to speak on without bringing up the controversies that encircle him. In writing this, I'll try and avoid bringing up those controversies as best as I can.

    There are two Roman Polanskis. Deep down we know this.

    The first is a man who emerged from the shadows and plucked the crown from atop Hitchcock's head. A master of the psychosexual, the hyperbolic and the human.

    Secondly is a man fighting to gain back his credibility, fleeing, diving back into those shadows from which he emerged and forgetting the crown across the border.

    Forgive me for my flowery espousing, to me Polanski is a great many things, he's a filmmaker that I've a love hate relationship with. I hope you can afford me the soapbox to drone about true cinema.

    His blunders, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Oliver Twist, Pirates among others, only cement that he is a true filmmaker, what I feel a filmmaker should strive to be, a gambler, a risk taker, hungry when he's poor and hungry when he's rich.

    Conversely, his masterpieces stand the test of time, tragedies that speak to our fallibility. His horror films are born from ourselves, plunging harsh imagery and ideas into minds that deep down, already housed these thoughts, fearful and sinister.

    As for his take on comedy, specifically Cul-de-Sac (My favorite Polanski film, yeah, I know.) They are self obsessed and wish fulfilling. Older man, younger woman, sipping wine and wearing Dior. Manic works like Carnage fall flat but again reflect Polanski's ideology and ever present use of theme. Polanski puts himself in his work whether literally like in Vampire Killers, figuratively like Cul-de-Sac or emotionally in The Pianist.

    All of these things make for a cinematic presence that has only few peers. This is a fine list you've put together, exemplifying the reasons behind Polanski's highs and lows. Although not as dense as your writing on Scorsese, Di Palma, Lee or Allen and not as coloured by respect and adoration as your work on Soderbergh and Bergman, I think this is your finest addition to The Directors yet.

    I thank you deeply for writing this, I'm eager to dive into your further writing on Polanski.

    I remember watching this BBC interview with Polanski, they went through a time line of then, Polanski's films oldest to newest, I think it was around the time The Ghost Writer was upcoming. The interview brought up the oft maligned rape scene in Tess and made a parallel to Polanski's trial and holding.

    I could see the colour drain from Polanski's face, I could tell that he was so tired, of running and hiding, of explaining and avoiding and here he was again. The conversation turned white hot for a moment, eventually breaking back to a conversation about cinema.

    Moments after, Polanski talked about his shooting method on Tess. He had three cinematographers shooting simultaneously during key scenes, one on wides and establishing exteriors, one on close ups and one on dialogue and over the shoulder.

    Hearing this brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. I was floored as he went on about how he shot and how he approached a shooting schedule. As you may have inferred from my time commenting on your articles and your reading mine, I have a thirst for cinema, an almost Renaissance-like regard for the artform and the masters of the science behind it.

    And here's Caravaggio, Roman Polanski showing that he is so very much, a true filmmaker, beyond auteur theory or any of those ideas. It was the innocence behind his words that struck me. He was making a movie three times faster than anyone else with three times the love and attention. This wasn't something he picked up from school, a dodgy trick he had concocted or something he read in a cinematography magazine, it was just how Roman Polanski told stories.

    Polanski seems like a hard man to like, cold, aloof, craggy but there's something intriguing about how he sees the world and how he shows it film to film. Great read man.

    1. What an epic comment here. I LOVE this. I had no idea you were such a Polanski fan, and I respect every word you wrote. Honestly, your words of praise for Cul-de-sac make me want to go back and watch it again. Maybe I'll appreciate it more (even though I did already). But who knows, maybe that's one that will sit really well with me.

      And I so appreciate what you said about my writing and this column in general. That really does mean a lot to me. Thanks man.

  14. How the director of the Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist can make so many shamless bad movies. How? :<(

    1. Ahh, it's bound to happen, you know? After so many movies and a career that spans so many years, they have to make a dud every now and then.

  15. Chinatown is my all-time favorite film, glad you think so much of it. Where do you hold it among your own favorites?

    Also- I agree that Repulsion is absolutely superb, easily among his best.

    1. Oh, Chinatown is up there all right. Top 20-25, for sure. That script is just fucking flawless. So intricate and evolved.

    2. Nicholson and Dunaway's (and to an extent Hustons) acting (career bests imo), Goldsmith's fucking perfect score, Polanski's direction and that magical magic hour cinematography. It all comes together- but Towne perhaps played the most integral role. Every other line is a great one.

      Since it also came out in 74, I'm assuming you prefer Godfather 2? :)

    3. 1974 is so tough. I see on a post of mine in which I picked every Best Picture winner, that I actually chose Godfather II. But man, I don't know. Right now, today, I'd go with Chinatown, for whatever reason. Other days it'd be Godfather II, and hell, other days it'd be The Conversation. Three inarguable masterpieces.

      Silly that The Towering Inferno is there. It's fun, but no A Women Under the Influence or Day for Night (or Blazing Saddles, or Murder on the Orient Express). I've still never seen Lenny.

    4. Whilst I was away I was itching to hear what you would choose. For me its a no-brainier, but Jesus man those three really make it hard regardless. I've always thought more of The Conversation than either Godfather, and Apocalypse Now as the guy's opus, but still- tough as hell.

      Even the movies of 74 that cant complete with these (Texas Chainsaw and Blazing Saddles) are among the very best in their respective genres.

      I wondered what you thought the best film of 1954 was? I was going to ask you about 66' but then I remembered Persona (not my pick). Going to see it on the big screen August 23rd! :D

    5. Holy shit!! Persona in a movie theater?! I'd die. Like, seriously, I would love to be able to see that.

      1954... hard to mess with Waterfront, but it's gotta be Seven Samurai for me.

    6. I know right!!! :D So amazing its a shame there's an ocean in the way ;P

      Gotta be SS for me too, though I cant choose between that and Rashomon for the man's best, unlike you. Have you seen Sansho the Bailiff?

    7. I haven't seen Sansho! I need to ASAP though.