Roman À Clef

A 12-film series, "Cinema of Claustrophobia," gives us the real Polanski

"Romantic, isn't it?" The man's voice startles us. He sits in a wheelchair, a dapper suit smoothed over his gnarled body, his lips crooked in a faint satyr's leer. He has watched us for some time. Surely he wasn't watching when we spoke, tremulously, to his curvy young wife in the cruise-ship lounge. "You're itching to know more about her, aren't you?" he asks. He is pleased to see he has touched a nerve: "She gives you a hard-on, doesn't she?" We try to laugh him off, but he is relentless. "You'd like to fuck her," he barks. We blush and protest, but there, in his voice...was that an accusation or an invitation?

He--a crippled American novelist played by Peter Coyote--invites us back to his cabin. We--through the goggle-eyed audience surrogate played by a perfectly cast Hugh Grant--follow spellbound. "I have a feeling you're exactly the listener I'm looking for," the writer teases, leading us down a narrow passageway to a small stateroom. "I hope you'll find my story interesting." Once inside, he unwinds a tale of escalating depravity, an Arabian Nights of emotional sadism and lurid perversion. It involves his wife, and each confession sickens and disgusts us--though never enough not to return. "I think I'm probably as broad-minded as the next man," our surrogate stammers feebly, after a particularly gross account of the host lapping at his lady love's urine, "but I must say there are limits."

By the time Roman Polanski made Bitter Moon, this exquisite 1992 comedy of cruelty and humiliation, the Paris-born filmmaker had spent a career interrupted by tragedy and exile testing those limits. A child of the Holocaust, Polanski emerged from the nascent Polish film industry with a startling sensibility that wedded psychological horror to an agnostic rationalist's keen distrust of conventional morality. Alone among the great continental European directors of the 1960s (with the possible exception of Milos Forman), Polanski found success within the early-1970s Hollywood studio system, in part because his ripe, worldly sensuality and technical virtuosity adapted snugly to proven commercial genres.

"If two men are on board, one will be captain": Leon Niemczyk and Zygmunt Malanowicz in 'Knife in the Water'
Oak Street Arts
"If two men are on board, one will be captain": Leon Niemczyk and Zygmunt Malanowicz in 'Knife in the Water'

But Polanski's career was hobbled: by a 1977 statutory-rape conviction that turned him into an international fugitive, by the lingering notoriety of his wife Sharon Tate's butchering at the hands of the Manson Family. At the end of the century, critic David Thomson was suggesting that the director might become a cinematic footnote, or worse, a punch line. A 12-film retrospective starting Friday at the Oak Street Cinema reaffirms Polanski's place in film history: as the direct link between Hitchcock and Buñuel, early masters at implicating an audience in its own guilty longings, and modern-day explorers of psychic decay such as David Cronenberg, Paul Verhoeven, and Michael Haneke.

Viewers who know Polanski only as the director of Chinatown, Tess, and Rosemary's Baby are in for a shock. For all the personal themes he smuggled into studio assignments, his biggest commercial successes are his least typical films--especially Chinatown, the rare Polanski work whose protagonist abides by something as naive and simplistic as a moral code. Of particular interest in the Oak Street retro are the director's lesser-known gems: the sumptuous 1967 horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers, his fearsome 1971 reimagining of Macbeth, the looped Kafkaesque nightmare of 1976's The Tenant, and above all Bitter Moon, the most unjustly maligned film in the Polanski oeuvre.

Oak Street has grouped the films under the heading "Cinema of Claustrophobia," and indeed Polanski often uses his locales, even the frame itself, as a vise to constrict his characters. But his is equally a cinema of isolation, a world of spouses cut off from one another, apartments sealed from the outside world, floating prisons surrounded by water and a rising tide. His brutal black comedy Cul-de-Sac (August 16 and 18), a menacing riff on Waiting for Godot set in a remote island castle, operates on so many levels of disconnection that it becomes a kind of thuggish cosmic vaudeville. A fleeing gangster (Lionel Stander), a manic householder (Donald Pleasence), and his contemptuous wife (Françoise Dorléac) bellow and jabber in perfect misunderstanding, quick to take offense, stranded in one another's company as avenues of exit vanish.

Generally, Polanski's films start in a setting of relative openness that telescopes to cramped confinement, the externalization of his heroes' growing psychological panic. The pattern is established in his 1962 debut, Knife in the Water (August 16 and 17), in which a married couple and a young hitchhiker share a sailing holiday that turns into a contest of veiled sexual taunts and macho brinkmanship. As the older husband and the virile thumb-tripper vie for dominance, with the wife in the middle, Polanski closes the space around them until they're driven into the pressure-cooker environs of the boat's hold.

Polanski's characters aren't just hemmed into close quarters, they're mocked by the deceptively welcoming space that beckons outside. The boat in Knife in the Water is bounded by open waters and yawning sky, yet the characters jostle for position on deck in the only space that matters: the crowded frame. The opening credits of Rosemary's Baby (August 24 and 26) scan the canyons of the New York skyline before fixing onto one singularly forbidding Gothic apartment building--the space that will effectively become the heroine's cell. The wide, arid landscapes of Southern California would seem to offer myriad routes of escape for Faye Dunaway's haunted Evelyn Mulwray, but all roads lead to the rot at Chinatown's core.

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