Following up on their recent success with the Lars Von Trier retrospective, TIFF Lightbox provides a similar overview of the career of another provocative and controversial filmmaker, Roman Polanski. Like Von Trier, it’s often difficult for many to separate the art from the life of the man, and few have lived a more colourful and at time contentious life than Polanski. From his young life surviving the Holocaust, to his wife’s murder at the hands of the Manson family, and then the allegations of teen rape and subsequent fleeing of the US (only to have decades later challenges with the Swiss legal system), his salacious biography trumps for the casual film fan any consideration of his work. At the same time, cinephiles are often quick to simply ignore these facets of his personal life, despite the fact that, like for Von Trier, they seem to play not coincidental roles in both the characters he plays in his films and the types of projects he chooses to take on directorially.
We’re presented a rare privilege to see some of his earlier works on the big screen, leading up to his latest work, CARNAGE, which opens on the last day of 2011. There are at least half-a-dozen other films that TIFF could have drawn upon (PIANIST, BITTER MOON, FRANTIC, even PIRATES), but this restropective does provide a decent overview, a kind of “greatest hits” that lets the uninitiated into the world of Polanski’s cinema.
KNIFE IN THE WATER, 1962
Not bad to have your first film cause a sensation at its premiere at the Venice film festival. Erupting on the international stage, this is the film that crystallized Polanski’s reputation, and introducing his proclivity for sexy, creepy, macabre thrillers with a cool, sharp edges to international audiences.
Polanski’s first masterwork, this tale of a woman going mad in a London flat, complete with rotted food and inappropriately grabby walls. Deneuve is radiant even as she delves into batshit crazy territory, and while it’s stylistic elements border on the kitsch almost a half century later, it’s still a delightfully insane work.
His follow up to REPULSION, this is a dreary yet provocative work by Polanski is full of transexuals, windswept locations, a gloomy castle and sordid sexual teasing. It’s not quite a gothic ROCKY HORROR without irony, but it comes close.
ROSEMARY’S BABY, 1968
If REPULSION made a splash, ROSEMARY drowned those looking for a new form of stylized horror in late-60s filmmaking. Preceding massive, Catholic-themed neo-gothic hits like THE EXORCIST or THE OMEN, Polanski’s delving into the occult provides just enough risqué titillation for a 60s audience to genuinely shock. What may have been overlooked by many at the time is the complete tounge-in-cheek tone that Roman brings to the work – this is a dark arts comedy, owing to the Hammer horror movies as much as to his own wacky works like THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS that proceeded it. That former film starred his late wife, and the inescapable link between Sharon Tate’s murder and the cause célèbre of ROSEMARY makes this a fairly unique film in his canon. Mia Farrow has rarely been better (despite fact that her on-screen insanity may not have been entirely an act), and despite fact that modern audiences would be well ahead of the plot, there’s still lots to love about the work.
If there’s one image of Roman the actor, it’s him with a switchblade slicing through the nostril of a squirming Jack Nicholson. The shot of the little man with the knife is but one of those epic moments in this throwback to earlier Noir films, a complicated rumination on corruption on many fronts, be they political, economic, or even familial. While overwrought at times, Jack’s performance is one of his best, and the beautiful style with which LA is shot, Robert Towne’s slick script, and Dunaway’s steely look set against a wonderful turn by John Huston has made this into one of the classics of cinema.
THE TENANT, 1976
His follow up to CHINATOWN, this is a film oft overshadowed by its more celebrated cousin – For me this is Polanski’s masterwork, a mix of a fabulous performance by the man himself, twisting themes borrowed from likes of Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW into philosophically rich musings on identity. The photography by Nykvist is at times astonishing, and Polanski’s dialogue has never been sharper or more blackly comic (“What right has my head have to call itself me?” is one of my favourite lines in any film). If there’s one work I’ll be definitely attending it’s this wonderful gem of a film.
GHOST WRITER, 2010
I haven’t yet had a chance to see this most recent of Polanski’s film (preceding this year’s CHARADE), but I’ve heard that the performances by Brosnan and McGreggor anchor what in lesser hands would have been a fairly rudimentary film into something much better. I look forward to checking it out as part of this retrospective.
A full list of showtimes for this films can be found at tiff.net/polanski