Repulsion (1965)

Repulsion (1965) movie poster

director Roman Polanski
viewed: 12/06/2016

When I first saw Repulsion, over 25 years ago, I didn’t know anything about it.  I knew Roman Polanski.  I knew Chatherine Deneuve.  My roommate rented it, might have given the briefest description.

The viewing has stayed with me all this time.  While I might have forgotten a few aspects and elements, even a few key plot set-ups, the bleak, brutal spiral of insanity remained vivid.

Twenty-five years later, it’s as vivid as ever.  Polanski’s portrayal of a young woman suffering a psychotic break in a London apartment is poetic, terrifying, and still rings relentlessly true.  An utter dark night of the soul.

I had forgotten the flashes of a possible would-be attacker, glimpses of repressed abuse or rampant fear of coming attacks.  I had forgotten the wall of arms and hands, the rotting rabbit, the sprouting potato.

I hadn’t forgotten the sense of space and claustrophobia, of madness cut free, whatever the cause, and the violence rendered out of sheer horror.

Polanski is/was a master.

Knife in the Water (1962)

Knife in the Water (1962) movie poster

director Roman Polanski
viewed: 05/03/2016

“Knife…in the waterrrr…” (hum to the tune of Deep Purple)

Roman Polanski’s first feature film and only technically “Polish” feature film is 1960’s European avant-garde first class and also a sign of the angst, tension, and turmoil that would mark his best films of his burgeoning career.

Three people on a little boat on a large, calm lake, as if no other people exist anywhere else in the world, save the radio, and nobody can just get along. Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are cruising an isolated country road when they pick up a somewhat dodgy young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) and decide to take him along for their day-long boat excursion. But Andrzej can’t help but intimidate the young man and the young man is full of an unsettled energy, either a battle for the charms of Krystyna, or perhaps something more unstated between the two men.

It’s a study in simplicity and concision in many ways. Shot in black-and-white, it’s an unnerving sample of the dark worlds Polanski would later uncover again and again as he took the world stage as director (and before he became pariah in the US).

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby (1968) movie poster

director Roman Polanski
viewed: 10/17/2015

The last time I watched Rosemary’s Baby, probably in the late 1990’s, I was blown away again by the paranoia it invokes and also by what a beautiful waif Mia Farrow was, especially with that Vidal Sassoon pixie haircut that hubby John Cassavetes hated so much.  While discussing it with a friend at film school, I was turned onto Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), which I had not been familiar with.  That one took the apartment/neighbor paranoia to a level of loony even higher.

Since I watch horror films with my kids somewhat exclusively through the month of October every year, I am always keen to share a few “classics” with them.  Felix wasn’t feeling well and turned in less than halfway through, but Clara wound up watching the movie with me.  She didn’t find it scary, really, she said, but she thought it was good.

Psychological as it is, the unending creepiness of the film is perhaps much more an adult thing?  Clara was also not freaked out at all by the Satanists (“Because the devil isn’t real.”)

For my money, it’s still a great movie.  I think I even flashed back to watching it nearly 20 years ago with my then wife, sharing the experience of the horror.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) movie poster

director Roman Polanski
viewed: 10/16/2015

I first saw Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers on “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” on July 10, 1982.  Why can I pinpoint this so exactly?  Well, thanks again, Wikipedia!  (Elvira’s Movie Macabre Season 1)  Oddly enough, I hadn’t seen it again since then.

Starring Polanski with Jack MacGowran and future wife Sharon Tate, it’s a bit of a madcap romp of a horror film.  Beautifully shot and designed, the film looks amazing, but I’d be lying if I said that the humor works quite at the level that it attempts.  I’d rate it at amusing, rather than funny, even at its best moments, and yet even so, it’s pretty entertaining across the board.  It’s perhaps more interesting and interestingly conceived if nowhere as funny as Mel Brooks’ later Young Frankenstein (1974).

It would have been my first Roman Polanski film, and was probably my main point of reference for the very pretty Sharon Tate, who would die horribly and tragically only 2 years later.

Cul-de-sac (1966)

Cul-de-sac (1966) movie poster

director Roman Polanski
viewed: 03/04/2015

Shot on location at Lindisfarne at Holy Island, England, Roman Polanski’s 1966 black comedy/thriller Cul-de-sac is a dark, wry home invasion flick.

The film begins with two wounded men, American Dickey (Lionel Stander) and Brit Albie (Jack MacGowran), who get stranded in a car run out of gas, running from some apparent crime.  The find themselves at Lindisfarne, which is an island at high tide but connected to the mainland at low tide.  And in this 16th century castle there live  as George (Donald Pleasence) and his young and beautiful French wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac).  While Albie dies from his wounds, Dickey, holds the couple hostage while he waits for help from an accomplice/boss.

It’s not a laugh-out-loud kind of comedy, nor is it a edge of your seat thriller, but rather more a clash of cultures and proprieties. It’s quite good.

Interestingly, I’ve been to Lindisfarne.  The property is now part of the public trust, no longer a private residence.  I didn’t get to go into the building at the time, but the island is unique and fascinating, and makes for a pretty ideal location for this odd film.

Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown (1974) movie poster

director Roman Polanski
viewed: 06/17/2014

Great movie.  I can’t even recall when I originally saw it.  In fact, my whole memory of it was something like Polanski slits Nicholson’s nose, California water rights conspiracy based on fact, child molestation…

It’s pretty amazing, how Robert Towne nailed some of the true history of California in this complex neo-noir thriller.  I don’t even know where to start or what to say.  It’s a great movie.

Jack Nicholson is terrific.  John Huston is insanely evil.  It’s a true tale of the land of Hollywood without really including Hollywood in its direct narrative.  It is, of course, a stylized genre film, but quite true to its style, not ironical.  Maybe even profound.

Great movie.  All I’ve really got to say.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Roman Polanski
viewed: 03/16/10 at the UA Stonestown Twin, SF, CA

Roman Polanski is unique.  Unique is an overused word, so much so that its specific meaning has broadened.  Unique means something singular, and by being singular, there can be no degrees of uniqueness.  You are either singular or you are not.  If you vary by degrees then uniqueness is not something that you achieve.  Yet, I personally argue, that with the ever-changing language that uniqueness or the quality of being unique is a term whose meaning has changed.  In other words, you can be unique(r) than something else.  You can be something less like other things and more one and only yourself.

And even in this argument, Roman Polanski is unique.

A director who burst upon the scene with such amazing films as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965), he then went on to greater commercial success with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974).  He had his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, pregnant with their child, heinously murdered by members of the Manson cult.  He also, some time later, was arrested for statutory rape and fled the United States for Europe to escape trial and likely imprisonment.  He continued, intermittantly, to make films, ranging from bad (The Ninth Gate (1999)) to Oscar-worthy (The Pianist (2002)), and near the release of this film at the Berlin Film Festival, was arrested in Switzerland, awaiting potential extradition to the United States for his child abuse crimes.

Is that a unique life or what?

Nonetheless, his latest film, The Ghost Writer, arrived in the United States just recently and depicts a political thriller/mystery of sorts, focussing on a character played by Pierce Brosnan, an image of Tony Blair to an extent, the former Prime Minister of Britain, now accused of war crimes for supporting torture as used on potential terrorists.  It also stars the incredibly likeable Ewan McGregor as the titular ghost writer, hired to scribe the memoirs of Brosnan’s ex-PM, following in the footsteps of his predescessor who died mysteriously.

For me, knowing Polanski’s situation at the time of the release of this film (he was imprisoned or under house-arrest in Switzerland during post-production), it’s hard not to look upon Brosnan’s character, an amiable, once powerful, charismatic statesman who is more or less imprisoned in his own home by the media and the world who want to expose and ruin him, as a potential self-reference.  The question of Brosnan’s character’s collusion in the crimes is under question throughout the film, only at the end is the secret revealed.

For a lot of critics, this film was a striking thriller, taut, well-made, well-acted, riveting, showing the director, now pushing 80, at his prime, or at least re-claiming his prime.  And frankly, the film is pretty solid, and actually perhaps, more solid that I supposed.  I’ve long held this question about directors in their later years making films, being perhaps more out-of-touch with reality, not able to create a believable world (for whatever reason).  And this film, holds most of that potential complaint at bay.

But really, The Ghost Writer is not one of Polanski’s great films.  And to be truthful, I would have to say that I would be willing to state that those are all behind him (no matter what comes of his imprisonment or potential extradition).  But it’s not at all a bad film.  Ewan McGregor is a very likeable lead and the story has enough of a mystery to keep one involved.  But while the film tries to be timely, citing complicities of would-be Tony Blairs, Bill Clintons, George W. Bushes, and even Condoleeza Rices, it lacks the weight and depth of what those real crimes have been by taking the story and extending it fictionally further.  Or at least, that is my thought.

The Ghost Writer is, for me, hard to simply see as another “thriller” of political or other tones, but the film of a complex and bizarre, unique filmmaker, whose life story has yet to be settled for history, whose work continues to challenge themes and ideas of his heydey, but yet doesn’t begin to grasp the complexity of the reality that belies these stories, either his own or his subject matter.

The Pianist

The Pianist (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Roman Polanski
viewed: 07/01/03

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist is a simply, but elegantly filmed adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s account of his survival, hiding out in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. It passingly reminded me of a film that I had always really liked, Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), as it was another remarkable tale of survival in the belly of the Nazi beast by a lone individual during the dark years of the war. Outside of this, I remember hearing another story of a family that immigrated during the war, and having commented on what an amazing true story it was, was told that every story that told of survival during these times was amazing, by its very nature. Whether that is true or not, I cannot say. But there is a power to the veracity of the tale told, that it actually happened, more or less according to the story woven in the film.

Polanski’s own life will no doubt one day be committed to film (probably after his death), as his own life story is as complex and incredible as anything filmed. Having moved to Poland at the age of three, just before the war broke out, Polanksi’s parents were both imprisoned in concentration camps and his mother perished there. He escaped the Jewish ghetto as a child and survived the war in the Polish countryside. I had read an interview with him when this film was in initial release and he seemed to heavily downplay any of his life experience being portrayed in this film. Whether or not such information adds a layer to this film or not, I don’t know, but it does cast it in a somewhat altered light.

I had this movie out from Netflix for over a month, I think, never getting around to watching it. It’s the kind of subject matter that one doesn’t really “enjoy” watching, though the film was not as brutally depressing as it could have been, I guess. Of course, Polanski is always interesting in some respect.

The star of this film, Adrien Brody, who I really liked in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999), is good here; there is something imminently likeable about him. (I still think that Daniel Day-Lewis should have gotten the Oscar nod, but what-are-ya-gonna-do?)