Roman À Clef

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

"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.

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.  

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.


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.

That leaves the gleefully perverse Bitter Moon (August 27 and 28) to serve for the moment as his career statement. As Coyote's hardboiled vulgarian, Oscar, tempts Grant's flustered innocent with lipsmacking depravities he can scarcely imagine, Polanski tweaks his audience's craving for naughty fun and his reputation as a brand-name peddler of elegant perversity. Like Oscar, he gives us more than we bargained for--pig-snout fetishes, nasty razor games, an outlandishly cruel revenge scenario--then laughs to see us still sitting there, aghast but hooked. To top it off, he casts his own wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, as Oscar's, and enlists his leonine Amazon in nude scenes of discomforting silliness. Good golly, Svengali! "Sharing secrets of your perverted sex life with a total stranger!" huffs Grant, as if voicing our own secret thoughts.

Oscar, standing in for his creator, is too tickled to point out the obvious: The stranger, still listening, is us.

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