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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.)
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[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 published interpretation of the film states that the two men get into trouble because they try to interest organized society in their wardrobe. This is simply inaccurate. Rather, the wardrobe is a heavy burden, which the two will not put down or abandon, but which in turn amuses, affronts, or enrages everybody else. I do not wish to insist on this single "translation." The story could, for example, be read as a variant on the legend of St. Christopher. Again, one scene opens with a fish apparently floating among clouds in the sky. One of the two men picks the fish up—it has been lying on the wardrobe mirror, which reflected the clouds overhead. The two proceed to eat the fish—or are they eating something else? It's not crucial; for one of the greatest virtues of the film lies in its literal, realistic level, admirably maintained throughout. There is no real need to translate the film at all to get something out of it. And of how many "symbolic," "Freudian," "experimental" films can this be said?
Indeed, Two Men and a Wardrobe can be taken as the perfect compendium of all that the ordinary experimental film is not—lengthy, confused, opaque, ill-proportioned, humor-less, and technically inept. What it reveals about life in Poland is open to discussion, as is what it reveals of the Polish avant-garde school. But the superlative quality of Polanski's film is beyond question or qualification. I have no hesitation in stating that Two Men and a Wardrobe is the best film of its kind in thirty years. (p. 55)
Jonathan Harker, "Film Reviews: 'Two Men and a Wardrobe'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1959 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XII, No. 3, Spring, 1959, pp. 53-5.
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[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 integrated with our everyday—London's familiar streets (in the exteriors), the routine of everyday living (steadily degenerating in the flat), the myopic goodwill of her friends (in the beauty parlour). Everybody must have wondered how it would feel to go, slowly, mad; how your friends would react to the warning symptoms; but above all how the world would seem, how you'd gradually withdraw into a kind of isolation and timelessness in which, steadily, hideous dreams acquired greater reality than reality and devoured your mind until time, place, life itself broke up into an incoherent succession of extreme states. Of all the films I've seen on the topic of madness this gives the most vivid picture of being mad. It is vivid because no verbal explanations, no please for understanding, get in the way; we simply watch her feelings, and identify, and share. (pp. 28-9)
Raymond Durgnat, "Film Guide: 'Repulsion'," (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1965; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 11, No. 11, August, 1965, pp. 28-9.
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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, "A Grisly Tour de Force of Sex and Suspense," in Life (courtesy of Life Magazine; © 1965 Time Inc.; reprinted with permission of the author), Vol. 59, No. 15, October 8, 1965, p. 23.
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'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, this is very much Polanski as we have come to know him: ghoulish black comedy; the pain of solitude; pride; a touch of masochism; and above all, people and objects at odds with a landscape (like the bandaged men against the snow in Mammals, the two men and a wardrobe in Two Men and a Wardrobe, the squabbling trio locked together by a boat in Knife in the Water). (p. 146)
Tom Milne, "Film Reviews: 'Cul-de-Sac'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1966 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 146-47.
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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 Polish cinema, is profoundly existentialist. His studies of minds cracking might carry as subtitle the title of one of Sartre's novels, The Age of Reason; and their common theme, of slowly decomposing rationality, is adumbrated in Sartre's short story The Room. (p. 18)
Cul-de-Sac is a case of style transcending subject: indeed, if the film is so difficult to write about … it's because so much of it is a meditation in the odd visual details through which Polanski keeps turning the everyday into a sort of fantasy-land—eg, the simple act of drinking is imbued with sinister overtones because the camera-angle stresses the muscles pulling away in the men's throats. The script concocts some brilliantly eccentric re-circuitings of the dramatic current—thus the suspense-making situation of friends and child calling for lunch with the gangster-dominated couple ends, not with a plea for rescue, but with hosts and friends venting all their long-pent-up hostility in one blazing row. In its construction the film has an inspired dottiness, as in the slow spiralling-down of the terror situation to a casual practical joke, which in its turn escalates through a sexually highly-charged situation to the final killings. (p. 51)
[It's] not just certain motifs (eggs, corpses, 'solidarity'), or the mad mood, that recalls Buñuel. What keeps his film lightweight, relatively, is the reliance on melodrama and parody; and Polanski may well match The Exterminating Angel (itself a title for Repulsion!) when he altogether dispenses with these ingredients and comes to trace the interweaving of madness and sanity, 'straight', in a world as unquivocally everyday as [Cesare] Zavattini's. (p. 52)
Raymond Durgnat, "New Films: 'Cul-de-Sak'" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1966; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 12, No. 10, July, 1966, pp. 18, 51-2.
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["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 his attention from the emotions of his characters to the emotions of his audience; he was plainly out to shock us at any cost, and the cost proved high. The heroine of "Repulsion" was a pretty girl who skittered hysterically away from any promise of a sexual relation, but we never learned why, the significant action of the movie having taken place before the movie began. Polanski cavalierly pretended to provide a clue to her madness by ending the movie with a stop-shot of a faded family photograph, in which the girl stares woebegonely out at us, already a victim. But a victim of what? Of whom? The family photograph is no "Rosebud"—indeed, it compounds the cheat of the movie by affecting to explain everything and explaining nothing….
[In "Cul-de-Sac"] the lack of conviction is complete. A slick, gaudily Gothic movie, it seems bent on making our flesh creep, but not through the manipulation, however perverse, of any recognizable human emotion.
Brendan Gill, "Dead End," in The New Yorker (© 1966 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLII, No. 38, November 12, 1966, p. 115.
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[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 insubstantial. Only a director with wit could have made the witchcraft credible. Only a director with real cinematic gifts could have made a sequence like the one where Rosemary barricades herself in the apartment or the childbirth scene. Only a director satisfied with ephemera could have lavished his gifts on the whole project. (p. 85)
Stanley Kauffmann, "'Rosemary's Baby'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 158, No. 25, June 15, 1968), in his Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (copyright © 1968, 1969, 1970 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 83-5.
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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 apart and find out why it functions as well as it does, without any moving parts. (p. 41)
Polanski. Jesus, the man is good! Let me tell you a thing: in all the canon of fantasy writing, the very hardest job of all is the creation of a contemporary fantasy, using the elements of ancient myth or folklore—gnomes, witches, demonology, dragons, dryads, mermaids—in such a way that the old horrors have relevance for our times…. Polanski knows this. He has been constructing with his last three films a modern grimoire utilizing these ancient, dust-and-hoar-covered legends in their modern settings. And he has become a master at it. This is a task of great rigor, but Polanski has somewhichway tapped into the bubbling lava of fear down in the gut of us all. (pp. 41-2)
For those who need specific statements, who have not yet been able to grasp that this reviewer was knocked out by "Rosemary's Baby," let me conclude by saying quite boldly: this film will be looked back upon with growing recognition as the years pass. It is in every way and by every standard of critical judgment, a classic of that most intriguing of genres, the film of fear. (p. 42)
Harlan Ellison, "Film Reviews: 'Rosemary's Baby'" (©, 1968, by Spectator International, Inc.; copyright reassigned to the Author; ©, 1980, by the Kilimanjaro Corporation), in Cinema, Vol. 4, No. 3, Fall, 1968, pp. 41-2.
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[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 'directed by Roman Polanski' comes up, it moves precisely from right to left across the centre of the eyeball, recalling the notorious opening sequence of Un Chien Andalou in which an eyeball is sliced by a razor. The first intimations of violence are conveyed by the juxtaposition within the frame of Carol … washing her legs, and her sister's lover's razor—two familiar Buñuelian images. Examples of surrealist imagery in Polanski's work could be multiplied almost indefinitely: the chicken feathers in Mammals, the raw meat in Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, the white garden chair in the grave in Cul de Sac, plus very general surrealist traits such as his fascination with the sea with all its Freudian overtones.
A melange of influences does not of itself produce an artist, but Polanski has a good claim to be regarded as such primarily through the single-minded power of his vision. There is a strong thematic continuity in his feature films so far released in this country. All examine aspects of sexuality: Knife in the Water is a study of sexual rivalry, Repulsion of sexual disgust, and Cul de Sac of sexual humiliation. Rosemary's Baby tenses the audience with the possibility that it is a study in sexual hysteria.
Knife in the Water remains a striking first film, although in retrospect it seems Polanski's least personal work…. [It] shows a great deal of Polanski's strength and not a little of his weakness.
He has said that the quality which interests him most in cinema is 'atmosphere', the defining of a particular mood. This is practically a definition of what he has done so successfully in Knife in the Water. He sharpens the mood of potential violence with a striking array of visual and sound imagery: the initial calm of the Baltic haffs, the game the two men play with the younger man's knife, the sudden eruption of sound and movement as the boat is hauled through the reeds, the clatter of metal objects during the cooking scene, the burning of the young man's hands, the storm, the unseen fly which buzzes around the cabin—all leading up to the final violent confrontation. Polanski's sureness of touch in creating atmosphere, his ability to raise and release tension, contrasts with the playfulness, if not flippancy, of parts of the film. Critics have remarked on the Christ imagery surrounding the young man: he lies on the deck in the posture of the crucified Christ, a coil of rope making a halo behind his head, he walks on the water, he is resurrected, and so on. However, the recurrent Christ imagery in no way illuminates the central, sexual theme; and if, as has been suggested, it is part of a complex allegory on modern Poland, this must be accounted a weakness rather than a strength.
The weaknesses of Repulsion are few, and' lack of relevance of the parts is not among them. Indeed, it is the most singleminded of Polanski's films, every element sucked into the sexual vortex at the centre. Moving outward from the central situation of the film, a young girl's disgust with sexuality and her descent into madness and violence, almost every character, relationship and situation is defined in sexual terms….
Within this framework of thematic unity Polanski deploys a remarkable filmic technique, the closest analogy to which is Hitchcock's in Psycho. In addition to the obvious influences of that film (the recurrent eye imagery, the use of the tracking shot towards a potentially menacing area), Polanski unnerves and disorientates his audience principally in two ways. Apart from his more traditional surrealist imagery (razors, raw meat), the violent reference of which is absolutely precise, he presents other images which evoke a less precise, but none the less chilling, horror. The most striking is the image of the three buskers, one playing a banjo, the other two bent over hideously playing spoons, and all three advancing, crab-like, into the camera. More usually, Polanski offers an image which appears heavy with menace or horror and turns out to be innocent or banal, thus letting the audience, temporarily, off the hook. (p. 15)
Despite the single-mindedness of conception and Polanski's flawless technique, Repulsion exhibits weaknesses which are perhaps in the nature of the subject. In charting the path of a disintegrating mind, the most original sensibility would be taxed to find adequate images to convey the final stages. Inevitably, Polanski is at his most convincing depicting the early stages of Carol's collapse by subtle distortions in the visible world, the reflection of her face in a kettle, or the potatoes with ever more grotesque tentacles growing from them, the naturalism of which enhances their quality as images of a disordered mind. Where in these images the audience is aware of a whole world become sick, in the cracking walls and grasping, disembodied hands of the later stages of Carol's decline, we have no yardstick of normality and see only the ingenious products of the props department. Despite this reservation, however, Repulsion remains Polanski's most interesting achievement.
Compared with the tightly constructed Repulsion, Cul de Sac seems sprawling and formless. It would seem to have been conceived as a study of the sexual humiliation of George … by his young wife Teresa … and one of the interloping gangsters, Dickie…. Three key sequences underline this basic motif: the uproarious bedroom sequence in which Teresa forces George to act out her role in nightie, painted mouth and eyes, and turban; the beach sequence in which George, walking on his knees, confesses to Dickie his hopeless obsession with Teresa (this is restated in the numberless paintings he has done of her); and the sequence in which George discovers the sexual exhilaration of violence by killing Dickie. However, these sequences virtually become lost among the many unassimilated elements of the film. Of these the Pinteresque/Beckettian elements are the funniest….
Despite its grave structural weaknesses, Cul de Sac is kept afloat by the power of its conception and, yet again, by Polanski's superb technique. What remains of Cul de Sac is the texture of sound and image: the phut of boat engines, the roar of a passing plane, seagulls' screams, the clucking of hens, the texture of [Teresa's] body, a decaying chair in an empty room, a blazing Jaguar.
It has been claimed that Repulsion holds up well as a documentary account of one kind of mental illness. Rosemary's Baby offers the audience the possibility that it is a study in pre-parturitional hysteria; but where in Repulsion the audience is certain that it is watching a mind falling apart and is disorientated by the horror of the imagery, in Rosemary's Baby it is disorientated by its inability to assess whether Rosemary … is mentally ill or whether her apparent imaginings are true. Our assessment veers from one side to another, sometimes approaching certainty that there is a witches' plot against Rosemary, at other times dismissing the apparent conjunction of events as a web spun by a hysterical girl anxious for the safety of her unborn child. This to and fro juggling of audience response is the main structural principle of the film. (p. 16)
Roman Polanski's vision is profoundly pessimistic. Exploring man's sexuality he finds humiliation, betrayal, violence and madness. It is fitting that the only birth in the Polanski canon should bring forth the child of Satan. (p. 17)
Colin McArthur, "Polanski," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1968 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 14-17.
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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 it an its equally traditional Satanic disguise. The film's myth parallels the New Testament, with the divine figure as father of the child, Rosemary as the chosen vessel, the starting of the new era with the birth of the messiah, and the adoration of the child. It treats the myth in such a way that we are forced to accept its literal truth. Yet at the same time we the audience cannot accept what is being presented as real, because for centuries we have believed that the birth of the anti-christ is a detestable lie. Yet the film gives us evidence for its truth that is more convincing than any evidence on which Christian belief is based. The film is frightening because it forces us to examine the kinds and bases of belief. We confront the idea that the Christian myth is certainly no more believable than its mirror image, and possibly less so. And beyond this, we are also forced to realise that our mode of believing in Christianity is quite different from the one with which we perceive 'real' things. (p. 17)
[There is] a merging of competing mythologies in the film's imagery. In the extraordinarily powerful scene where Rosemary conceives the Son of Satan, there is a merging of images from at least three mythologies: Satan and the witches from the demonic, the Pope and Michelangelo's creation of Adam from traditional Christianity, and the Kennedyesque yachting captain from the modern myth of power. The images in Rosemary's dream are constantly transformed from one to the other. For example, Guy's face dissolves into the demon, and Hutch assumes the role of Pope. These mergings of the various myth figures are further complicated by three modes of reality in the scene itself. Are these images Rosemary's dream, a half-drugged waking vision, or the fantastic reality of the witches' coven? Ironically, the events which trigger the uncertain reality of Rosemary's response are just as fantastic as the images themselves. Rosemary's scream that this is real, and the marks on her body the next morning, attest to their undeniable reality. That Rosemary has responded to them with the mixing of the three myths shows their interchangeability. As modes and myths merge in these ways, the film insists that we believe or disbelieve them all….
The film has forced us to face two things. First of all we claim to assign belief to our myths; yet if we do so, it is a different kind of belief than that which we assign to 'reality'. But our desire to hold belief is so powerful that under its pressure we can accept anything. (p. 19)
Beverle Houston and Marsha Kinder, "'Rosemary's Baby'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1968 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 17-19.
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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 film is here and now: the supernatural, the world of witches, is easier to believe in when it is made somehow remote, or removed from the present and the familiar, as in Henry James's Turn of the Screw or Murnau's Nosferatu. But to make the world of witches contemporary does give the tale a surface smartness, which whatever problems it raises, is a major asset of the film, an advance for Polanski over the banality of the world of The Vampire Killers. This very surface smartness indicates the level of the film: entertainment, not art. To use the new, the contemporary, even the avant-garde, to achieve an effect without working through the problems they raise, is the hallmark of the facile showman, the entertainer. What is wrong with Rosemary's Baby, however, is that these surface effects have not been used more richly and complexly to make a more successful entertainment.
Polanski's commitment to the pedestrian, pedestrianly executed, makes the film the least visually interesting of any Polanski has done. Polanski's talent, a not atypically Polish one, is for the baroque, for an oddness of the visual world, not only in decor, or angle of shot, or composition, but, as in the closing parts of Cul-de-Sac, in the very light itself, a crisply underlit, nondaylight world more awesome and madness-provoking than the weak, dull lighting of Bergman's Hour of the Wolf…. In Rosemary's Baby, the character of the material, largely the everyday-urban-real, would be negated if it were shaped in a sustained baroque style. Instead, Polanski falls back on blandness…. (p. 35)
In its modernization, Rosemary's Baby does not achieve anything comparable to the traditional gothic psychological tensions that reflect the resentments and pressures of the class system…. In Rosemary's Baby, the psychological tensions between people are a lot weaker, involving more a sense of annoyance than of menace. (p. 37)
Significantly, at the end Polanski … does not show us Rosemary's baby extravagances in coincidence earlier in the film … established the reality of the supernatural power of the witches, here in the last scene, shorn of the final supernatural extravagance, the witches seem cut down to naturalistic size. It's as if at this point Polanski were twitting the audience for its readiness to believe in witches…. In the end, I seemed to be watching not so much a witch story, but a story which assumed the madness of the mass of humanity, who, with appropriate changes of names and descriptions, still believe in the prevalence of witches. (p. 38)
Robert Chappetta, "Film Reviews: 'Rosemary's Baby'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1969 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXII, No. 3, Spring, 1969, pp. 35-8.
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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 some form of violence, self-destruction, or disaster is, in fact, the nucleus of all of Polanski's films….
[In Polanski's films] couples are always significantly mismatched due to the neurotic obsession of one partner (or both) for his or her exact opposite, as witness the self-destructive attractions of: the intellectual George for the physical Teresa in Cul-de-Sac, the sexually insecure Andrzej for the self-assured Christine in Knife in the Water, the deeply religious and unselfish Rosemary for the agnostic and ambitious Guy in Rosemary's Baby all the way to the absurdly fatal pairing of the vampire killer Alfred with the Undead Anna in The Fearless Vampire Killers. (p. 19)
The subject of Repulsion is the deep and sometimes deadly relationship that exists between sex and fear.
An even more grotesque illustration of this relationship is to be found, oddly enough, in The Fearless Vampire Killers, a parody of the horror film genre which reveals more than a trace of Krafft-Ebing through its depiction of vampirism as a fundamentally sexual perversion. Indeed Alfred's seductive girlfriend and Count von Klocken's homosexual son …, each of whom use sex to ensnare blood victims, begin as parodies of a type, but wind up owing more to such real life "vampires" as Countess Elizabeth Bathory and Gilles de Rais than the fictional fiends of Bram Stoker and Sheridan LeFanu.
Although this implication does add greater thematic dimension, the strength of its bite proves ultimately lethal to the parody. Some of Polanski's gags are quite funny …, and yet the comedy overall suffers due to this internal conflict of approach. The finale in which the vampires rise from their tombs to come together in the castle's ballroom for a pre-conquest dance and celebration offers the best example of this conflict. As Alfred and the professor clumsily grope their way through the swirling crowd of waltzing Undead to find some route of escape, one is aware of the comic intent. But the figures of the vampires themselves dressed in moldy burial rags, their earth-gray flesh in various stages of decomposition, are nightmarish. Putting it simply, The Fearless Vampire Killers emerges more frightening than the kind of film it is trying to jest….
[Rosemary's Baby is Polanski's] strongest surrealistic exercise since Repulsion. It also marks the first time he has based his work on already existing material….
It is inevitable that an adaptation would emerge less personal than an original, but less personal does not mean impersonal. Rosemary's Baby, regardless of its origins, is a distinctly Polanskian film. While it retains all of [Ira] Levin's plot, most of his scenes, dialogue, and symbols, a close comparison of the two works reveals significant differences of intent between them….
Like Repulsion [Rosemary's Baby] deals with a girl's subconscious mental conflict, in this case it is Rosemary's inner torment at being unable to reconcile her strict religious upbringing with her adult agnostic desires. Because we the audience, experience everything through Rosemary (as we did through Carol Ledoux), we also come to believe that what we are seeing is a terrifying fact ("This is no dream! This is really happening!"). But in the very last scene of the film, after Rosemary has accepted and begun to care for the demon child (the point at which the book ends), Polanski dissolves to a shot of the hotel's extreme where we see Rosemary and Guy walking hand in hand through the front entrance. It is, in fact, the same shot which began the film. What we have just been witness to was not reality, but the subconscious preliminaries to that reality—the destruction of Rosemary's soul.
This shot, however, would be no more than a meaningless trick ending were it not for the many visual correlatives that exist between Rosemary's behavior and Carol Ledoux's—a few of which are: (1) each girl's obliviousness to all but her own existence as she walks through the crowded city streets, (2) each girl's distorted view of others as she answers the door by first looking through the Juda hole, (3) and the disintegration of each girl's self-awareness when she comes across her unfamiliar reflection in a kitchen appliance.
Sex fear, too, plays an important role in Rosemary's psychological dilemma in that modern attitudes toward sex and Rosemary's desire to share them work in direct opposition to her inbred Catholicism.
The foremost criticism levelled at Repulsion was that it failed to deal satisfactorily with the hereditary and environmental origins of Carol's fear. In the film, Polanski places much visual emphasis on an old family portrait in the Ledoux living room which shows Carol's family gathered in the backyard of their Belgian home. Helene is kneeling at her father's side, her head resting on his knee; the mother is sitting in a chair close by; and Carol is standing behind them all alone, that same empty expression characterizing her face even as a child. Most reviewers felt, however, that while this photograph hinted at many things, it directly explained nothing, and therefore the film failed in completeness.
If this criticism were pertinent (and it is not), it could apply to the other Polanski films as well. Cul-de-Sac no more explains the genesis of the husband's maladjustment than does The Fearless Vampire Killers attempt to elucidate how its fanged predators first came to enjoy the taste of blood. And therein lie the short-comings not of Polanski, but of film critics who fail (or refuse) to study the characteristics of a filmmaker's overall work as a means toward understanding the basic intentions of each separate film.
The thematic province of Roman Polanski lies not in the causes of man's neuroses, but in the effects. (p. 20)
John Alan McCarty, "The Polanski Puzzle," in Take One (copyright © 1969 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 2, No. 5, May-June, 1969, pp. 18-21.
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[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 society. In 1961 several critics wondered whether Katelbach represented a bourgeois capitalist or a communist bureaucrat, or both, or neither. In 1971 one thinks more easily of the Marcusian thesis, that in modern technological society, man is ostentatiously given freedom so that he will enthusiastically overfulfill the duties which make him a slave, and banish even dreams of escape (which, ironically, is from this rural Arcady to our office block world). To parody Rousseau: 'Man is born free; yet everywhere he chooses chains.' The co-ordinates of dominance and submission recur in Polanski's work, like the name Katelbach and the director's own role as an ingenuously trusting assistant. In one film after another Polanski plays with a virtuosity sometimes hilarious, sometimes sinister, on the pervasiveness of masochism, self-frustration and some equivalent of suicide, as much in complacency, murder and the master role as in hysterics and victims….
[The Fat and the Lean is] certainly an early demonstration of Polanski's continuing gift for finding the common ground between apparently unlinkable genres (avantgarde tragedy and two-reel comedy) and parodying in a way which, far from being pastiche, is spiritually valid in its own right. There remains a subtle, perhaps finally unimportant, streak of the child prodigy, or eternal student, commenting on adult absurdities with devastating accuracy, yet lacking a certain depth of common experience. (p. 100)
Raymond Durgnat, "Reviews: 'The Fat and the Lean'" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1971; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 17, No. 8, May, 1971, pp. 96, 100.
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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 Western sequence, is to dissipate hopelessly the terse irony of that inspired figure of speech. All the way, this film gets further and further out instead of driving steadily inward to the lining of the metaphor and the interior castle.
Why? Because Polanski and Kenneth Tynan, friends and partners in mischief and obscenity, were trading on the vogue for porno and spilled guts…. The few admirably directed minutes were those when Macduff, learning that his wife and children have been put to the sword, is unable to express instant wrath. Would that many others in the production had shared his restraint. (pp. 170-71)
Macbeth and The Godfather have much in common: in each the continuity is monomaniacal and accordion-pleated: murder, counter-murder, counter-counter-murder …; in each a father-figure is to be avenged and the "hero" morally consents to be led by "witches" into an empire of the jackal and the werewolf…. If The Godfather has no verbal music to compensate for its unrelieved (but versatile) emphasis on assault and battery, decapitation and detonation, neither has Macbeth when, as I have pointed out, the words are mere obstructions to a wide-screen brawl. (p. 171)
Vernon Young, "Fat Shakespeare, Fat City, Lean Wilderness," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 170-76.∗
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[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 visual sequence in Polanski. Hearing that Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane, ready to face his doom, Shakespeare's Macbeth utters these words: "They have tied me to a stake, I cannot fly / But bearlike I must fight the course." The reference here is to the sport of bear-baiting, much enjoyed by the Elizabethans, in which a bear, tied to a post by a long rope or chain, tries to retaliate against four or five large dogs who attack the bear. Shakespeare often uses the image in his plays, and here in Macbeth it perfectly suits a rugged bearlike Macbeth who realizes he is tied (the inevitability of tragedy) and soon to be attacked, but bravely faces his end. The poetic quality of Shakespeare's image is lost in Polanski's film, but its cinematic potentiality is fully exploited. In the banquet scene, when we see Macbeth as king and where we expect to find good cheer and merriment, as part of the entertainment a bear is brought in, chained to a stake (with Polanski giving us a single shot of the iron ring that holds the chain, forcing us to recall the ring that is a crown) and attacked by yelping mastiffs. We witness the bearbaiting for a few seconds before the camera moves to Macbeth talking to the murderers and then to the confrontation of Macbeth with the gory apparition of Banquo. After the banquet, which ends in disorder, the dead and bloodied bear and two of the dogs are seen dragged along the halls of the castle, a cinematic epiphany of violence in a Macbethian world. Shakespeare's poetic image at the end of his play becomes a visual image in the film's middle, allowing us to witness the condition of the world and foreshadowing the end of Macbeth, another bear tied to his own stake because of his murders, his ambition, his wife, and his mystical ties with those juggling fiends, the witches. Here is a perfect example, I think, of the rich suggestiveness of Shakespeare's art providing an intelligent director with a perfect cinematic image and idea.
Roman Polanski's Macbeth, although its form distorts Shakespeare and exploits Shakespeare's melodramatic side, is a valid modern interpretation of Shakespeare's play. Bloody, violent, unremitting in its horror, the film presents a vision of a world filled with confusions and madness, a world in which both brave Macbeth and limping Donalbain will always seek Satanic ties, a world containing only bears and dogs, a world where tomorrows are as brutal as todays. His filmic interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth allows Polanski to present a comment on our time. What seems to be his personal obsession with violence … has been objectified in an energetic piece of cinematic art. (pp. 297-98)
Normand Berlin, "'Macbeth': Polanski and Shakespeare," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1973 Salisbury State College), Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall, 1973, pp. 291-98.
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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 his role to a new pitch. And Polanski achieves an unusual juxtaposition of youth and age—life and death—and does it with great sensitivity.
Polanski manages to avoid ugly explicitness. When he has a couple making love on the floor, he places them under a large bedcover made of ostrich feathers. The effect is so bizarre that it distracts from the act itself, turning it into a satirical abstraction. Polanski as artist distances the viewer from the physical.
Although What? is concerned with the life style of a certain "chic" segment of society, Polanski makes clear that he is showing us a decadence symptomatic of our world. The lush Italian setting is perfect for the goings-on, but they could as well take place on the French Riviera or in any other "favored" locale. Polanski conveys his point of view with style and visual beauty. Unlike Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, Polanski's film presents its sexual material sensuously and with a certain good humor. The subject is serious but its treatment is not dead serious—an approach to sex that Americans find difficult to accept….
What? is ironic, subtle, strangely surreal—ambiguous. The meaning of a contemporary Alice's adventures on the other side of the looking glass will depend pretty much on the viewer, and on whether he or she can believe in the survival of innocence in a depraved world. (p. 1180)
Bea Rothenbuecher, "'What?' Is Polanski Saying?" in The Christian Century (copyright 1973 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the November 28, 1973 issue of The Christian Century), Vol. XC, No. 43, November 28, 1973, pp. 1179-80.
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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 philosophical concerns, and one could argue that the prim product of the Victorian nursery provides the missing link between the elegant libertinism of the eighteenth century and the scatological permissiveness of the twentieth. They are none the less separated by the fact that the violated virgin has always been the vehicle for exploring the predominance of evil over good and for exposing various contemporary social hypocrisies, whereas the butts of Carroll's humour are more abstract and intellectual: the supposition of a relationship between cause and effect, and of a logically ordered universe; the concept of time itself. It takes a Colossus of Buñuel's stature to bestride the two, and this—on the present evidence—Polanski is not. His sexual notations and his surrealism remain (except for such occasional felicitious details as the heroine's blue leg) obdurately separate, and even detract from one another. The assorted huffings and puffings of the different species of the sexuawly obsessed are too literally rendered to sit easily with his featherweight reflections about the nature of time and the deceptiveness of the déjà-vu: his characters have too much density to convince us that they are mere figments of the troubled imagination, yet too little substance to impose themselves as individuals. (p. 95)
Jan Dawson, "'Che?' ('What?')," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1974), Vol. 41, No. 483, May, 1974, pp. 94-5.
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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] inspiring to literary-intellectuals who can cite Blake, Beckett and other trade-heroes in confirming that, (sigh) yes, there is nothing that one can do, the world is evil, so let us retreat into our blissful Art and Cinemah where only Beauty reigns.
There is no sense of political dynamics here, no sign of struggle or complexity (contrary to the event on which the film is loosely based, contrary, in fact, to any political phenomenon); there is virtually no historic, social, or any other sort of context. But this doesn't matter to grubby thieves like Polanski. He doesn't care. He's interested in titillating a crowd and making dough. (pp. 38-9)
He has made a technically impressive film but, ultimately, Polanski is on unfamiliar ground and, instead of attempting to explore the issues in any meaningful way, has simply decided to rub everyone's nose into as big a cosmic mess as he can drum up. As a result, he is doing nothing but exploiting a volatile public mood: a mood of anxiety, of paranoia, of dread and suspicion about politics, oil deals, and the like. These sentiments are, in good part, justified, as far as sentiments go. But what a film-maker (as opposed to a mere technician) would, or should, do, is to shape these sentiments, inform them, expand and direct them somewhere, illuminating roots of problems. (p. 39)
Fred Kaplan, "Film Reviews: 'Chinatown'," in Cinéaste (copyright © 1974 by Gary Crowdus), Vol. VI, No. 3, Autumn, 1974, pp. 38-9.
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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 dark side of California we know from the books of [Ross] Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, but given a new burnish of style….
For years Polanski has been prowling over the landscape of evil like a man who had discovered a new continent; he brings to the theme a fresh excitement no other director can match, at times jabbing deep (as in Knife in the Water), at times having fun (Rosemary's Baby), in his sinister way. Except for a few spry touches, Chinatown lacks the highrolling humor of The Maltese Falcon and The Long Goodbye, but it has a feel for corruption and rot so convincing that it almost wraps up the subject.
Others have looked just as deep into the fens and bogs of American life—Orson Welles in his film A Touch of Evil, Mike Royko in his book Boss—but Chinatown makes the feeling of it crawl over your soul….
The story finally turns on the oldest taboo in the world—incest—and Polanski asserts that the "real mystery" of the film is this private tragedy, this evil so offensive that people are wounded just thinking about it. It does give the film a terrific kicker, and maybe nothing less repellent would do the job. But Polanski still has a tendency to rely on shock, and—as in some of the Ross Macdonald stories—you feel that ancestral evil is being shot into the plot with a greasegun, to lubricate melodrama.
And yet Chinatown—the title is a metaphor for corruption so deep that even a man like Gittes finds it hard to imagine—sums up the oppression that many people feel about modern life…. (p. 45)
David Elliott, "Film Reviews: 'Chinatown'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1974 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall, 1974, pp. 44-6.
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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 in Chinatown with its 30's setting to … "the decadence of the 70's."… Oedipus Rex, too, alludes to a sterility of moral values in its own era, although the play symbolizes the drift in public life more subtly than the film…. Oedipus Rex, then, was staged in much the same sort of malaise it imitates in its action, and Chinatown is being shown in a decade which it alludes to as vastly corrupt. Polanski has simply emphasized the "badness" of the Oedipus figure, the corrupt ruler Noah Cross.
But Polanski has also split the Oedipus figure: the person in Chinatown who mirrors the "good" Oedipus, trying to figure out the source of the corruption, is the cool and suavely self-assured detective, Jake Gittes. Here again, the parallel with Oedipus Rex is striking. In confronting the web of evil perpetrated by [Noah] Cross, Gittes is reasonable and shrewd, the mock sophisticate detective. Yet the incest committed by Cross is essentially beyond his understanding, and the unfathomable aspect of human perversity is underscored thereby. Shortly before the climactic scene in Los Angeles' Chinatown in which Cross is reunited with his daughter/granddaughter, he tells Gittes concerning his incest, "Most people don't have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything." This is the climactic line and the core of the film…. Gittes is the Oedipus whose success, to use the words of Cleanth Brooks and Robert B. Heilman, "has tended to blind [him] to possibilities which pure reason fails to see." The incest touch is a masterful stroke in Chinatown, complicating as it does the political overtones and striking at the root of the human potential for evil and perversity. (p. 250)
The triumph of works like Oedipus Rex—or Chinatown—is that they, through displaying inevitable human weakness, whether in utter guilt or guiltlessness—or both at once—call on the deepest responses of the imagination. (p. 251)
Wayne D. McGinnis, "'Chinatown': Roman Polanski's Contemporary Oedipus Story," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1975 Salisbury State College), Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 249-51.
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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 for the perverse in life and (as he sees it) nature is confined within the boundaries of suggestion, saving him from his bent for grossness.
These early films contained also a certain amount of social criticism—Polanski's resentment of Communist restrictions on human and artistic self-expression—and this, too, happily deflected some of his attention from his favorite topic: sexual kinkiness, sometimes laced with supernatural overtones, though only as pretexts for greater sexual outrageousness. Yet even into these early Polish works Polanski could sneak references to his scabrous or obscene predilections; thus When Angels Fall (1959) takes place in a public latrine. His first Western work, a short called The Fat and the Skinny [or The Fat and the Lean], was already an outright piece of sadomasochism under its Beckettian veneer.
It is useful to recall how Polanski's faults were often transmuted by overindulgent fans and deluded reviewers into shining virtues. When his first Western feature, Repulsion (1965) came out, many serious critics were impressed by the fact that this study of a murderous female psychopath devoted little or no attention to why the girl got that way…. To me, the film was just one sensational effect after another, however occasionally brilliant; without psychoanalytical or some other form of humanistic insight, there was no human interest; without prime concern for human motivation, the violence of the film was as senseless as a mass murder, and just as inartistic….
[Cul-de-Sac struck me as odious, as did Rosemary's Baby], despite scattered touches of dazzling dexterity. Quite aside from all other considerations, these films were so sensationalistic and exploitative that there was very little room for art in them. (p. 66)
[When Polanski made his quirky and overbrutal version of Macbeth], it was interesting to find Pauline Kael speculating on that excess of lovingly dwelt-on ferocity as an attempt to exorcise the memory of personal tragedy [the murder of Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate]. It seemed to me that Miss Kael was putting the cart before the horse; Polanski's by then legendary "unconventionality" seemed to be at the root of things, rather than some almost fortuitous consequence, a theory that appeared to gain confirmation by Polanski's electing to play the sadistic little punk in Chinatown. Yet with that film Polanski redeemed himself in part even for the deeply rotten What? that had preceded it, in which his appetite for kinky filmmaking, unmitigated by any artistry, reached its apogee.
Chinatown, however, was different: of all Polanski's later films it most closely resembled Knife in the Water. There was much criminal evil suffused through the movie, along with quite a lot of psychic cruelty; but it was all kept in check by wit and understatement, even by a certain kind of gutter romanticism, all of which may have been contributed by the screenplay of Robert Towne…. Though not quite a work of art, Chinatown comes close to being one in its best moments: it is, in any case, a well-made film, which is nothing to sneeze at, and shows no signs of sloppiness except for a few final improbabilities conveniently glossed over by good acting.
It is thus all the more surprising how thoroughly sloppy The Tenant … has turned out to be, even granted that he is reunited with his scenaristic nemesis, Gérard Brach. As always in Polanski's worst pictures, something that looks very much like stupidity takes over, though it may be nothing more than near-total lack of interest in whatever merely leads up to the kinky and maniacal sequences, the film's true raison d'être. We are given here the utterly improbable story of Trelkovsky, a little Parisian office worker of Polish origin who, for no convincing reason, rents expensively a small, dismal apartment without so much as a toilet to it on the top floor of a respectable-looking house, whose owner, concierge, and tenants, however, seem to be, at the very least, unappetizing, if not downright monstrous. (pp. 66-7)
[Even] technically the film is not well made. Thus Trelkovsky's fantasies are shot so explicitly and naïvely as to lose their chance at scariness. Some of them are holdovers from Repulsion, like that arm and hand coming out of nowhere; others are just too funny to be frightening. (p. 68)
John Simon, "Untenable Tenant," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1976 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 9, No. 26, June 28, 1976, pp. 66-8.
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"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 his last few movies. It goes back to the days of "Knife in the Water" and "Cul-de-Sac." Trelkovsky is very Slav. There is a subtext of powerful humor and longing under every scene of the hero's, however much the film seems superficially to be a horror-thriller. It is a record of the sensibility of a man's tenancy of himself: a man about to be evicted, tinkling the bead curtains for a view of enemy officials, never sure that he is the certified leaseholder of the body he occupies. As in Dostoevski, and in Kafka, imaginary fears are matched uncannily by real forces. Bureaucracy enters with a warrant; the accused person admits to the required crime. "The Tenant" is a poetic nightmare about punishment imposed on an unguilty man who merely entertained great fear of guilt. (p. 62)
Penelope Gilliatt, "Only a Lodger," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 41, No. 20, July 5, 1976, pp. 62-3.∗
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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 established, are abruptly given vulgar, tangible shape in the observed world. Psychosis is replaced by skull-football: this is the real banality behind a director who never quite dares to trust his wit. (p. 287)
Martin Amis, "Socket to Her," in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 97, No. 2371, August 27, 1976, pp. 286-87.∗
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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 a kind of schizophrenia no less troubling than some of his disordered characters—a sense of cross-purposes that finally splits The Tenant into virtually dissociated sections.
Film No. 1, roughly the first half, exhibits Polanski's formalist side, above all in its accumulation of partis pris and its ambiguous treatment of 'objective' facts and subjective states of mind. As in What?, many of these factors can be located in the soundtrack. The water dripping from Trelkovsky's kitchen tap, the rattle of pipes, the squeak of his cupboard door, the repetitive piano exercises heard from the stairway, the faint cooing of pigeons in the courtyard and the angry pounding of the neighbour upstairs all outline the space of a constricted consciousness; while the latter—always provoked by the sounds made in Trelkovsky's flat—draws particular attention to this register of awareness. And when Trelkovsky turns from cooking to answer an apparent knock at the door—only to find no one there—one may well wonder whether or not one did hear a knock…. Comparable uncertainties are created in visual terms: is the blonde girl Trelkovsky glimpses at the funeral the crippled daughter of his persecuted neighbour Mme. Gaderian …, whom we see later? Is her later appearance also an illusion—which is suggested when Mme. Dioz …, her mother's persecutor, flatly states that Mme. Gaderian has a son, not a daughter? At what stage do the strange appearances of figures standing in the toilet across from Trelkovsky's window stop being mysteries and start becoming hallucinations?
If Film No. 1 is largely devoted to posing such questions in the form of brilliant notations, Film No. 2—by establishing that the hero has gone mad—laboriously proceeds to answer others. A cut from Trelkovsky grasping his own throat to Mme. Dioz attempting to strangle him clearly labels the second shot as a hallucination; and countless other juxtapositions between real and imagined torments lead one straight into the clinical context of Repulsion. To put it as crudely as the film does, this is the kind of violence that audiences pay to see, with 'reality' and 'imagination' slotted into separate compartments so that one can watch the hero's agony from a safe voyeuristic distance. There is, to be sure, a moralistic point implied in much of this: the 'unexplained' ransacking of Trelkovsky's flat is later echoed by his own ransacking of Stella's flat in a paranoiac rage, suggesting that victims eventually take on the behaviour of their persecutors. And when, for instance, Trelkovsky flees to a hotel and gazes out of a window, where he and we see two workmen who might be looking up at him, the earlier terms of the film are briefly allowed to reverberate. But by this time it is too late: after Trelkovsky has gradually gone through the process of becoming Simone—even dressing up as a woman, and eventually jumping twice in succession from the same window—the see-sawing movement between 'truth' and 'illusion' has become too mechanical for either to carry much conviction. And when Polanski ends with a paraphrase of the previous hospital scene—Trelkovsky (apparently) encased like a mummy in bandages, looking up at Trelkovsky and Stella, then screaming while the camera zooms towards his mouth—formal interest has shrunk to the level of stylistic pirouette, and ambiguity becomes just the other side of apathy.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Film Reviews: 'The Tenant'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1976 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, p. 253.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433
[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 with a pseudosociological exercise, Knife in the Water, and a pseudopsychoanalytical exercise, Repulsion. But when he has gone over the deep end with less conventionally structured efforts such as Cul-de-Sac, What? and The Tenant, critics and audiences, myself included, have forsaken him. In these comparatively uninhibited projects the sourness of his sensibility turns unendurably rancid as the pockmarks of nastiness begin to spread over the screen.
Yet who else but a first-hand acquaintance of the Holocaust in Poland during his childhood would dare present a Jewish vampire completely impervious to the barriers established since time immemorial by the brandishing of a cross? And who else but Polanski would have the comic insight to satirize the aristocratic posturings of vampires by packing them into a ballroom of dusty shabbiness? Still, if one is determined to detest Polanski at all costs, one can detect unmistakable tendencies toward sexism, misogyny, and homophobia in all his films. One can charge him even with exuding evil from every pore of his art. But no one has ever been able to accuse him of retreating into the kind of sanctimonious conformism that seems to be coming back into fashion out in Los Angeles…. [What] Hollywood can never forgive in Polanski are not his actions, but rather his dangerous habit as an artist of turning his camera on the dung heap itself without regard to the sensitivities of the Hollywood Babywonians attired in missionary costumes for their public.
I have not seen Polanski's treatment of Tess of the D'-Urbervilles, but I hope that it brings him back into the mainstream of filmmaking where his uncompromisingly cynical temperament is now sorely needed. In the meantime, The Fearless Vampire Killers provides a very lively reminder of his unique talents as a poetic gargoyle of the cinema.
Andrew Sarris, "Where Have All the Genres Gone?" in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 14, April 7, 1980, p. 37.∗
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