February 14, 2010
Polanski’s Visions of Victimhood
By DENNIS LIM
Polanski’s Visions of Victimhood
By DENNIS LIM
“THE GHOST WRITER,” the 18th feature by Roman Polanski, opens this week, and, not for the first time in Mr. Polanski’s career, the movie itself is likely to be overshadowed by the man who made it.
Critics and viewers have long been tempted to link Mr. Polanski’s work to his life — to view one through the prism of the other — not least because the life has been so public and so uncommonly eventful. “There’s nothing about human nature that would surprise him,” the novelist Robert Harris, a co-writer of “The Ghost Writer,” said recently. “He’s a sort of walking microcosm of history.”
As Mr. Harris suggests, Mr. Polanski’s biography could double as a summary of the 20th century. Born in 1933, he spent part of his boyhood scrambling to stay alive in the Krakow ghetto. He was reunited with his father after the war, but his mother died at Auschwitz. A precocious actor and street performer, he started plotting his escape from Communist Poland at a young age. His award-winning early films were his ticket out, and he arrived in London on the eve of the Swinging ’60s.
He made it to the United States in time for the summer of love, only to become a tragic symbol of the end of the ’60s, when his pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, and four other people were slaughtered by followers of Charles Manson. The counterculture hangover continued; one might even say it never went away. In 1977 Mr. Polanski pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl. Last September, more than 31 years after he fled Los Angeles to escape sentencing, he was arrested in Zurich by Swiss authorities pending possible extradition to the United States.
While Mr. Polanski’s films are generally not self-revealing in any literal sense, he invites psychobiographical criticism because he has been, for almost his entire career, that relatively rare entity: a celebrity director. His persona is so much a part of the public imagination that it looms even over a movie as devoid of autobiographical echoes as “The Ghost Writer,” which had its premiere Friday at the Berlin International Film Festival and opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
His filmography amounts to its own microcosm, cutting a swath through a half-century’s worth of cinematic trends. He came to prominence as part of the European art cinema of the ’60s: “Knife in the Water” (1962), his poised first feature about the triangle among a married couple and a young hitchhiker, earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film. In America he directed “Chinatown,” one of the crowning achievements of Hollywood’s most recent golden age.
He has a taste for potboiling Grand Guignol (“The Ninth Gate”) but won an Oscar for his most restrained film, the Holocaust drama “The Pianist” (2002). A terminal outsider — “a fugitive all my life,” as he once put it — he has navigated the tricky logistics of international co-productions, especially since his banishment from Hollywood, making films that are often defined by displacement and rootlessness (“Frantic,” “Bitter Moon”).
Journalists and biographers reflexively scour Mr. Polanski’s life for clues to his art and vice versa. His “violent life and times,” Barbara Leaming argued in “Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur” (1981), “form the subtext of his cinema.” Mr. Polanski is, to say the least, dismissive of this interpretive tack. In 2003 one question too many from Premiere magazine led him to cut short the interview: “Whatever happens to you changes the result of your work. Even sometimes trivial things. Now I must stop. I’ve had it.”
With a new film — and new circumstances in his life — the game of connect the dots continues. Based on “The Ghost,” a best-selling 2007 novel by Mr. Harris, “The Ghost Writer” unfolds from the point of view of a ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) hired to whip into shape the memoir of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), a Tony Blair-like American ally under investigation for war crimes. Watching this twisty thriller — which for long stretches finds Mr. McGregor’s character sequestered in a Martha’s Vineyard beach house in the dead of winter, another one of Mr. Polanski’s secluded heroes in another one of his restricted locations — it is hard not to note that the film was completed by its director while confined to his own chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. (He has been under house arrest since December.)
It’s also tempting to observe that Mr. Polanski used a ghostwriter (the journalist Edward Behr) for his 1984 autobiography, “Roman by Polanski.” “The Ghost Writer” is Mr. Polanski’s first post-exile film to be largely — and pointedly — set in the United States. Since he has not set foot on American soil in more than three decades, those dune-edged beaches are not, as we’re supposed to believe, in Massachusetts. Exteriors were shot on the German coast; the palatial vacation home was built on a Berlin soundstage.
But there is another way to see Mr. Polanski in his films, and that is through his authorial presence. More than half of his features are adapted from existing texts, but much of his work retains a striking unity of theme and mood. “His personality infiltrated it inevitably,” Mr. Harris said of the script for “The Ghost Writer,” which he wrote with Mr. Polanski.
The film gives us a quintessentially Polanskian me-against-the-world setup, in which an isolated protagonist succumbs to increasing paranoia. In Mr. Polanski’s movies paranoia can be a symptom of madness (“Repulsion”) or the only proof of sanity in a crazy world (“Rosemary’s Baby”). Sometimes it appears to be both, as in “The Tenant” (1976). In that film, both a black comedy about French xenophobia and a split-identity psychodrama, Mr. Polanski plays the title character, a Pole who rents an apartment in Paris and comes to suspect that his neighbors are conspiring to turn him into its previous resident, a woman who threw herself out of her window. Mr. McGregor’s unnamed character in “The Ghost Writer” is also haunted by his dead predecessor: the writer he’s replacing drowned under mysterious circumstances.
Mr. Polanski’s obsessions seem to have emerged fully formed. The series of short films he made in the late ’50s and early ’60s map out his universe in embryo. His first student film, “Murder,” stages in just over a minute a fatal stabbing by penknife: a killing without motive or context, rendered with startling detail and economy. Films like “Teeth Smile,” “Break Up the Dance” and “The Fat and the Lean” hint at the mind games and power plays to come.
From the start Mr. Polanski was a distinctive filmmaker with a penchant for extreme situations. The aura of violence and perversity that surrounded the films suited an enfant terrible who enjoyed notoriety. But the murder of his wife, besides shattering Mr. Polanski’s life, turned this convenient master narrative into a sick joke. Describing the carnage at his rented Benedict Canyon home, the Satan worship of “Rosemary’s Baby” fresh in their minds, journalists could not refrain from comparing it to a movie — specifically a Roman Polanski movie. “It was a scene as grisly as anything depicted in Polanski’s film explorations of the dark and melancholy corners of the human character,” Time magazine declared.
Roger Gunson, the prosecutor assigned to the statutory rape case, prepared for the trial that never happened by taking in a retrospective of his films. “Every Roman Polanski movie has a theme: corruption meeting innocence over water,” he says in Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” noting that Mr. Polanski had seduced his under-age quarry in a Jacuzzi.
As glib as such connections can seem, they are not always unfounded. Especially in times of distress Mr. Polanski has been drawn to material that might seem personally difficult. His first film after Ms. Tate’s death was an adaptation of “Macbeth” (1971), a blood-soaked tragedy that had many viewers fixating on the scene in which Macduff learns of the massacre of his family. Pauline Kael spoke for many critics when she wrote, “One sees the Manson murders in this ‘Macbeth’ because the director put them there.”
After leaving the United States, Mr. Polanski again turned his attention to a classic that suggested parallels with real-life circumstances. The young heroine of “Tess,” his adaptation of Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” is raped and cast out of society; the film starred the teenage Nastassja Kinski, who had reportedly been involved with Mr. Polanski since she was 15. Despite the provocative casting, some critics saw the film as an apology — Tess does avenge herself — and the sexual violence is shot with conspicuous, fog-shrouded discretion, in contrast to the lurid rape at the center of “Rosemary’s Baby.”
The central ambiguity of “Tess” — is the director identifying with Tess or her rapist or both? — gets at the complex notion of victimhood that runs through Mr. Polanski’s cinema, and through aspects of his biography, from Holocaust survivor to grief-stricken widower to accused rapist. There are plenty of victims and victimizers in his movies, but also plenty of victims turned victimizers: Tess, Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Repulsion” and Sigourney Weaver’s in “Death and the Maiden.”
Mr. Polanski’s psychobiographers might do well to keep in mind a recurring tenet of his movies: Things are not always as they seem. Many have described the confined spaces in his films — the apartments, boats, castles and islands that offer no escape — as the visions of a man who spent his childhood in the walled-in ghetto of Krakow. Mr. Polanski has a more benign explanation. In a 2001 interview with the BBC he talked about his early love for Laurence Olivier’s claustrophobic 1948 film “Hamlet,” connecting it to the intimacy of a Vermeer: “I liked films which made you feel you are actually inside an interior, feeling virtually the fourth wall behind you, like in Dutch paintings.”
It is in keeping with the unpredictable turns of Mr. Polanski’s life that his current unhappy chapter should come after “The Pianist,” a stately late-career triumph that many considered a culminating work. More than a quarter century ago he wrote in “Roman by Polanski,” “I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf.” That caricature had faded away over the years, along with the stories of his brutal on-set perfectionism, replaced by a picture of a marginalized but respected industry elder whom journalists and collaborators have described as reticent and not especially prone to introspection. (He has been married for more than 20 years to the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, with whom he has two children.)
Ronald Harwood, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of “The Pianist,” has been in regular contact with Mr. Polanski by telephone these past few months.
“I ask him how he is, and he says he’s fine,” Mr. Harwood said. “But I don’t know how he is. No one really does.”