Roman Polanski Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roman Polanski 1933–

Polish director, screenwriter, and actor.

Polanski's films are a compilation of assorted cinematic genres, encompassing surrealism, psychological thriller, the horror story and its parody, and the detective mystery.

He was born in Paris of Polish parents; the family moved to Kraców three years later. During World War II his parents were put in a concentration camp, where his mother died, and Polanski grew up in a series of Polish homes. He began acting professionally in theater when he was a teenager and later worked in films, including several with Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Polanski studied painting, sculpture, and graphics in Kraców and spent five years at the State Film College at Lódź, where he made Two Men and a Wardrobe. The film projects its maker's deep absorption with the tenets of surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd. About his early style, also informing The Fat and the Lean, Polanski has said: "I must confess that I was completely formed by surrealism."

Polanski's first full-length feature, Knife in the Water, initiated a career-long succession of films exploring the varieties of violence and estrangement. His second feature, Repulsion, has been likened to Alfred Hitchcock's definitive shocker Psycho for its study of inner torment that bursts into outward mayhem. Cul-de-Sac somewhat refines overt carnage into a surreal depiction of human chaos, drawing upon the absurdist tradition of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Some critics see a direct relationship between the turbulent background of this director's life and the array of unusual brutalities in his films, especially emphasizing this correlation after the bizarre murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski's second wife. Throughout his career Polanski has sought to articulate the extremes of human experience, leading necessarily to displays of violence in some form, though never limiting it to the single dimension of physical grue.

From the violence in the spiritual order of Rosemary's Baby to the violence of moral corruption in Chinatown and the psychological violence of The Tenant, Polanski investigates many levels of existential menace. More exactly, his concern is the atmospheric suggestion of potential havoc in the worlds in which his endangered protagonists exist. Polanski is adapting Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Polanski feels his film Tess will be representative of a mature phase in his career. He has said of the film: "I have been influenced a great deal by surrealism and the theater of the absurd…. But now that the world itself has become absurd and almost surreal, I want to go back to the simplicity and essence of human relationships." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Jonathan Harker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Two Men and a Wardrobe] juggles symbol and reality, lighthearted story and allegorical message in a casual manner we are hardly accustomed to….

The film's success is largely in its expert manipulation of two levels of meaning and in the flexible, "open" quality of its symbolism. I interpret the wardrobe to represent all the ethical, moral, and religious values considered "outmoded" in pre-Gomulka Poland—and, for that matter, throughout the world. The [wardrobe closet's] mirror then represents man's conscience, reflecting his own self-criticism. (It is this mirror which gives away the adolescents as they are about to attack a girl, and provokes a fight in which the mirror is smashed.) One...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Raymond Durgnat

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Repulsion] the murderer is dewily sensitive Catherine Deneuve. But, instead of discovering her through the eyes of others, as in the best of the preceding films, Psycho, we live life with her, look out on the world through her eyes—with the additional advantage that we can understand the ordinary human reactions to which she is blind. It's an admirable compromise between a conventional and a 'stream-of-consciousness' film.

I won't dwell … on the film's 'sensational' qualities which are considerable. More important is the film's whole atmosphere, exemplified by the shot of the angelic young murderess-to-be walking, unseeing, past a road accident. Her quiet deterioration is...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Kenneth Tynan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Repulsion is Psycho turned inside out. In Hitchcock's film we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims—in Polanski's our viewpoint is the killer's. Polanski (coauthor, with Gerard Brach, of the original story) offers no psychiatric explanation for his heroine's behavior. He simply presents it, and if we choose to identify with her fears and her irrational ferocity that is our business, not his….

Within its limits, Repulsion is a flawless exercise: it establishes Polanski as a master of the casual macabre. We know he can scare us to death—all that remains is for him to prove that he can also warm us to life.

Kenneth Tynan,...

(The entire section is 138 words.)

Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'Ah! Pinter' one cries, sniffing like a Bisto Kid at the heady aroma of Cul-de-Sac…. Then one remembers the odd, elliptical conversations of Knife in the Water, and wonders if Polanski was even then the Pinter of Poland. An unanswerable question, really, even if one knows Polish, as Pinter's English is so distinctive that it sounds like something else as soon as it is translated. Whatever the answer, the fact remains that Polanski's command of the English language has matured rapidly since the hesitancies of Repulsion, and the idiotic clichés of polite conversation, observed with hilarious exactness, form a permanent, twittering background to Cul-de-Sac.

For the rest,...

(The entire section is 198 words.)

Raymond Durgnat

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The affinities of this 'black comedy' [Cul-de-Sac] with the Theatre of the Absurd hardly need underlining; and there's a spirit not unlike Ionesco's in his playing with the conventions of the genre, something of Beckett in his final image of sobbing nihilism.

To make these comparisons is far from suggesting that his work is derivative. On the contrary…. [Polanski's] films bring a new impetus to a now inbred, cult-ridden, mood. For he remains in contact with certain positive enthusiasms: a robust, amiable Surrealism; a sense of the weight and strain and pain of everyday, realistic experiences; and a huge, mischievous enjoyment of the melodramas which he parodies…. Polanski's humour, like...

(The entire section is 395 words.)

Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Cul-de-Sac"] is the quintessence of fashionable, phony movie-making, and I am all the more impatient with it because of my admiration for Mr. Polanski's "Knife in the Water."… [In "Knife in the Water"] the test, conducted mainly in terms of a weekend sail on a remote Polish lake, gave the director an opportunity to deal with some of the oldest and most imperious emotions we know—fear, lust, rage, and jealousy—which he depicted with insouciant conviction, as if, despite their humble origins in prehistory, they were still worth paying strict attention to. The most notable thing about Polanski's ["Repulsion"] … was a lessening of this conviction. Like Hitchcock, and perhaps in homage to him, Polanski shifted...

(The entire section is 297 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Polanski] is teaching us how to regard him. Knife in the Water, his fine first film, was a tight little Sartrean engine of internal forces. Since then, the horrors in his films have become much more external, at best merely entertaining. Repulsion, a chronicle of psychotic murders, was coolly frightening, if largely gratuitous. Cul-de-Sac was a far-out thriller-rag, less successful but sometimes ingenious. The Fearless Vampire Killers, which Polanski says was mutilated by the distributors, was an amusing idea for a Dracula spoof, but it completely misfired. Rosemary's Baby seems to settle in right where he wants to live: as a manufacturer of intelligent thrillers, clever and...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Harlan Ellison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a writer of fantasy, I cannot conceive of any way in which "Rosemary's Baby" could be improved. It is, for this reviewer, one of the very finest fantasy films ever made. The promise of Roman Polanski … remains undimmed. The talent he displayed with "Repulsion" is more controlled, more adroit, certainly more impressive here….

It is the sort of film Hitchcock would be making today, had he not grown old along about "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Polanski has not taken on the Old Master's mantle, he has created his own, with the warp and woof of black magic, danger, the essence of fear and a sinister simplicity that is like all great Art—so deceptively simple looking, until one tries to take it...

(The entire section is 355 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Roman Polanski's] surrealism is visceral rather than intellectual and he seems not to be aware of surrealist theory and revolutionary implications as set out in the writings of, for example, André Breton. It can be guessed from his work that the main filmic influence on him has been Buñuel. If Two Men and a Wardrobe is reminiscent in places of Dali's coastal deserts, it is also indebted … to Los Olvidados. Repulsion, in its presentation of a sexual obsessive and in its recurrent imagery, is the most Buñuelian of films. Indeed, it is explicitly a hommage.

The image behind the credits is a huge close-up of an eye with the credits moving at random across it. When the credit...

(The entire section is 1361 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rosemary' Baby is not merely a sophisticated horror film. The horror is only one aspect of a complex statement frightening in its relevance. Based on the novel by Ira Levin, the film remains extraordinarily faithful to its literary source. But Polanski deserves the credit for re-creating the meaning in visual terms. The film is about a girl who is trapped in a reality which she cannot believe. She must choose between not believing what appears to be real or believing what cannot be real. The irony is that in this film, Rosemary finally believes the fantastic because Polanski gives it the texture of an undeniable reality, however bizarre.

The story takes the traditional Christ myth and dresses...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Robert Chappetta

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rosemary's Baby is a tolerably successful commercial movie, which is to say it isn't very good, and a clear disappointment to anyone who has admired—if only in part—Roman Polanski's earlier films. If it does fail as a horror film, however, it is, I think, because Polanski's main interest lies elsewhere: the humor of the film, especially the wit of the ending, makes the film worth considering. To begin with, any reasonably sophisticated person's response to the movie's ending is likely to be: but there are no witches. No effort is made to suspend your disbelief in witches; they are just a "given," a dramatic assumption never made compelling. This problem of belief is especially acute because the action of...

(The entire section is 570 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Knife in the Water actually emerges in retrospect as Polanski's least completely personal work …, it nevertheless does contain all that is thematically essential to him.

The expensive yacht, the beautiful young wife who shares it with him, and the private sea upon which it rides started out as status symbols which Andrzej felt compelled to attain. The film begins at that point where he has attained them and where their illusory protectiveness has created for him a private world, a world which is intruded upon by the student, and destroyed. This theme of isolation wherein the protagonist or antagonist's private world is intruded upon by strangers, a situation which always ends in...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Raymond Durgnat

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Fat and the Lean is a cynical slapstick tragedy that] evokes not only Samuel Beckett, but Hal Roach, and one thinks briefly of various American clowns: Laurel and Hardy, for the fat man bullying the thin one, Chaplin, for Polanski's fey, nimble pathos, Harold Lloyd, for the ingenuity of his eager-beaver attempts to please. If one hesitates to align the film alongside the great two-reel comedies (or early Tati), it's on account of spiritual and cinematic finesses, after which words can only clumsily grope. (p. 96)

It remains a deft, corrosive little parable on the theme of dominance absurdly accepted, of the volunteered slavery which is so paradoxical yet pervasive a feature of human...

(The entire section is 357 words.)

Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roman Polanski's Macbeth [is] all but the worst Shakespeare ever filmed. If it wasn't as Now as Tony Richardson's Hamlet or as West-Side-Storyish as Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet … it was more blatant than either and distilled even less poetry, verbal or visual. (p. 170)

Polanski's setting is a panoramic slaughter-house in which the language is only impedimenta unreasonably holding up the "action." When, in a brief intercut moment, Banquo observes, "It will be rain tonight," and the murderer, felling him with a blow, remarks, "Let it come down," the director should cry, "Cut!—and print it!" To extend this encounter to a prolonged combat and knifings in the creekbed, like a...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Normand Berlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With Roman Polanski's screen version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, we] may wish to regret that tragedy has become melodrama, that the camera has replaced the word, and that Shakespeare's play has been reduced both morally and metaphysically. But these regrets should not blind us to the virtues of the film, not only its energy and visual excitement, but its value as an interpretation of Shakespeare. How Polanski sees (or reads) Macbeth indicates the rich suggestiveness of Shakespeare's art; it also indicates Polanski's personal vision of the modern world. (p. 291)

[To illustrate] Polanski's use of Shakespeare, I would like to examine a specific poetic image in Shakespeare which becomes a...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Bea Rothenbuecher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In What? Polanski again proves his sensitivity as an artist by giving us an ambiguous satire of life today, using sex as a metaphor for our lost sense of innocence. He makes full use of the new candor to push back the boundaries of cinema…. [But] his film is not about sex. It is about the abuse of sex….

[Far] from being Hefnerian in its philosophy, What? is distinctly European in its origins. Its nakedness—the [American] girl's vulnerability—is completely appropriate to the absurd world of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and others who have influenced Polanski. (p. 1179)

In the hands of Polanski, [Hugh] Griffith, who has made a career of playing the lecher, refines...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

Jan Dawson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The credit titles for Polanski's What? are in the form of signatures in a lined exercise book; and as the movie progresses and hindsight improves, they assume an increasing appropriateness. For despite its erratic moments of brilliance, the overall impression left by the film is of a rather puerile graffito scrawled in the margins of its literary antecedents. On the one hand, the pornographic tradition … of the violation of the perennially innocent; on the other, the more singular eccentricities of Alice in Wonderland whose best known incidents Polanski deliberately evokes…. In one sense, the two poles are not so very far apart: 'classical' pornography was the black-humoured expression of serious...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Fred Kaplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chinatown has been praised to the heavens by almost all the critics and it's not difficult to see why. It is precisely the sort of film that apolitical (or pseudo-political) aesthetes would flip for. It presents politics as strictly an Evil Man's field of action. The Big Daddy in this thing has even committed incest, that's how Evil he is! Also laid out is that reassuring notion that politics is all too complicated, mysterious and even mystical for any of Us to understand. The political scandal and the incestuous scandal are, in fact, equated: the whole scene is beyond sense, completely irrational, utterly Evil. We are all controlled by a handful of Bad Guys and there's nothing We can do about it…. [It's]...

(The entire section is 366 words.)

David Elliott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chinatown is one of the most beautiful films ever made. It might not be art—that depends on your definition—but it is an object of beauty beyond all question….

[Robert Altman's] The Long Goodbye may have defined the excitement [of the detective story], but Chinatown defines the values. (p. 44)

[Polanski] steers the story along so seductively, preparing us for every twist and shock so adroitly, that we are surprised and delighted to find that something this old-fashioned can still work so well. Remember the well-made story? Here it is again.

What's new is the atmosphere, which captures the '30s better than most '30s movies. This is the...

(The entire section is 406 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The moral climate of the U.S. has for some time been ripe for a work of art along the lines of the wasteland motif, the country plagued by its own ruler…. [With] Roman Polanski's outstanding film, Chinatown, an important segment of popular culture has fulfilled what might truly be called a need….

The moral impact of Chinatown suggests another inspiration besides the modern detective story, a "detective story" of universal significance. Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, a work that itself uses a familiar story or cliché as framework. (p. 249)

The basic idea behind the comparison … lies in the atmosphere of decay that predominates in both works. There is an allusion...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is scarcely a more depressing case in movies than that of Roman Polanski. A filmmaker of considerable talent and not just bad but downright repellent taste, he could well have become a major artist had he remained in his native Poland. Polanski, a naughty little fellow with bizarre preoccupations, desperately needs Big Brother to watch over him. Polish censorship provided him with just such a restraining superego, and never did curtailing of an artist's freedom yield more salutary results. His single Polish feature, Knife in the Water (1962), and the best of his Polish shorts, Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), are original and pungent achievements, quite possibly major works. In these films, his taste...

(The entire section is 845 words.)

Penelope Gilliatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Tenant" is no piece of whimsey about drag. It is a serious, exact film about the ache of exile. Exile from country. Exile from gender. Exile from the person whom others recognize as the self but whom the self, at times of extreme self-questioning or torment, can find quite foreign. It is a study of a man who, though small, feels he is a nuisance even to furniture. An occasional table, to his way of thinking, deserves courtesy and maneuver. He feels he is even more of an obstruction in the presence of people, and seems apologetic for his short unfurnished tenancy on his life….

"The Tenant" has quite left behind the ethic of cool and the intent to shock which Polanski seemed to hanker after in...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

Martin Amis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first hour of The Tenant could have gone on to become Polanski's most telling study to date of mental imbalance. Neurosis, anyway, is banal; and it is often wincingly funny: the nauseous cowering with which the neurotic reacts to the huff-and-puff of daily life can, as Polanski shows, make for a very intimate kind of dramatic irony…. Polanski's most sophisticated look at the horror genre was in the comedy Dance of the Vampires, where the conventions were reversed: frightful things are happening all about you, if only you'd turn the right way. In The Tenant, as to some extent in Cul de Sac, Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, the baseless fears of distraught minds, once...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ever since Knife in the Water, [Roman Polanski's] career has largely gravitated round the problem of reconciling certain formal interests with the more 'saleable' sides of his artistic persona (principally black humour and a taste for Grand Guignol). It is significant that What?, the film where his formal concerns are probably most evident, might well be the least critically and commercially successful of his efforts to date; if satire, according to George S. Kaufman, is what closes in New Haven, formalism in 'mainstream' cinema can't even hope for an East Orange preview unless it sneaks in under another label, usually stylistic or thematic. In the case of Polanski, this taboo seems to have brought about...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), an] absurdist spoof of Dracula, may still be as much ahead of its time as it was 13 years ago…. Whatever may be said about Polanski—and even his admirers have never mistaken him for Albert Schweitzer—he cannot be accused of hypocrisy….

Polanski's films have always contained too much undigested clinical material for my taste, and he has never seemed capable of fashioning a coherently absurdist vision of the world. Consequently, he has been commercially successful on the megabucks level only when he has been working with, around, and under genre conventions in Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. He has been modestly successful also...

(The entire section is 433 words.)