The God Of Carnage: The Complete Films Of Roman Polanski

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
December 16, 2011 2:54 PM
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With a career marked by controversy and tragedy, triumphs and disasters, that Roman Polanski has shaken off personal obstacles and professional setbacks is a feat in itself. But that he has become a legendary and influential filmmaker in the process, speaks to his remarkable strength and skill behind the camera no matter how you feel about the man personally.

Polanski is well known as a craftsman of stylish thrillers, most notably the informal "Apartment Trilogy" of "Repulsion," "Rosemary's Baby," and "The Tenant," films that trade on nightmarish images, claustrophobic spaces, and creeping paranoia. But looking back over his filmography one is immediately struck by the breadth of genres he has tackled, from the psychological potboilers above, to literary adaptations (“Oliver Twist”), swashbuckling adventure (“Pirates”), World War II drama (“The Pianist”) and sizzling noir (“Chinatown”). Granted, results have certainly be mixed -- he seems to informally follow one great movie with a middling or downright terrible effort -- but few directors share the kind of ongoing curiosity and sense of personal challenge that Polanski seems to embrace.

But one cannot comment on the erratic nature of his career without mentioning his tumultuous, tragedy-strewn personal life. As a child Polanski survived the Holocaust that claimed the life of his mother; in 1969 his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of cult leader Charles Manson; and in 1977, having been arrested for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl, Polanski pleaded guilty but fled the country to avoid sentencing. Since he hasn't been able to set foot in the United States for the past few decades, it lends the movies that are partially set here, like his recent, atmospheric thriller "The Ghost Writer," an air of surrealism and dreamy detachment; it's the remembrance of the United States, instead of recent firsthand knowledge.

But we’ll leave it to history to weigh in on Sharon Tate, his legal troubles, his exile from the U.S. and how all of that will affect his legacy: no matter what, we will always have his films. At their best, they display a wit, an edge and an elusive, indefinable atmosphere that is distinctly his own, combining a rather European preference for ineffable style with an entertainer’s flair for showmanship.  This weekend, the slight, but diverting “Carnage” brings another display of the director’s cracked sense of humor and relentless energy, and it gives us a welcome opportunity to look back on his body of work, spanning his career from top to bottom.

"Knife in the Water" (1962)
"Nóz w Wodzie," or "Knife in the Water" when translated from the Polish, marked Polanski's feature debut, made at the age of 27 after a string of shorts, and it's hard to think of a more assured first film. Like much of his early work, and indeed latest film "Carnage," it's a taut drama with a limited cast and an enclosed location; Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are a married couple, one who are clearly having some issues under their facade of middle-class happiness. En route to go sailing on their yacht, they pick up a hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz, whose lines were actually dubbed by Polanski, who had originally wanted to play the role himself), and head out onto the water together, where the two men butt heads, alpha-male style, for the attentions of the woman. Working from a screenplay without an ounce of fat on it, Polanski shows from the first that he knows how to wring the maximum tension from such a situation, and unlike the later "Dead Calm," a crass, if enjoyable, homage/rip-off of the 1962 film, doesn't need to resort to outright murderousness to keep it as taut as a snare drum. Instead it's people's insecurities, flirtations and fears that makes this a gripping thriller. And Polanski is already firmly in command of his craft, using a then-relatively bold hand-held approach to stop the film feeling stage-bound, and cutting out the jazzy, jarring score when needed for maximum tension. He might have gone on to greater things, but he couldn't have asked for a better start. [A]

"Repulsion" (1965)
Often cited as a twisted inversion of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," “Repulsion” is an uncanny little shocker and the first film in Polanski’s so-called "apartment trilogy" (the later films being "The Tenant" and "Rosemary's Baby"), which many point to as the most crucial cluster in the filmmaker's oeuvre. Here, the young, virginal Carole (played, with saucer eyes and sincerity by a breathtaking Catherine Deneuve) is a Belgian immigrant who works at a London nail salon, but slowly becomes more isolated and alone, to the point of becoming unhinged. Polanski, using stark black-and-white photography a half-decade after "Psycho," does a wonderful job of placing us in Deneuve's psychological state, alternating calm moments with fits of paranoia, rage, fear, and outright hallucination (like the iconic sequence when the walls of her cramped apartment grow arms that grab at her). And if that doesn't sway you, maybe the original tagline from the grabby poster will: "The nightmare world of a virgin's dreams becomes the screen's shocking reality!" (Exclamation point theirs.) The film somehow found its way into the public domain dumping ground and for a while you could only see it via dodgy DVD transfers, but thankfully those Criterion came through and rescued it. Their presentation (also available on Blu-ray) is profound and jaw-dropping: the horror is scarier because, like Deneuve's character, it's so damn beautiful. [A-]

"Cul-de-Sac" (1966)
Throughout Polanski’s career he has frequently returned to the trope of carefully-constructed power struggles that overheat in confined spaces, often centering these dramas on two males and one female (see “Death & The Maiden,” “Knife In The Water,” or even “Carnage” that adds a fourth person into its one-setting scenario). So it’s no real surprise that only one feature after having the action of ‘Knife’ play out on a boat, he immediately revisited the theme in “Cul-de-Sac” -- recently brought back to DVD by the Criterion Collection. Set in a castle on a remote island in North East England, “Cul-de Sac” initially focuses on a wounded criminal, Dickie (Bronx-born tough-guy actor Lionel Stander) and his dying partner who take refuge at a beachfront castle owned by a ineffectual Englishman (Donald Pleasance) and his gorgeous and headstrong French wife (Françoise Dorléac). The duo take the pair hostage, but soon Dickie’s partner dies from his gun wounds and the mobster is forced to wait for never-arriving back-up while he bickers and squabbles with both the husband and the wife. And while a strangely humorous relationship dynamic begins to emerge among the trio, snotty guests continue to drop by unannounced, and keeping the ruse going becomes even trickier. Nihilistic and filled with unlikable characters, "Cul-de-Sac" is often compared to Samuel Beckett's "Waiting For Godot" and the works of Harold Pinter, but it also plays with some of the director’s favorite themes like emasculation, insanity, isolation and sexual frustration.  Maybe not Polanski’s best -- which is why it took years to get a proper DVD release -- but as a wry little tragicomedy, it’s a diverting and entertaining effort [B]

"The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967)
If monomaniacal modern vampire culture is getting you down, maybe it’s time to revisit the earlier cape-wearing incarnations of the myth, before vamps got all sparkly and in touch with their feelings. Or, on this evidence, maybe not. Polanski’s campy parody is these days most notable as the film on which he met his future wife Sharon Tate (shot here to be not so much beautiful as bioluminescent), and while it’s silly and fleetingly amusing it’s not really mandatory viewing for the genre, or for Polanski’s oeuvre either, for that matter. At a stretch, if we want to fit it into the wider “story” of Polanski’s career, we can look at it as marking one of the few times he left his style of usual comedy often so dark, so understated, to go broad (depending on what you think of “What?” and “Pirates”). But here again it’s difficult to judge exactly, as the film was famously recut for U.S. audiences to be more of a cartoony spoof than was possibly intended. Widely recognized as one of his weakest heyday-era films, it does still have some curiosity value, however, especially to see the impish director himself clowning around goofily amid the kids-at-Halloween-style Dracs. And special mention must be given too to the eerie, choral-vocal-led score by Krzysztof Komeda, which alone is worth the price of admission. A vampire movie in which the soundtrack is the most interesting thing? Maybe it’s not so different from “Twilight” after all. [C-]

"Rosemary's Baby" (1968)  
The second part of the unofficial "apartment trilogy" (which began with "Repulsion" and concluded with "The Tenant") and the most important film of that bunch, "Rosemary's Baby" was an Oscar-winning American horror film that took on even more haunting dimensions after Polanski's life was struck by tragedy. The story, based on a successful novel by Ira Levin, was optioned by William Castle, the cigar-chomping showman mostly known for his in-theater gimmicks (rather than his largely subpar films). When he brought the film to Paramount, they agreed to bankroll it on one condition – Castle himself could not direct it. Begrudgingly, he handed the reins over to Polanski (Castle still makes a split-second cameo in the film, as a man Rosemary takes for her villainous doctor). The result was an all-time horror classic. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is a woman happily married to an actor (John Cassavettes) and the proud owner of a cavernous New York City apartment. After she becomes pregnant, those benign elements of her life start to take on a freakish, otherworldly dimension, as she becomes convinced that the baby inside her is a creature of supernatural importance. Farrow, in a role that would divide her from then-husband Frank Sinatra and cause a pixie-bob haircut sensation, is dynamite and Polanski's arty background serves the film well, obscuring outright horror and letting us sympathize with our leading lady. Without any context it’s already a masterpiece of dread and paranoiac unease, but Polanski’s intimate connection, just the following, year  to a real-life horror story retrospectively lends the proceedings an added layer of uncanny eeriness. [A]

"Macbeth" (1971)
After Tate’s death led to Polanski abandoning the sci-fi thriller “The Day of the Dolphin” (Mike Nichols would make it instead), for which he had already been scouting locations, the film that marked his return to directing was, perhaps oddly, this adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Polanski was well aware this controversial choice would come under close scrutiny for many reasons,  and stated in his autobiography that he sought to be true to the violent nature of the work, critics and onlookers be damned; perhaps it was a strange form of cathartic therapy for the filmmaker.  Either way, while certainly not known as one of Polanski's best or most popular efforts, nevertheless, "Macbeth" is an engrossing picture, especially for fans of the classic tragedy about iniquitous ambition and its foul consequences. Starring Jon Finch as Macbeth and Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth (the former perhaps best-known for starring in Hitchcock’s “Frenzy”), the film was not well-received upon its release, with critics apparently distracted by the graphic violence and brief nudity (incredibly tame by today’s standards). What they missed, it seems, are the great performances by Finch and Annis as they sink deeper and deeper into their immoral, murderous morass of treachery. At almost two and half hours, those with a low tolerance for ye olde speak might find the picture a little too burdensome, but as a psychologically realist adaptation of Shakespeare it’s first rate and decisively captures the the heavy price, toxic shame, guilt and horror the bloody and ill-conceived murders eventually bring. Odd footnote: Hugh Hefner’s Playboy financed the film and ended up deep in the red. [B]

Che?” (aka "What?") (1973)
Often described as a mordant absurdist comedy with a few screwball tendencies, the incredibly loosey-goosey “What?” is probably better characterized as an ill-conceived misfire that’s rarely funny and kind of pointless. Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Sydne Rome and Hugh Griffith, the disorderly and shaggy film is loosely based on Lewis Carroll's “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” only it chronicles an American hippie (Sydne Rome, who spends most of her time gratuitously topless) being ogled, chased and groped by various depraved men in the unnamed Italian coastal city in Italy where she’s taken refuge after almost being raped. We honestly don’t remember too much of that happening in ‘Alice.’ The sea-side mansion she takes shelter in is owned by a millionaire and like Wonderland, we suppose, is full of oddball characters who convene at the end for one big decadent party. Questionable sexual humor pervades the film -- like the aforementioned rapes, along with lots of non-consensual molestation, and basically a load of men trying to seduce this woman  -- but we’ll chalk that up to it being the free-spirited 1970s when sexual mores were not as restrained (Polanksi has no comment here). Marcello Mastroianni plays a retired pimp that enters a sort-of relationship with the American girl and Polanski himself plays a random pugnacious man with a harpoon.  One could surmise that all the sexual hedonism is supposed to be some sort of commentary on a woman’s role in a male-dominated society, but frankly, that would be laughable (though still not funny). “What?” is too patchy and intentionally off-kilter to have much meaning or import, and so it’s less a forgotten Polanski than a tucked-away one; it’s scarcely available on any format, and with good reason. To think “Chinatown” would follow this throw-away “lark.” [D]

"Chinatown" (1974)
What to say about Polanski’s best film that hasn’t already been said a million times over? Maybe a fresh approach would be to list the film’s flaws...Well, that didn’t take long. Yes, we’re blinded by our undying passion for this movie, a true American masterpiece and one of the finest films from maybe the finest decade in cinema history. With a deserving Oscar awarded to Robert Towne for his sly, one-great-line-after-another script (though the legendary screenwriter disagreed with Polanski on the film’s eventual bleak ending and was, thankfully, ignored on that point), it’s the best kind of cinema: both artful and entertaining. The aforementioned ending really is the (rotten) cherry on top a near-perfect film; as sad and nihilistic as it is, it really is the appropriate way (and feels, in retrospect, the only way)for it all to end. What’s remarkable is how the bleakness never feels like a “fuck you” to the audience, but an entirely earned, tragic, minor-key gut punch, that is somehow exquisitely beautiful in its randomness and cruelty. Were it even slightly a lesser film, the temptation to draw neat parallels between its themes and the tragedies and tribulations of Polanski’s all-too-public private life would be overwhelming, but this is a film that transcends even his compelling biography. With a flawless, and arguably definitive, performance from Jack Nicholson (can you believe he and Al Pacino from “The Godfather, Part II” lost the Oscar to Art Carney for “Harry and Tonto”? Us neither) and Polanski’s deft handling of the complex narrative, everything you’ve heard and read about “Chinatown” is true. Unless you heard it was bad. [A+]

"The Tenant" (1976)  
Made right off the back of his apex, "Chinatown," and his last film before his disgrace and exile, "The Tenant" serves as both a spiritual cousin to "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby," in terms of apartment-based horror tales, and a wryly funny comment on identity. It can't be an accident that the director casts himself (uncredited) in the lead role, as a well-to-do French citizen who takes over an apartment, suddenly available after its previous inhabitant jumped out the window. He goes to visit the woman, who is swaddled entirely in bandages, becomes involved with one of her friends (Isabelle Adjani), and soon finds himself persecuted and tormented by his neighbors (a great collection of elder character actors, including Shelley Winters), who seem intent on making history repeat itself. Or did it happen at all? Or is the past happening right now? Polanski doesn't give easy answers as to whether the events are real or imagined, whether his protagonist is real or fake, and it feels like a culmination of his work up to that point. And also an oddly prescient one; not just for its reflection, and prediction, of how the real estate world operates (who hasn't had neighbors like this at one point or another?), but also for the way that Polanski, just a year later, would find himself pilloried by the world at large. In places, he goes too far; even given the dark streak of humor, there are moments that go over the top, and despite its personal touch, it feels slight in comparison to its apartment-bound predecessors. But nevertheless, it's a fascinating pivot point in the director's career. [B+]

"Tess"
"Tess" (1979)
Thomas Hardy's 1891’s novel “Tess of the d'Urbervilles” was the last novel that Sharon Tate gave Roman Polanski before her untimely death, and while that would hint at an especially personal project, “Tess” isn’t nearly as moving or stirring as, say, Polanksi’s personal meditation on his WW2 experiences (evinced in “The Pianist”). In many ways, this story about a strong-willed peasant girl (a luminous Nastassja Kinski) whose simple farmer father discovers that they have aristocratic connections by way of an old surname-- which leads her on a lengthy journey of some highs, mostly lows and heartbreaking tragedy -- is Polanski’s “Barry Lyndon,” and at a distended two hours and fifty two minutes, it sprawls in a similar manner, but is a much lesser effort. Ultimately a pessimistic film about the illusions we search in vain for, when Tess goes to work for her wealthy cousin as a way to earn status and help her poor family, she quickly discovers the family title he possesses is essentially fraudulent and worthless. Making matters worse, her overly-amorous cousin rapes her, and her sickly bastard child (who soon dies) destroys her already tenuous claim to nobility. Shamed, she returns to basic peasant life at a dairy farm and then meets another suitor who thinks she’s unspoiled. Sadly, whenever Tess’ bleak life is illuminated by a rare ray of hope, through love, perhaps, her dreams are quickly shattered by the harsh realities of life. Classically well-made, and well-received, nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Director and Best Picture), “Tess” is a rather depressing and cold almost-three-hour watch that hardly ranks among Polanski’s best. [C+]

"Pirates" (1986)
You might think you know the trajectory of Polanski’s career, but you need to take a closer look to fully understand the head-scratching, self-destructive follow-up choices he made, which make his filmography read like 'masterpiece, disaster, hit, disaster...' etc. While "Rosemary's Baby" is a horror classic, he followed that up with the terribly uneven "Macbeth" and the outre, absurdist comedy "What?". Then came “Chinatown,” showing him at the peak of his powers, which was followed by the awesome, but totally gonzo psychological freak-out, “The Tenant.” The drama “Tess” would put Polanski back in the graces of critics and the Oscars, but then he would wait nearly seven years for his what is probably his most egregious plot-losing venture, “Pirates.” If one is looking for the textbook definition on how not to make a swashbuckling adventure picture, this is it. Perhaps the film’s biggest mistake is the cast. Watching Johnny Depp’s charming fey pirate in the ‘Caribbean’ movies, even the bad ones, grossly underlines how miscast in the lead Walter Matthau is. The rest of the ensemble -- Frenchman Cris Campion, Charlotte Lewis, Olu Jacobs and Damien Thomas are a charisma-free motley crew. Shot on location in Tunisia, using a full-sized pirate vessel constructed for the production, the picture was a massive financial and critical failure and deservedly so. While Polanski-ites will enjoy some of its loopy charms and questionable choices -- two comical rape sequences are beyond bad taste -- the picture is incontestably inert, though Philippe Sarde’s score must be applauded for imbuing its unmoored meanderings with a weak pulse. The picture reportedly cost $40 million at the time and grossed around $1.65 million in return. It’s never been on DVD in the U.S. and there’s never been a remotely plausible argument to remedy that situation. [D+]

Frantic” (1988)
When Harrison Ford and Roman Polanski teamed up for “Frantic,” both were in need of a hit. The former was coming off “The Mosquito Coast,” a project he deeply believed in that didn’t quite do the box office he had hoped. Meanwhile, Polanski was still reeling from the disastrous “Pirates” a high-seas folly that was threatening to cannonball his career. With that in mind, the fantastic opening of “Frantic” is all the more satisfying: as a car whips down a  freeway, the audience stares out the windshield while the credits scroll by, backed by Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal, slightly off-center score, and it’s not long before we know we’re headed into a story where nothing is what it seems and everything in sinister. A breakdown on the side of the highway portends something disastrous, but the actual moment when the plot is set in motion is wonderfully innocuous. In a Paris hotel, Dr. Richard Walker is taking a shower after a long flight and getting ready for breakfast in bed, and maybe a little more, with his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley). The camera pulls into the shower and looks out into the bedroom where Sondra tries to tell something to Richard, who can’t hear her, and she exits the room. And that’s the last both Richard and the audience will see of her. And so begins a film that for 90 minutes is a wickedly entertaining Euro-flavored thriller with a strong hint of Hitchcock. Richard begins a dizzying, surreal journey into the underbelly of Paris to find his missing wife, and each person he meets is, it seems, a possible conspirator. His quest expands to involve Emmanuelle Seigner, who, like every young, sexy Frenchwoman in a movie,  has her own agenda, and everything is going thrillingly, until the film shifts into its final act, when it suddenly becomes everything it has so strenuously avoided being until then. The carefully measured, eerie mystery gives way to car chases and gun battles, with a MacGuffin that has not aged very well at all. No surprise to hear, then, that studio meddling shortened the movie by fifteen minutes and forced a new ending to be shot. And for all that effort, the film was a disappointment for both Ford and Polanski at the box office. We’ll always wonder what Polanski had originally planned for the finale, but in “Frantic” we get 2/3rds of a thriller that still bests entire movies in the genre. [B]

Bitter Moon” (1992)
Almost like a riff on his debut "Knife in the Water," and as overblown as that film is immaculate, "Bitter Moon" was, like many films in what we'll call Polanski's mid-period, poorly received on release, but it has become something of a cult item since. With some films, like "The Tenant," that reevaluation is entirely justified, we're not sure "Bitter Moon" warrants it. While it's fascinating in spots, but the director's worst tendencies are at the forefront, and no amount of mischievous humor can turn it into a neglected gem. Repressed couple Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott-Thomas are holidaying on a cruise when they encounter wheelchair-bound Oscar (Peter Coyote) and his younger wife Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife, which lends a distinctly disturbing note to her casting). The latter pair are locked in a destructive, sado-masochistic relationship, and soon poison their new friends with sexual invitations, and the memories of their relationship together. The director's investigation into perversion is fitfully interesting, but it mostly seems that Polanski is trying  to provoke and needle, like his "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"-esque couple, rather than to really get to the heart of the matter. It doesn't help that, while most of the ensemble are strong, Grant is miscast and adrift, excuse the pun, even taking into account that the film came long before his star persona was established. There's campy fun to be had with "Bitter Moon," but for the most part, it's but a shadow of the better works from the filmmaker. [C-]

Death and the Maiden” (1994)
One of Polanski's best films of his 80s/90s fallow patch, "Death and the Maiden" sees him once again return to a limited environment and a minimal cast, for his adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play, a hit in London and on Broadway in the early 90s. In an unnamed country (but based on post-Pinochet Chile), Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson) is helped by a neighbor, Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley) when his car breaks down, and invites him in for a drink. Gerardo's wife Paulina immediately reconizes the doctor's voice as the man who tortured and raped her during the country's dictatorship, and binds the man, putting him on trial for his deeds. But seeing as she never saw the man's face, because she was blindfolded through her whole ordeal, can she be sure she's got the right man? Has she made a terrible mistake? Is she losing her grip on sanity? It's classic Polanski stuff, and the director opens upthe gripping drama from its stagebound origins more successfully than in, say, "Carnage," the stormy cliff-top house forming the perfect backdrop, and giving the script a little more ambiguity than it had on stage as a result. His shooting is as tense and disciplined as you could wish for, and the cast are all on form; Weaver's rarely had a better showcase, Kingsley strikes the perfect blend of shiftiness and professed innocence, and Wilson, whose screen career has mostly consisted of villainous turns in the likes of "The Mask of Zorro," shows he deserves much more, as Weaver's weak, baffled, and eventually vengeful husband. It's not in the very top rank of Polanski's work, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable, provocative thriller that's sometimes overlooked in his canon. [B+]

"The Ninth Gate" (1999)
Despite starring the box office draw of Johnny Depp, mainstream audiences stayed away from "The Ninth Gate". And its easy to be put off by Depp's unlikeable protagonist, Dean Corso, a selfish single-minded rare book dealer, who we first meet when he’s fleecing a family of rubes of their father's rare book collection, and who does little to redeem himself throughout the rest of the film. Depp's own charisma is the only thing keeping anyone interested in such an emotionally and morally stunted character, whose "book detective" mines the worst traits of the likes of Philip Marlowe, with little of the charm, and the uneasy mix of dark humour and dread, as well as the slow pacing, hardly makes for an edge-of-your-seat thriller. The performances are mainly under-played as well, bar Frank Langella's hammy show as the would-be devil-raiser-cum-professor Boris Balkan, who hires Corso to authenticate his copy of a book supposedly authored by the devil himself. Along the way Corso meets the owners of other copies of the book, and is aided by the Girl, who herself may be the devil, or a succubus, or a familiar, depending on who you talk to - we never fully find out. The book dealer’s travels throughout Europe are beautifully shot, in lush libraries and one particularly amazing-looking castle, but still the whole affair feels oddly misshapen and ill-conceived. Very loosely based on Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel "El Club Dumas", Polanski co-wrote the script with previous collaborator John Brownjohn (who also worked on “Tess,” “Pirates” and “Bitter Moon”), and though it’s certainly not the best film of anyone concerned, "The Ninth Gate" still features wonderful mood and atmosphere, largely due to Darius Khondji's cinematography as well as Polish composer Wojciech Kilar's score, but that ultimately amounts to window dressing around a rather unappealing core . [C+]

"The Pianist" (2002)
Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) stirs in a bombed-out, depleted home, stuck amidst the rubble. He clings for his life to a can of fruit, stunned this small generosity has survives the tanks, guns and murder that has annihilated all surrounding signs of life. His sad eyes seem to be the only living part of his body, which is covered by a tattered jacket, a lengthy beard, and reeks an almost-visible odor. Those eyes dart back and forth, gazing at rocks on top of rocks on top of what used to be someone’s home. He’s starving, and the possibility of getting this can open is as fragile as his spindly frame, as fragile as hope. In the hands of a classic silent comedian, this could be Chaplinesque tragicomedy, a mordantly funny situation that renders the unpalatable absurd. But while Polanski has always been a little mischievous, a little playful, this moment is instead fraught with the deepest, most upsetting, unsettling existential terror. The ignominy far from over for Szpilman - a gun-toting goose-stepper will soon find him and force the musician’s weak, trembling fingers to tickle the ivories for his pleasure. But in this snapshot of what might be Polanski’s most horrifying horror film yet, we already see how one man’s desperate struggle to survive, just survive, can become poetry in the hands of a skilled and inspired filmmaker. Polanski won the Best Director Academy Award for this film, and it’s one of the organization’s great moments of clarity. [A]

Oliver Twist” (2005)
Fresh off his Oscar-winning success with "The Pianist," and semi-rehabilitated, at least in the eyes of some, as a result, Polanski surprised many by choosing to adapt Charles Dickens' classic novel, arguably his first family film (although the director doesn't soften the harder edges, unlike many takes). And it's certainly handsome, lavish and, as ever, a rollicking good story; there's only a certain degree to which you could botch this one. The cast are mostly strong, both the kids and the elders, particularly Ben Kingsley who is a perfect Fagin, bringing both pathos and comedy while side-stepping the sour racial caricature of some of his predecessors. But something's a little off. The production design never really convinces as Victorian London over, say, a backlot in Prague, and crucially, Polanski's touch seems all but absent; of all the films of his career (even "Carnage"), it's the one that most feels like anyone else could have directed. Furthermore, there's nothing really to distinguish it from the dozens of other adaptations that came before, and you would have thought that Polanski, if anyone, could find a fresh spin on the thing. An enjoyable enough film for a rainy Sunday afternoon, but hardly worthy of mentioning in the same breath as top-tier Polanski. [C]

"The Ghost Writer" (2010)
One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the incredibly compelling thriller "The Ghost Writer" is why, exactly, it wasn't a bigger hit, both commercially and critically. Part of this had to do with the fact that Polanski was nabbed by authorities at a film festival around the time the film was being put together, and so the film strangely suffers from a kind of guilt by association. Not only that , but the prolonged saga that ensued was probably much more salaciously interesting to most people than the topline here: it’s story of a nameless ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) hired by a shamed, Tony Blair-ish former Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) to help write his memoir, albeit one riddled with potentially dangerous secrets. The poor reception is a huge shame given that "The Ghost Writer," with its chilly cinematography by Pawel Edelman, and alternately haunting and playful score by Alexandre Desplat, was a rousing return to form, arguably just as good a thriller as anything in Polanski's famed "apartment trilogy." McGregor, after being embalmed in the "Star Wars" prequels, was showing the first signs of life in years and his performance was brittle, knowing, and truly funny. (His relationship with Olivia Williams, as Brosnan's dissatisfied and possibly duplicitous wife, gives the movie a kicky, sexy emotional core.) Some found "The Ghost Writer" too stately and buttoned-up, emphasizing a slow burn over the powerful shocks Polanski was once known for, and while the running time could have been trimmed (it clocks in at a leisurely 128 minutes), its impact remains, right down to its deliciously black-hearted ending. It's a genuinely strange, hilarious and unnerving late-in-the-game masterpiece. So deeply impressive was "The Ghost Writer" that "Carnage," with all its measured propriety, feels like much more of a letdown. [A-]

-- Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor, RP, Oliver Lyttelton, Erik McLanahan, Sam Chater, Gabe Toro

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13 Comments

  • Bart | October 1, 2013 6:52 AMReply

    you shouldn't be writing mr."writer"! this whole thing is a pile of crap. next time - although i truly hope there will be no next time for you, please go and watch all of Polanski films instead of doing your research on wikipedia...

  • Astrid | December 23, 2011 3:00 AMReply

    Film is a very, very personal matter, but it seems to me that you don't understand Polanski at all.

  • James | December 20, 2011 2:38 PMReply

    THE GHOST WRITER may not have been a financial blockbuster, but the critical reception was great. It has an 87% at Metacritic, with glowing reviews from most of the major critics like Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan, etc calling it basically flawless. In fact, Metacritic doesn't show a single major critic giving it anything less than what it calculates as 60%.

  • James | December 20, 2011 2:39 PM

    Oops, typo. 77%. Shame there's no way to edit comments.

  • Lee | December 20, 2011 10:09 AMReply

    The Ghost Writer stays true with the book, I think that's why it's poorly accepted.

  • David | December 20, 2011 2:46 AMReply

    Knife In The Water is Polanski's best. No guns, no blood, no rape, no foul play, no satanists, no mobsters, just pure tension is the violence.

  • gonad | December 17, 2011 7:07 AMReply

    I love when The Playlist does these, the Peter Weir one was a good read too. Is there a list of all the past ones anywhere?

  • Jack | December 16, 2011 9:43 PMReply

    Cul-de-Sac isn't considered "one of Polanski's best", and hence took so long to get a DVD release? Try it was in MGM's library and they just never bothered... then went bankrupt... then Criterion got the rights.... I don't see the connection between a film's lack of favorability critically and it's lack of a DVD release. Is A Brighter Summer Day henceforth lesser Edward Yang?

  • Ken | December 16, 2011 9:06 PMReply

    I also thought you guys hated The Ghost Writer. I think it was on like your "most disappointing" or "most overrated" films of 2010. I'm too lazy to back that up though.

  • jimmiescoffee | December 16, 2011 8:46 PMReply

    'the ninth gate' is an underrated, great movie. why do i have to like depp's corso? isn't that the point?

  • zatopek | December 16, 2011 6:02 PMReply

    I thought you hated the Ghost Writer (C- from an earlier review).

    And Vampire Killers is underrated.

  • Gabe Toro | December 16, 2011 8:44 PM

    Not all of us have bad taste.

  • James | December 16, 2011 4:10 PMReply

    Has Polanski ever acknowledged that FRANTIC had its ending reshot? I've seen this story a few times online, always seemingly sourced from an imdb factoid. I've never seen Polanski or anyone else involved say anything one way or the other about it. I actually tend to believe it's true, as I've seen stills from the original version of a scene earlier in the film in a parking garage that was a first shot in the Paris Metro. I'd love to get confirmation of an alternate ending.

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