The genius of Roman Polanski

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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

Anyone doubting that life is an absurd carnival should study the life – and films – of Roman Polanski. Good news is unfailingly followed by bad. The recent good news is that the world’s most youthful-looking septuagenarian – director of such great works as ‘Chinatown’, ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ – has completed his new film. ‘The Ghost’, adapted with novelist Robert Harris from his own thriller and starring Ewan McGregor as a writer whose life is put in jeopardy when he ghosts the memoirs of Pierce Brosnan’s Tony Blair-like British ex-PM, is ready for its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival next week.

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



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