The genius of Roman Polanski
Can Roman Polanski rise above the media circus and deliver another masterpiece with his forthcoming film, 'The Ghost', starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor? Wally Hammond is defiantly optimistic
The bad news is Roman won’t be there. A recent US court ruling means he’ll have to stay, staring at the stars, snow and hanging Sword of Damocles, in Milky Way, his luxury alpine chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, where since last November he’s been under electronic monitoring and on a $4.5 million bail, pending the possible execution of the arrest warrant issued in the US in 1977 for unlawful sex with a minor (the then 13-year-old Samantha Geimer).
The real news is that Polanski has produced his first political urban thriller for some two decades. He’s said that reading Robert Harris was like reading Chandler. That’s an overestimation of Harris’s prose skills, no doubt, but it does help raise tantalising hopes for ‘The Ghost’. We should feel lucky that Polanski, one of the most talented and distinctive directors to grace our screens this past half-century, is still producing major works. How fantastic would it be to have another ‘Chinatown’ on our hands? How many directors working today can raise such great expectations?
The Paris-born, Poland-raised director certainly hit the ground running. His debut feature, ‘Knife in the Water’, made back in 1962 when he was still in his twenties, was a tense, darkly interrogative, three-way sailing-boat-set psychodrama, impressive enough to prompt his first Academy Award nomination.That precocity was, of course, hard-earned. A decade of writing, studying, collaborating, acting and short-film production (from the presumed-lost ‘Bicycle’ in 1955 to ‘Mammals’ in 1962) preceded it, laying the basis for the thematic and stylistic continuity of the 18 features he directed over the following four decades.
Polanski has described his move to London in the mid-’60s – where he was to make, in collaboration with writer Gérard Brach and the Dorléac sisters, Françoise and Catherine (later Deneuve), ‘Repulsion’ (1965) and ‘Cul-de-Sac’ (1966) – as the ‘best and happiest in his life’. ‘Cul-de-Sac’, an absurdist, sexually bizarre nightmare of a film, set on isolated Lindisfarne, with odd couple Donald Pleasence and Dorléac marauded by gangsters-on-the-run Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran, saw a Beckettian bleakness added to the witches’ brew. But ‘Repulsion’, in its perfect elaboration of the breakdown and disintegration of Deneuve’s vulnerable, reclusive and sexually repressed Kensington hairdresser helped redefine horror in psycho-thriller terms, with Polanski’s blend of psychological realism and expressionist aural and visual tropes – off-screen children’s voices, a repulsive foetus-like rabbit – confirming him as one of the most individual, intuitive and accomplished filmmakers in the world.
The effects on Polanski of the Hollywood sojourn and the later tragedy of his wife Sharon Tate’s murder by Charles Manson have been too extensively documented to comment on. But it was there that, despite the horrific distractions, he produced his two masterpieces: ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) and ‘Chinatown’ (1974). The first, his triumphant version of Ira Levin’s satanic thriller with John Cassavetes as the possibly possessed husband of New York housewife Mia Farrow, owes its brilliance not just to superbly calibrated performances, precise mise-en-scène and unique control of tension, but to the director’s frightening dissolution of reality through paranoid fantasy – all the more persuasive for being derived from an arguably pulpy text.
‘Chinatown’, on the other hand, added a new fable-like quality to his work, its directorial accomplishments deepened by developing the LA foundation-myth in Robert Towne’s screenplay into a vision of contaminated social and economic expansion based on corruption, incest and murder. It’s a dark vision. And you can’t blame Polanski for wanting to balance his more tenebrous excursions with lighter fare. Thus, his playful but uneven Hammer-esque spoof ‘The Dance of the Vampires’ (1967) and the nonsensical parodic sex romp ‘What??????’ (1972) – some wags called it ‘Why?’ – that fell between the bloody realism of ‘Macbeth’ (1971) and ‘Chinatown’.
A trilogy of Gérard Brach collaborations – extravagant folly ‘Pirates’ (1986), lightweight thriller ‘Frantic’ (1988) and the underestimated ship-bound psychodrama ‘Bitter Moon’ (1992) – and a pair of Ronald Harwood-scripted period adaptations (2002’s Oscar winner ‘The Pianist’ and 2005’s ‘Oliver Twist’) showed that Polanski’s films may have lost some of their bite. But his fecundity, enthusiasm and youthful energy remain miraculously undiminished. We’ll have to wait and see if the bedevilled director will be able to continue making movies with freedom, or at all. Meanwhile, we have ‘The Ghost’ – and hopes are sky high as it may be the late masterpiece he and we want and deserve.
Author: Wally Hammond
Director Tom Hooper and his cast tell us how they turned the super-musical into movie blockbuster.
The Time Out film team weighs in on the nominees for the 2013 Academy Awards
Get ready for the big guns… Spielberg, Tarantino and Bigelow
Daniel Craig’s 007 comeback, a genius indie romcom and all the mysteries behind ‘The Shining’ unravelled.
The results of our study on the state of films and filmgoing in 2012.
Read 'Time Out film debate 2012 highlights'
'The Hobbit' actor tells us why he wouldn't have a pint with Bilbo Baggins.
Dave Calhoun speaks to the director of 'Skyfall' about the latest film in the Bond franchise.
The genre-hopping director tells us how he invented a new genre with 'Life of Pi'
The twice Palme d'Or-winning director discusses 'Amour'.
Read our interview with Michael Haneke
The Danish director talks about his powerful new drama 'The Hunt'.
Read our interview with Thomas Vinterberg'
Time Out looks back at the impact of the 'Twilight' saga.
Discover what 'Twilight' has done for us
Time Out heads to the Lake District to visit director Ben Wheatley on set.
Read about our visit to the 'Sightseers' set
The director talks about 'Frankenweenie', which he describes as 'the ultimate memory piece'.
Read our interview with Tim burton
Our pick of the best films showing over the festive period.
Read 'The top ten Christmas films of 2012'
Mean Girls? Dirty Dancing? Tell us your favourite film guilty pleasure.
Read 'Film guilty pleasures'
What will Disney do to 'Star Wars'?
Read about the new 'Star Wars' trilogy
Ten young actors come of age on the silver screen.
Read 'When teen stars turn serious'
From Connery to Craig, we revisit all 22 Bond films.
Read '50 years of James Bond'
The director talks Scientology and working with Joaquin Phoenix.
Read the interview
Ten funny horror movies which went spectacularly off the rails.
Read 'Hilarious horror films'
The director talks psychopaths and theatre – 'my least favourite artform'.
Read the interview
We round-up the five best horror movies of Autumn 2012.
Read about this Autumn's best horror movies
Time Out visits Istanbul to see the latest Bond movie being made.
Read 'On the set of Skyfall'
Does Skyfall refresh or rehash the James Bond franchise?
The British director explains why 'Ginger and Rosa' is her most mainstream film yet.
'I’m almost as in demand as Brad Pitt’