Roman À Clef

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

His characters have good reason not to pursue alternate paths. The social norm in Polanski's films is a veneer of sinister civility meant to cloak the cabals and conspiracies underneath--a not-unreasonable outgrowth of a childhood spent dodging Hitler's willing executioners. Rosemary's Baby is only the most obvious example, with its amusing parade of Black Mass homebodies. (For giddy subversion, it's hard to beat Hope Summers, The Andy Griffith Show's neighborly Clara Edwards, chirping, "Hail Satan!") His slapstick horror tale The Fearless Vampire Killers (August 20 and 23), restored from MGM's disastrous release cut, envisions a secret society of bloodsucking aristocrats seeking to expand their membership--a fate ironically ensured by Polanski's own bumbling Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Here, as throughout his career, Polanski reverses the traditional horror form in which order is disrupted by a monstrous intruder. More often, the intruder is a misfit like Trelkovsky, the Polish clerk played by the director in The Tenant (August 19 and 20), whose every action triggers another round of unprovoked persecution in his Parisian apartment building. This timid, needlessly apologetic man may be the only well-behaved person in a tenement of hostile loonies like Shelley Winters's concierge and Melvyn Douglas's landlord. But the loonies, who vastly outnumber him, are the ones who get to define "normal." By the end of Trelkovsky's stay, he has begun to assume the role of a resident victim: a woman who pitched herself from the balcony just before he moved in. The movie ends with a grotesque nod to Rear Window: a shot that scans windows across a courtyard filled with eager faces, all upturned in anticipation of more misery.


"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'

The Tenant was dismissed as a failed horror film when first released, but it's another of Polanski's fascinating experiments in subjective cinema, in which the protagonists' tortured psyches become the films' point of view. His most brazen tropes--cutaways to rotting objects, a figure that appears when a mirrored door is closed--have been imitated so often over the years that they've lost some of their shock value (always their most facile quality).

But in Polanski's hands they retain an expressive power, as in Repulsion (August 17, 18, and 19), his harrowing first-person exploration of sexual repression and hysteria. (For a filmmaker with Polanski's reputation as a swordsman, there's precious little sex in his movies that isn't diseased, predatory, or simply bad.) As manicurist Catherine Deneuve secludes herself in a London apartment, wracked by visions of phantom rapists and grasping arms, Polanski evokes her mental entropy with indelible images of decay: shriveled potatoes, the festering remains of a skinned rabbit. Watching Repulsion provides a glimpse of how Psycho might have looked through Norman Bates's burning eyes, and how much different our responses would have been.

In his autobiography, Polanski says he reworked Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby to suggest a rational explanation for Rosemary's plight--basically, psychotic delusion--because he didn't believe in the concept of Satan. Evil, in his films, is more a propensity for power and dominance hardwired into mankind. "If two men are on board," warns the husband in Knife in the Water, "one will be captain." Small wonder Polanski was attracted above all Shakespeare's plays to Macbeth (August 28 and 29). His dynamic, furiously cinematic version, co-scripted by gadfly theater critic Kenneth Tynan and produced by Hugh Hefner's short-lived Playboy Productions, portrays Lord and Lady Macbeth (Jon Finch and Francesca Annis) as feudal corporate climbers, pretty and ruthless, whose backstabbing is only too literal--not to mention contemporary. The appalling slaughter of Lady Macduff and her brood echoes Manson as much as the Nazi goons who harassed Polanski's mother before the terrified youngster's eyes.

Polanski denies even the finality of Shakespeare's restoration of order. The last image renews the cycle of corruption, closing the film on a note of evil triumphant. It would become Polanski's signature. The director famously bickered with screenwriter Robert Towne over Chinatown's ending. In Towne's original draft, the victimized Evelyn Mulwray killed her father, the amoral robber baron Noah Cross (John Huston), and escaped with her sister/daughter to Mexico. Polanski insisted on a more heartless--and apt--finale.

"Roman's argument was: That's life," Towne told writer Peter Biskind. "Beautiful blondes die in Los Angeles. Sharon had." To deny Noah Cross his triumph, though, would be to lie about the pervasive influence of unchecked power--to write off the evidence of the 20th Century. Evil no more stops with Cross than ambition did with Macbeth: It is a dormant seed in the heart of man. What is it that Cross crows to Jack Nicholson's crusading private eye? "Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of...anything!"

One hopes that Polanski, as gifted a provocateur as the cinema has ever produced, is still capable of anything. An encouraging sign was the warm reception accorded his latest film, The Pianist, at Cannes this year. It is his first film to deal explicitly with the Holocaust, recounting the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto from the limited viewpoint of a concert pianist (Adrien Brody) who watches from abandoned houses. Alas, it is not part of the retrospective. Polanski himself remains, like Trelkovsky, a Pole on indefinite exile in Paris, with a long history of tantalizing projects never to be made.

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