Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Top 10 Roman Polanski films

1. Chinatown (1974)
2. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
3. Repulsion (1965)
4. Knife in the Water (1962)
5. The Tenant (1976)
6. Cul-de-Sac (1966)
7. Tess (1979)
8. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
9. Bitter Moon (1992)
10. Macbeth (1971)

Whilst discussing Rosemary's Baby with a girlfriend at film school some twenty years ago, we were both amazed to discover our favourite shot in the film was exactly the same one. It wasn't a scary or dramatic scene; it wasn't a particularly arresting or amazing shot (which makes the coincidence more incredible – in case you're wondering, in case you think one of us was making it up – say, to impress the other, we literally both said it at the same time); it occurs approximately 24 minutes into the film, when Rosemary and Guy are having a vodka blush at the Castevet's home – there's a shot of Roman holding the tray and spilling some liquid on the floor; Minnie bends down to wipe it up (a shot echoed at the end when Minnie picks the knife Rosemary has dropped off the floor and rubs the mark made by it). That's it. But there's something innately cinematic and graceful about it; perhaps the shine off the silver tray, the movement of Minnie; I – we – didn't know; there was something unexplained and mysterious, beautiful yet ordinary about it. (I also remember seeing most of the Fearless Vampire Killers for the first time with the same girlfriend on a black & white fuzzy TV in Wales; I was drunk and watched most of it upside down. And loved it.)

This is perhaps what I like about Polanski's films: they may be horrific or surreal, but it's all in the detail and there's always that elegance, no matter what the subject matter. It's fair to say, like Woody Allen, I love all Polanski's films, the good, the bad and the ugly. Also like Allen, I don't really have a huge problem with his sexual shenanigans. These guys are geniuses; let's give them a bit of latitude.

Roman Polanski's personal life is famously as eventful as his cinematic career: born in 1933 Paris but soon moved back to Poland with his parents. By the start of World War II his family had been moved into the Krakow Ghetto. His mother was killed at Auschwitz; he saw his father being taken to Mauthausen. Roman himself witnessed many horrors and endured starvation and beatings, surviving the war by remaining in hiding. He was reunited with his father after the war and eventually went to the famous Lotz film school. His first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962), his only film made in Poland and nominated for an Oscar, already shows themes that would feature in all his films: that is, a claustrophobic location; a pessimistic, dark view of life as well as sexual jealousy and psychological games. Three films made in Britain followed: Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-Sac (1966) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Polanski moved to the States to make Rosemary's Baby a year later. It was in 1969 when his second wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was amongst the guests murdered by the Manson Family at Polanski's house in L.A. (while he was in Europe filming).

Controversy would continue to dog Polanski's life. In 1977 he was arrested for sexually assaulting a 13 year old girl. Polanski fled the States, never to return. There's a theory that Polanski's cinema mirrors his personal life. Indeed, after the murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski directed a bloody version of Macbeth. After the sexual abuse scandal he directed Tess, starring the 15 year old Nastassja Kinski, with whom he had an affair at the time. Both The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2005) mirror Polanski's experiences in wartime Poland.

Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion and The Tenant make up the loose 'apartment trilogy', presumably because they are largely set in apartments. His most recent film, Carnage, recently released on DVD, is wholly set in an apartment. The premise is vaguely reminiscent of Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, in which a group of middle class dinner guests find themselves unable to leave the room for no apparent reason (according to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, this idea was given to Bunuel by Owen Wilson in 1920s Paris), it's also similar to Christos Tsiolkas's novel and TV series The Slap – the catalyst for Carnage is a boy being hit with a stick. The parents of both boys meet up to discuss the incident. The result? Carnage.

Even Carnage – adapted from a play and set in an apartment – has the same innately cinematic feel as all Polanski's films. His films seem to work best when limited to a particular place: the boat in Knife in the water; a west London apartment in Repulsion; the island of Lindisfarne in Cu-de-Sac; the prime minister's isolated house in Ghost Writer.

Polanski's latest film goes one step further than Damon Albarn's album Dr Dee by calling it simply D. It's based on Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish artillery officer falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. He eventually had his name cleared by the french writer Emile Zola. Comparisons to Polanski's own life are already inevitably being drawn.

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