In “The Pianist,” Polanski is saying what he has long wanted to say, confronting the roots of his own preoccupations and obsessions, and he allows nothing to get in the way. It’s his most emotionally direct film, at times even a brutally blunt film.The film has the simultaneous feel of being observed as it happens and of springing from a complete vision.
We all know about the horrors the European Jews faced. But no movie has ever presented them in quite this way. Like the dead-rotting face of Mrs. Bates subliminally imprinted on her son Norman at the end of “Psycho,” a death’s-head grin seemed to emerge on the very celluloid of pictures like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.” The black humor of those films was without compassion. The grim hopelessness of Polanski’s humor was the coping strategy of someone whose life had twice been marked by pure evil. You could understand where it came from and still be repulsed by it. There is no such distancing in “The Pianist.” Here Polanski is almost frighteningly open to the portrayal of inexplicable evil. At times I felt myself pulling away from the screen, as if Polanski were milking my response. When Nazis pick ghetto Jews out of a milling crowd and force them to dance, Polanski shows us a cripple on crutches falling to the ground. Polanski rubs our face in the obviousness of the cruelty, and it’s grating; that man seems doubly humiliated. And yet were Polanski to shrink from the worst it would seem inappropriately prim. He might almost be answering here for the grotesqueries his own films have relished.
“The Pianist” took the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival but almost immediately, the critical word coming out of Cannes was that it was Polanski’s most conventional movie, something like an old-fashioned well-made studio film of the ’40s. Is it the directness of the film that generated that response? Whatever the reason, classifying “The Pianist” as conventional doesn’t take into account how the film proceeds from the unblinking depiction of Nazi atrocities into territory which is artistically very risky, and how Polanski complicates the righteous anger the film stirs up in us. I think Polanski is attempting to put us in the shoes of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) by making the events of the movie so direct and overwhelming that they cannot be easily sorted out. He makes us feel but does not always tell us how or even what to feel. Nothing in the first half of “The Pianist” prepares you for the audacity of what comes after Wladyslaw, having been spared the death camps, lives as a worker in the ghetto before escaping and, with the help of various members of the underground resistance, hiding in a series of unoccupied apartments. In the last hour of the film, Polanski and Brody come close to making a great silent comedy about the Holocaust.
Rosemary’s Baby is one of the few horror movies I can name that is so compelling in its minutiae, so perfectly structured, or sculpted, rather, and most importantly, such a completely realized portrait of recognizable humans caught up in a bizarre situation (from its hero to its many villains), that by the time its characters’ idiosyncrasies have been revealed as indicative of something far more sinister, we’re already emotionally invested enough that we dread rather than crave shocks.
As most agree, Roman Polanski’s effortless masterpiece perfectly mixes a paranoia thriller with the supernatural Satanic, while creating cinema’s most disturbing, persuasive pro-choice narrative (the true horror of the film comes from young Rosemary’s lack of control over her own body, which has been corrupted by nearly every person around her). What makes it special is in the telling: Polanski’s casual brilliance with narrative and space is matched by his adeptness at screenwriting here. With a few elegant strokes, entire back stories are sketched: Rosemary’s Catholic upbringing is portrayed only through abstracted dream sequences and her obvious discomfort at an anti-pope dinner party conversation; her husband Guy’s narratively crucial out-of-work-actor desperation not belabored upon but taken as a sly given; and Polanski wisely allows the creepy next-door Castavets to be almost wholly defined by the amusingly eccentric behaviors and mannerisms of Ruth Gordon (fussy, fidgety, nosy, aloof) and Sidney Blackmer (self-righteous, self-amused, with a piercing stare). These people (including Rosemary’s dapper elderly friend Hutch) are individually fascinating enough to each warrant their own film; all are utterly different in decorum, and their neuroses and needs bounce off of each other with ease.
A great suite of interviews with Polanski, production designer Richard Sylbert, and playboy producer Bob Evans (of The Kid Stays in the Picture fame)–in two parts:
A savage and cynical journalist (Leon Niemczyk), about forty, and his young, hard-bitten wife (Jolanta Umecka) pick up a reckless student (Zygmunt Malanowicz) and take him aboard their little yacht. The men get into nasty competitive games, with the woman as the prize. “Knife in the Water,” Roman Polanski’s first feature-length film (screening at the Pioneer Theatre on May 29), made in Poland in 1962, when the director was still in his twenties, is remorseless in its view of life and ineffably beautiful as a piece of filmmaking. Polanski has never done anything more fluent or skilled: his attention to such things as mood and gesture and the altering landscapes of wind, rain, and water is the work of a virtuoso. He stages complex movements and maneuvers in a tight, perilous space, building up erotic tension to an almost unbearable pitch. The tension is never truly released: sex is no more than a ploy in a world in which no one who is weak, or even decent, could possibly survive. You can see how postwar Poland formed Polanski, and also why he had to leave.
With its oblique but unrelenting psychological violence, politically charged nihilism and incisive visual forms – the images in this film, like the knife of its title, will cut you if you get too close – Roman Polanski’s Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water) is not only one of the filmmaker’s best films, the only feature he made in his home country and native tongue before emigrating on towards fame and infamy and back towards fame again, but also one of the most enervating treatises on human relationships committed to celluloid.
Roman Polanski’s 1976 English-language, Paris-set creepfest was adapted from a novel by the French graphic artist Topor, but it may be the director’s quintessential movie. It’s an exercise in urban paranoia and mental disintegration that echoes or anticipates everything from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby to Bitter Moon and The Pianist. Indeed, the movie is a true psychodrama: Polanski himself plays the eponymous protagonist, a furtive Polish-born Frenchman named Trelkovsky who rents the apartment of a recent suicide and is gradually driven mad by his mysteriously hostile neighbors.
Understated, at least at the beginning, The Tenant is also unrelenting as the hapless Trelkovsky is flummoxed or humiliated by one unsettling interaction after another. (The stellar international cast includes Isabelle Adjani, Shelley Winters, and Melvyn Douglas.) Naturally, The Tenant is a comedy—inspired, perhaps, by the joke that Trelkovsky is nowhere at home (least of all in his own skin) or by the Kafka wisecrack “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.”