People behaving badly. There have been few better subjects in film and no filmmaker better at tackling it than Roman Polanski. From Knife in the Water to Carnage, via the bumpy and resplendent peaks of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown (films where the air is so rare and the artistry so impudent the spectator is left happily gasping), he excels at movies in the best sense maudits. Mordant; blackly comic; wooing notoriety. Full of timor mortis, but never timor vitae. Movies about human beings traversing the mapless realm called life, that Hades-on-Earth where our “lostness”, and the helpless, mad or volatile things it makes us do, would be tragic if not funny, or funny if not tragic.
Yet I have an uneasy feeling, as a new season of Polanski celebration starts at the British Film Institute in London, that we will be told by some this director is great – or his greatness has grown and matured – by virtue of his films about virtue. We will be told to admire The Pianist (all those Cannes awards and Oscars), or Death and the Maiden (political heroism perfumed with stage greasepaint), or the ever so worthy, so pictorial, so insipidly literary Tess.
But what made Polanski is his dark wit, probing pessimism and sometimes gleefully bleak vision of existence. Where these came from, and how they have evolved, depends partly on which Polanski “ontogeny” you believe. There are two contending life stories: the simple one and the complicated one. The first is that he was pursued in the first half of that life by enough misfortunes, some of his own making, to fill a Greek tragedy or an Aeschylean trilogy. Those events (goes the theory) shaped the career and art.
He grew up in Nazi-occupied Poland. His mother died in a concentration camp. He fled communist Poland. In the west he stumbled on horrors scarcely less dreadful: in 1969 his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was brutally killed by the Manson murderers.
He did the unforgivable himself eight years later in Los Angeles. He was charged with statutory rape in an incident with an underage girl. A Polish artist’s voluntary exile in the US was swapped for a return “exile” in Europe, where he has lived and worked ever since. Like Casablanca’s Bogart and Bergman – but unlike them – he “will always have Paris”. He fled there and got stuck. He could not and cannot return to his adoptive spiritual home in California.
His career in Europe – this much is true – has been spectacularly uneven. He has made duds and über-duds. Frantic (1988) was a tinny Hitchcock tribute. The Ninth Gate (1999) wasted Johnny Depp in an expense of hocus-pocus. One can hardly bear to think of Pirates (1986). Perkier were The Tenant (1976), a witty-deadpan piece of modern gothic, and Bitter Moon (1992), which discovered Hugh Grant’s silly-ass blather before Four Weddings and a Funeral and dunked it, with inspired incongruity, in a sex-and-death melodrama. More recently he has done theatre adaptations, culminating
in the reinvigoratingly Polanskian Carnage, a meeting of minds between a super-cynical boulevard black comedy and the man born to film it.
The god of carnage – to invoke the original title of Yasmina Reza’s play – may be Polanski’s patron deity. Nearly every biographer trots out a version of the grisly Bildungsroman (building of Roman?) outlined above. No wonder, suggest these authors and the critics they nourish, that this artist spent his early career turning out gothic comedies and surreal shockers. Art imitates life.
But the real Polanski story is more complicated. Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby – claustrophobic horror dramas set in a “free” west – were both made before the Manson murders. (Neither used the Holocaust either, or implied it, as matrix for its sardonic grand guignol.) It might have been poetic if Polanski had served his own jail spell in Chino before he painted the “shades of the prison house” closing around the characters in Chinatown – another life/art rhyme favoured by carefree-with-fact Romanologists – but he hadn’t. His arrest and jailing happened four years after that movie’s making.
Without doubt the nightmare of Nazi occupation would have filled available corners of a boy’s imagination. Beyond that I suspect this just is Polanski’s world: the mind-world behind the memorable movies. That seriocomical dystopia; that realm for fugitive or frightened souls that ranges from apartments containing terror-haunted girls (Repulsion’s Catherine Deneuve or the Mia Farrow of Rosemary’s Baby) to a city, Los Angeles, fighting the maledictions of graft, history and ancestral guilt.
Then came Europe (the story goes) and the screen necromancies stopped or screeched to a standstill. Even here, though, the actuality is different. Polanski had lived and worked in Europe for years before his brief return to Hollywood to make Chinatown. He made one preludial Euro-flop – What/Che? (1973) – and one medium-memorable Shakespeare adaptation in Britain, Macbeth (1973).
But yes: a different talent and tone were discernible after the 1977 “flight from justice”. Homogeneity seemed to be replacing heterodoxy. The auteur seemed to be downsizing to a metteur en scène. We were getting a cinema of craft, not art. Almost anyone could have directed Tess: that by-the-book honouring of Hardy’s tragic pastoralism, whose only freshening incongruity was involuntary, the French landscapes used by a director forbidden to set foot in Britain. And if it is sacrilegious to say, let’s still say it: anyone could have directed The Pianist. Polanski made a worthy, labouring, textureless movie full of the hollow sounds of the dubbing studio (a mixed-nation co-production cast) and of backlot whip-ups of ghetto streets. Nothing in the film itself was more disturbing than the awarding of three Oscars and a Cannes Golden Palm to a teacherly, preacherly Holocaust slog from a filmmaker below his form.
Why did Polanski film another Pole’s autobiography anyway – that of pianist and persecution fugitive Wladyslaw Spielman – when his own childhood memories, so vivid, so terrible-absurdist when he has written about them, almost beg for movie treatment?
Why? Perhaps because The Pianist was a project motivated by Polanski’s desire to return to Hollywood: to return spiritually at least by winning Academy honours. For the director it could be part of the long path back to respectability, even “repatriation”. Nine years earlier Spielberg had clinched his own Serious International Artist crown with his Oscar-winning Holocaust biggie, Schindler’s List.
Yet it was depressing to see Polanski, whose art was once defined by being impious, adversarial and iconoclastic, doing screen stories that pressed the tired button, “triumph of the spirit”. Perhaps he wanted and still wants an audience. Perhaps he feels, and chafes against, his isolation in art-movie land: Europe, that continent that ticks the “i”s of independence and imagination but doesn’t cross the “t” of top-dollar populism. Polanski’s best films were art and entertainment. His worst films seem not to know what they are. That includes the recent, overpraised The Ghost Writer: Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor in a pulpy political drama-thriller cross-dressed with a tired, tardy roman à clef on the Blair years,
Carnage, thank heaven, his most recent film, starts to seem the real Polanski again. Here people do down and dirty things, or spill raw and real passions, while tragicomically waving the banner of gentility. Here big stars (Kate Winslet, Jodie
Foster) sparkle and spit fire.
Carnage is exhilarating because, as in all good Polanski, it is about human beings. It is about us as we are – flailing, feral, foundering –
not about what we would like to be or feel we should be: martyred heroes in a pasteboard Holocaust, Hardy-perennial heroines simpering in photogenic scenery, ex-James Bond actors embedded in dozy retirement gigs.
We get enough of these kinds of films from everyone else. From Polanski we want what he, and he alone, does best. The primal scream. The laughter of shock. The stories that turn their dark sides to the light. The angel figures who earn our interest by being fallen. The Devil in all his detail; the mortal in all its mortality.
The BFI’s Polanski season opens on January 1, www.bfi.org.uk