The dazed brutality at the heart of Roman Polanski's films
A world of cruelty, where men are cold-blooded and women cold-hearted … The BFI begins a Roman Polanski retrospective – with extended runs of Repulsion and Chinatown – that showcases the director's fascinating pathology
Friday 28 December 2012 22.55 GMT
ny hopes that the BFI's forthcoming retrospective – its second in less than a decade – will turn attention away from the glum key terms of Roman Polanski's life (the Kraków ghetto, Manson, statutory rape) back to the riches of his work are based on false reasoning and certain to be dashed. To watch Polanski's films is to be reminded of what produced their dazed brutality, those early experiences of the oppression of the weak that stole his innocence and distorted his sense of things. If ever there was a body of work on intimate terms with cruelty and domination, and steeped in a vision of men as cold-blooded and women as cold-hearted, this is it.
When, in Polanski's first film, Knife in the Water (1962), the married bourgeois tells the drifting child of divorce, "if two men are on board, one is the captain", he was establishing a pattern that would last for 50 years. According to Polanski, men cannot exist on equal terms; it's either oneupmanship or dog eat dog. Again and again in his films, the particularities of time and place fall away, and an elemental struggle emerges. It can sometimes seem as if he has been searching for ways to recover the clarity and purity of Knife in the Water, in which the characters have nothing to do but find what they are, as one of them says, "made of".
The reason Polanski can make do with so little – before Knife in the Water there were shorts including Bicycle and Two Men and a Wardrobe – is partly that the bare bones are all that he needs, but mostly because they are all that he cares about. Hierarchies interest him more than structures, gender more than class, dynamics more than details. The enclosed space or sequestered residence is his ideal setting. (He is accustomed, having lived as a Jew under nazism and a Pole under communism, to straitened scenarios.) Godard said that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun, Paul Schrader a man and his room; all that Polanski needs is a trio of actors and yards of stern talk. If it weren't for the existence of Werner Herzog, it would be hard to imagine a film director less interested in the world of his audience, with its school runs and shopping trips, its sofas and taxes.
The backbone of Polanski's body of work is formed by three kinds of narrative – the testing of an unequal marriage, the humbling of a complacent professional, and the crumbling of a lonely mind – and few of his films buck all trends to any significant degree. Frantic, for example, a cleverly exasperating thriller about a Paris kidnapping, has similarities with other humbling narratives – Chinatown, The Ninth Gate and The Ghost – including a tendency to frustrate a major star, this time Harrison Ford, in petty ways, but it lacks some of the things they share: a corpse in water, the sense of thwarted rebellion against one's place in the food chain, a downbeat ending. The Pianist, one of two films, along with Oliver Twist, that deals directly with the personal experience to which Polanski's other work gives oblique or allusive treatment, belongs to the lonely-mind genre only in its second half, once ghetto turns to wasteland. (Polanski started off writing his own films, or working closely with the authors of original screenplays, then, having found his formula, turned to adapting source material, much of it strikingly well-matched to his interests and strengths.)
But even these different narrative formations are telling, at bottom, the same story. Polanski has no favourite technique, favourite actor, or favourite genre; he does, however, have a pet concern, one that adapts well. If there are two men on board, both will indeed want to be captain, but it is the woman – a wife or girlfriend, never a mother – who decides which man, and the judging process is sure to be characterised by tickled malignity or scornful glee. ("The women we like," Christoph Waltz tells Jodie Foster in Polanski's most recent film, Carnage, speaking on behalf of men unnerved by feminism, "are sensual, crazy, shot full of hormones. The ones who want to show off how perceptive they are, the gatekeepers of the world, they're a huge turnoff.") Polanski's film of Macbeth, which he adapted with Kenneth Tynan, is usually seen as his response to the murders at his house in Cielo Drive, in which his wife Sharon Tate was killed, but given that it involves a man who over-reaches himself at the insistence of his wife, it is easy to imagine him making it at more or less any point. (Of his adaptations of classics, it is more in line with his sensibility, and a stronger, more convincing performance, than Oliver Twist or Tess.)
Even when one man gains some advantage over the other, he may still be found wanting. At the end of the bleak, memorable, slightly predictable drama Cul-de-Sac, after Donald Pleasence finally responds to the taunt "You do nothing" thrown down by his wife Françoise Dorléac, and kills the gangster who has been terrorising them, she leaves him for the first man who arrives at the scene of the crime. Having started out preening (he tells a former colleague that he lives "the life of Riley"), he ends up howling alone on a small rock, the decision to adorn himself with a beautiful young wife having stolen his stature, robbed him of his dignity. His lavish residence – the castle where Walter Scott wrote Rob Roy – may have been a flashy status symbol, but the French blonde was the true sign of over-reach, the last step before the fall.
The moral limitation of Polanski's work derives from his being, to some degree, a sufferer from the symptoms he identifies. He is at once, or by turns, a large mind and a bad case; his characters' limited or lopsided worldview tend to be justified by the composition of the world. "Women these days wear a virtual armour," he complained to Clive James in 1984, before providing a virtual blazon: "tights, panties, blue jeans, belt, as though they were afraid of constant aggression. There must be something psychological at the bottom of it." And there is just as surely something psychological at the bottom of Polanski's fear of female privacy, his apparent inability to distinguish between a belt and a chastity belt. Polanski conceded, under James's interrogations, that his own desire for female attention is likely a product of his size. Like Napoleon, his character was fixed by the lack of a couple of inches, which in conjunction with the scenes of deprivation, murder and torture that the feeble young boy witnessed in Kraków before and during the war, has yielded images of impotence for two dozen films – all those flat tyres, cracked spectacles and bald heads.
There's a fine line between exploring traditional male versions of femininity, and trotting them out one more time. In Repulsion (1965), one of two films (the other is Chinatown) to receive an extended release during the BFI retrospective, he imagined, at just the point when he was experiencing the benefits of the new sexual freedom, a young woman, Carol (Catherine Deneuve), who is terrified of the male attention she attracts. (Her sister, on the other hand, is audibly giving in every night and desperate to visit the leaning tower of Pisa.) Though "Repulsion" is a double-edged title, telling the story from both sides (the repulsion she feels, the repulsion men encounter), both meanings testify to female irrationality. The nightmare we are being shown is not Carol's but her creator's.
When Polanski made another attempt at similar material, in The Tenant, he cast himself as Trelkovsky, a tiny bachelor with gentle manners, who goes slowly mad in a flat left vacant after the previous occupier leapt from the living room window. Initially, the film looks set to be a study of Trelkovsky's tentative masculinity. He takes a girl to see Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, and though she caresses his crotch during the film, she declines his offer of a drink afterwards. When one of his barrel-chested American friends goes on a rant about women's lib, it is in the context of this emasculation.
But The Tenant transcends comparison to Repulsion in its portrait of persecution. Trelkovsky is both an immigrant (though, as he repeatedly reminds people, a French citizen) and a newcomer to his apartment block, and he is therefore ripe for mistreatment without reprisal. Too frequently in Polanski's films, the men feel they are being hounded by women because they are being hounded by them. Here, Polanski examines a community's oppression of the loner, a group mentality akin to misogyny. If it can sometimes seem that Polanski's sadism towards his characters is being pursued for its own amusement and in isolation from their mistreatment at the hands of their fellow man – at one point, Trelkovsky steps in dog shit, just as other characters walk into doors – then this is because he likes to show the world conspiring against the luckless. It's a form of black comic realism that works better when the misfortune befalling his characters seems the product of a sensibility that is tragic, rather than masculinity wounded into crankishness.
There are exceptions to the portrayal of women as destroyers, both in films that overwhelm such elements with a more general nihilism, such as The Tenant or Bitter Moon, and films that make no space for them by training their attention so hard on male malice or myopia. Death and the Maiden, a straight adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's chilling play, is one of them. The Los Angeles period piece Chinatown is another. Polanski's least characteristic film, it is also his greatest in terms of analysis, craftsmanship and, despite some clumsy moments, storytelling. (It is typical of Polanski's freedom from modernist self-consciousness that he feels no need to deny his thrillers the full complement of genre flourishes.) The first half of the 1970s were one of the great periods of American cinema – 1974 perhaps the high point – and in what turned out to be his abbreviated stay in California, Polanski was a central part of everything, as he had been in Warsaw and London a decade earlier. (A born pragmatist, he has shifted shape according to industrial circumstances.)
Polanski persuaded the writer Robert Towne, who got everything else bang on, to accept a change of ending that would allow Evelyn Mulwray, widow of a good water tycoon, daughter of a bad one, to become a casualty of corrupt power. In the film's closing shots, Jake Gittes, the detective who refused to trust her, and our point of identification, is advised by one of his assistants, "Forget it, Jake – it's Chinatown", the ultimate concession speech. Polanski is a visionary who cannot gain any distance from his visions; often, what we are enjoying in his films is his own fascinating pathology. But in Chinatown, women emerge as a scapegoat for male frustrations – and as the screen for the kinds of false projection that his other films are inclined, and content, to present as dark realities.
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