Roman Polanski

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Tod Lindberg (essay date January 1987)

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SOURCE: Lindberg, Tod. “The Rise and Fall of Roman Polanski.” Commentary 83, no. 1 (January 1987): 61-5.

[In the following essay, Lindberg examines several of the recurring themes in Polanski's oeuvre—including voyeurism, insanity, and sexual repression—and comments that Polanski's films are often reflections of contemporary trends in American culture.]

… Europe was my true home—I loved the sheer antiquity and asymmetry that made it so different from modern, four-square America. …

Roman, by Roman Polanski

In America at least, Roman Polanski has at last fallen on hard times. The writer-director's latest movie, Pirates, released here last summer, was met by a critical reception that was at best inattentive, at worst derisive and hostile. The results were no better at the box office: out in the country, the movie lasted only a couple of weeks in general release, and even in the great city markets of New York and Los Angeles, Pirates quickly disappeared beneath the crush of the summer's blockbusters.

The movie was far from Polanski's first flop—in fact the list of his marginal-to-unsuccessful movies is a bit longer than the list of his successes, headed by Chinatown (1974) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). But in the past, there was no denying the fact that people took him very seriously. The critics with near unanimity acclaimed him as one of the handful of great directors. His audience awaited his movies with a sense of anticipation, even excitement.

Not so with Pirates. The movie premiered at the Cannes film festival in the spring of 1986. But Americans by and large stayed away from Cannes last year, allegedly owing to fears of terrorism, and the movie's notices there were lukewarm. For that reason, perhaps, the publicity surrounding its release in the United States—the test of whether a movie is simply ordinary or, somehow, an event—found its pathetic total expression in a 1,500-word article in the new women's fashion magazine, Elle.

“I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf,” Polanski wrote somewhat notoriously in Roman, his 1984 autobiography. In a sense, the statement is as true now as it was then, which is to say it is partially true. But in a larger sense, it is also true that as of now, Roman Polanski is simply not “widely regarded” at all.

What a change that is for a man whose life and movies wound so intricate a path through his times—Poland, Western Europe, and the United States after the war, or at least that segment of each concerned with the movies. This is the period, as Richard Grenier has explained in these pages, during which television rose as the great mass art form and movies suffered a corresponding decline. Millions would still go to the movies, but no longer tens of millions. The ones who were left would perhaps have more in common, at least vicariously, with the producers of what they consumed than had ever been true before.

Was this so even in the case of Polanski? Here, after all, was someone whose jet-set exploits were legendary: the parties in Hollywood, London, Paris, Rome, Gstaad. Legendary, too, was his taste in women—more properly, girls. He had fled the United States in 1978 in order to avoid serving more time in prison as a result of a guilty plea in a case of statutory rape that had played on front pages throughout the country. It was not the first time he had been seen in the company of beautiful young girls. In the late 60's, in the aftermath of the bizarre murders of his wife Sharon Tate and...

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others at his house in Los Angeles, the accusations leveled against the way he and his friends lived—the libertine life of unconventional sex and exotic drugs—would be remembered and held against him long after Charles Manson and his followers were behind bars for the murders. So to the moviemaking, even the moviegoing, set, Polanski was truly anenfant terrible, the one who went too far, perhaps even an “evil, profligate dwarf” (he is indeed very short).

A number of critics of a variety of stripes have probed at Polanski's movies in an effort to find a connecting thread, both among the movies themselves and between the movies and the life. The largest effort is Barbara Leaming's 1981 Polanski: A Biography, the subtitle of which is “The Filmmaker as Voyeur.” Behind the overwrought language and analytic obscurantism of the higher film criticism (“Polanski's most compelling attempt at self-scrutiny thus far—and arguably his best film—is The Tenant whose intimate iconography is rivaled only by Jean Cocteau at his most personal”) lies the notion of the subtitle: Polanski, like some of the characters in his movies, as a peeper at life through keyholes. The “amorality” of his movies combines with the subjective viewpoint of the camera, in this reading, to put the audience as well in the position of a peeper.

There is something to this, though not much. The reason criticism of Polanski has been off the mark is that Polanski himself has been right on the mark, making movies that quite spectacularly have expressed the sensibility of the audience. There has been little difference between the ideas in his movies and the ideas in circulation during the 60's and 70's among the new moviegoers, including the critics.

They were an astonishing set of ideas, and they seem all the more astonishing now that we have a little distance behind us.

Insanity, for example, became the subject of a new psychoanalytic look in those years. From the likes of R. D. Laing and others, we were to learn to understand schizophrenics as they understood themselves, and we were to do this by watching them closely and listening to what they had to say. On one literary subfront, the Beats and their successors were also finding wisdom in madness (if necessary, drug-induced madness). Allen Ginsberg saw the “best minds” of his generation, “starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn.” In 1962 Ken Kesey published One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a popular redaction of the notion that the insane are actually responding sanely to an insane world.

Just so, in 1965 Polanski made Repulsion. In this movie Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a virginal London manicurist. Her sister Helen and Helen's lover Michael leave town on vacation. Carol, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the thought of their love-making, and by the advances of her own boyfriend, begins a steep descent into madness. Hallucinations—cracks in the wall, a man in the mirror, a rape scene (is Michael the rapist?), hands reaching out through the wall for her—lead the way to murder, first of her boyfriend, then of the landlord (who tries to seduce her). When Helen and her lover return, they find Carol catatonic. An ambulance arrives, and Michael carries her out to it.

It was a new point of view, that of a fly on the wall of the asylum. Polanski returned to it in 1974, with The Tenant. “I myself played Trelkowski,” he writes, “the shy Polish-born bank clerk whose creeping schizophrenia culminates in transvestitism and suicide.”

In between these two forays into schizophrenia came Rosemary's Baby (1968), the movie that would earn Polanski a commercial success as great as his critical reputation. In this film a young woman (Mia Farrow), in the course of her pregnancy, gradually becomes convinced she is the victim of a great satanic conspiracy, one involving her husband, their neighbors, her obstetrician, and still others. When she finally does give birth, they tell her the child was stillborn, but through the thin walls of the apartment building she hears an infant crying. Summoning her courage, she investigates. In the apartment next door, she finds a gathering of all those she had suspected and more. At the end of the room is a cradle, wrapped in black. Rosemary looks in, recoils as she sees the catlike eyes. She shrinks away and the baby begins to cry. Rosemary moves closer—involuntarily. “You're trying to get me to be his mother,” she protests. “Aren't you his mother?” asks the older gentleman from next door—the man we now know is master of the coven—and Rosemary moves forward and rocks the cradle gently.

In keeping with the new fascination with insanity, Polanski left open (as her later wrote) “the possibility that Rosemary's supernatural experiences were figments of her imagination. The entire story, as seen through her eyes, could have been a chain of only superficially sinister coincidences, a product of her feverish fancies.”

But in line with another set of ideas, as new as those about insanity, the movie also inaugurated an entire subgenre of movies in which children are evil—the Exorcist,The Omen,Damien,Children of the Corn. Meanwhile, a number of women were writing essays arguing substantially the same point. In the early 1960's, Betty Friedan had first diagnosed “the problem that has no name,” namely, a vague sense of insufficiency and worthlessness on the part of women who were keeping house, bearing children, and doing little else. The radical feminists who followed, even if they did not go so far as to say that children were avatars of the devil (though some did), nevertheless saw in them the means by which women's choices were radically restricted in the interests of preserving the patriarchy.

That was only one of the problems with no name. To a large part of a generation of young people, hell was Scarsdale. Thoreau's remark that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” was never so widely quoted as in those years. Seething within what appeared to be standard middle-class households were bubbles of claustrophobia and tension that, it was said, threatened to explode at any moment.

Unbearable domestic tension was the underlying mood as well of Polanski's first movie, Knife in the Water (1962), the only one he made in Poland. “It started out,” he writes, “as a straightforward thriller: a couple aboard a small yacht take on a passenger who appears in mysterious circumstances. From the first, the story concerned the interplay of antagonistic personalities within a confined space.” Andrzej, a sportswriter, and his beautiful younger wife Christine are driving to their boat for an overnight sail when a young man steps out in the road in front of the car. Andrzej brings it to a sudden halt. The boy asks for a ride, and Andrzej obliges, eventually issuing him an invitation to join them on the boat.

Andrzej welcomes the opportunity to show off for his wife by besting the younger man, who knows nothing of boats and sailing. Their competition is intense, eventually resulting in a fight that ends with the boy falling overboard, apparently to drown (he has told them he cannot swim). Andrzej leaves the boat, ostensibly to inform the police. But in his absence, the boy returns. He seduces Christine, and departs again. When Andrzej comes back, Christine quickly sees that he has been too afraid to go to the police. As they drive off, she tells him there is no need—the boy is alive—and she confesses her infidelity. He cannot believe it. The movie ends with the car stopped on the road, Andrzej unable to decide between accepting his wife's infidelity or facing the possibility of a murder charge. Such are the choices of domestic life.

Chinatown (1974)—probably Polanski's most famous work and an entry on most short lists for the best movie of the decade—arrived during a period in which it was de rigueur to think that the rich and the powerful were at best venal and corrupt, at worst murderously greedy. Great numbers of revisionist historians and their counterparts in more popular forms were attributing similar qualities to virtually all the men associated with nation- or city-building, from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert Moses and J. Edgar Hoover.

When Polanski first read the script of Chinatown he thought it was “a potentially first-rate thriller showing how the history and boundaries of L.A. had been fashioned by human greed.” He made it something a bit more radical than that. In the end, the movie's various plot strands, involving local politics in the Los Angeles of the 30's, incest, and murder, do not actually come together, but the point of it all is clear enough, echoing yet another idea of the period—the powerlessness of the individual against economic and political evil. “Fighting city hall”—the common man's struggle and eventual triumph against what seem to be insurmountable odds—was a cliché of the old Hollywood. The new cliché had it that trying to fight city hall is horribly and totally futile.

Finally, still another element in the 60's and 70's brew was the notion (most prominently espoused by Norman O. Brown in Life against Death and Love's Body) that sexual repression is dangerous. “Polymorphous perversity” and the release of inhibition became the cultural imperative of the day. In 1973 Polanski made What?, “a ribald, Rabelaisian account of the adventures of a fey, innocent girl, wholly unaware of the sort of company that surrounds her in a weird Riviera villa inhabited exclusively by phallocrats.” And in Repulsion and The Tenant, it is at least in part sexual fear and loathing that drive Catherine Deneuve's character and the character played by Polanski himself into homicidal or suicidal insanity.

In only one area did Polanski fail to resonate with the ideas of the 1960's and 1970's, and that was in the area of politics proper, an exception certainly traceable to his tempestuous personal experience. As a boy, Polanski, born in Poland of Jewish parents, had escaped the Nazi liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Cracow through the efforts of his father (who survived the Holocaust, though Polanski's mother, who had been transported earlier, did not). The Soviet liberators came—“For the first and perhaps the only time in Polish history,” he writes in Roman, “Russians were made welcome in Poland”—and quickly consolidated their own brand of tyranny.

The young Polanski managed to obtain a rare passport that allowed him to travel in and out of Poland as he pleased, and he took advantage of it to live in the West, mainly in Paris. He took up with and eventually married the American actress Sharon Tate. He was in London, working on a script, when Tate, well along in pregnancy, and three friends were brutally murdered in his Los Angeles home. The press hounded him when he returned, and would continue to do so until long after the Manson “family” had been caught and its derangements revealed. The murders were wanton. Charles Manson did not even know who lived in the house when he ordered his disciples to kill its occupants.

The ravages of the Holocaust, murderous Soviet expansionism, the counterculture at its most grotesque and brutal—through these, Polanski navigated as best he could. His personal experience left him with a set of opinions that, in the case of Communism at least, were much at variance with the received views of the 1960's and 1970's.

More than once in Roman, he writes of “the tyranny of Communism.” His description of how he and his fellow students at the Lodz film school yearned for and emulated Western culture is often touching, as is his personal reaction to the rise and crushing of Solidarity in his homeland. During Solidarity's heyday, he had returned to Poland for a visit. When the government imposed martial law shortly thereafter,

I saw it as one more episode in our national tragedy. This time, however, I had lived through some of Solidarity's finest hours in person, seen for myself how freedom still stirred in the hearts of the Polish people, witnessed their remarkable courage and endurance in the face of Communist tyranny.

Yet Polanski is a perfect exemplar of Irving Kristol's observation that being anti-Communist does not make one bourgeois, or even pro-bourgeois. A great deal of radicalism can remain. As he writes of his days in Lodz:

My new friends, who were dissidents to a man, reacted against the drab, conformist tyranny of Communism in a variety of ways. They displayed their contempt for authority by taking a keen interest in contemporary Western literature and music, notably jazz, by baring their souls in a very un-Polish manner, and even by engaging—almost as a matter of principle—in homosexuality. They likewise felt that deliberate idleness and excessive drinking were blows struck for freedom.

Even toward the counterculture that murdered his wife Polanski could remain sympathetic, seeing the murder as an “obscene perversion of hippie values.”

Polanski, the enfant terrible, is the Norman Mailer of movie directors—someone whose work has taken a subsidiary position in public reckoning to the Sturm und Drang of the way he lives his life. But if Mailer's efforts on behalf of a “revolution in consciousness” (including drunken brawling, defending criminals, and so forth) seem contrivances, artificial attempts to infuse what ought to have been an ordinary life with high drama, Polanski is the genuine article. The drugs, the alcohol, the parties—in writing about all of them in Roman, he is offhand and undefensive. So, too, in the case of sex. That, of course, is precisely what got him into serious legal trouble and led to his seemingly permanent flight from the United States in 1978.

He was in California, working on a number of projects, including a photography spread for the French magazine Vogue Hommes:

A recent … issue had devoted several pages to photographs of adolescent girls by David Hamilton. They were in his usual romantic style, deliberately blurred and unfocused. I told [the magazine's editor Gerald] Azaria I'd much rather do a similar series of my own, but not in the Hamilton manner. I proposed to show girls as they really were these days—sexy, pert, and thoroughly human.

That is how he met the girl he refers to in his book as Sandra, a thirteen-year-old. In the actor Jack Nicholson's house (nobody was home, but he and Nicholson were great friends), at the conclusion of their second shoot, after a naked swim, after some champagne and allegedly some Quaaludes, Polanski and the girl had sex.

His subsequent arrest took him completely by surprise, as it had never occurred to him that he had done anything wrong. The girl, he claimed and continues to claim, had been a willing participant. What could the matter be? He was indicted on six counts, ultimately pleading guilty to the least serious of them, “unlawful sexual intercourse.” A probation report was ordered to determine whether or not he was a “mentally disordered sexual offender.” The report was favorable to Polanski, but facing more time in prison (he had served 42 days) and likely deportation, Polanski boarded a British Airways flight to London. He quickly moved on to France, where he was by then a citizen, and so could not face extradition for this kind of charge.

The affair was not, to put it mildly, an isolated incident. When he first slept with the actress Nastassja Kinski (in a ménage à trois, no less), she was fifteen. And there is this remarkable passage in Roman. The year is 1970, shortly after the conclusion of the Manson case, and Polanski is staying in the chalet of a Swiss industrialist in Gstaad, “the finishing-school capital of the world”:

It was now that Kathy, Madeleine, Sylvia, and others whose names I forget played a fleeting but therapeutic role in my life. They were all between sixteen and nineteen years old, school-girls no longer but not yet worldly-wise women with professional or marital ambitions. At this stage their dearest wish was to escape, however briefly, from the straitjacket atmosphere of boarding school routine.

They took to visiting my chalet, not necessarily to make love—though some of them did—but to listen to rock music and sit around the fire and talk. What drew them into my orbit was the lure of forbidden fruit—of staying out late when they should have been tucked up in a dormitory. …

What was I doing there? What did we talk about, those girls and I? Music, books, school, skiing, friends, parents. What did we have in common? That's a question I've often been asked. I've never tried to analyze such friendships closely. I can only say that like so many girls of their age, they had untapped reserves of intelligence and imagination. They weren't using their bodies to further their careers; they weren't on the lookout for parts; they didn't want to hear about distribution rights or film finance—not even about the Manson murders. And they were more beautiful, in a natural, coltish way, than they would ever be again.

This is Polanski as Humbert Humbert, but with a couple of crucial differences. Polanski's life, unlike that of Nabokov's notorious character, is not limited to his obsession. And the light of Polanski's life is not the single flame of a Lolita; his obsession, to the extent that it is one, is serial, with what he takes to be successive realizations of an aesthetic ideal. In acting on this obsession, he is actually a mentally quite well-ordered sex offender.

But the far more important difference between the real Polanski and Nabokov's Humbert derives from the times in which each “lives.” The 1950's America through which Humbert and Lolita traveled was a country that conformed quite closely to “modern, four-square America,” to use Polanski's offhand notation in his autobiography. If Humbert were found out, he would be doomed; it is as simple as that.

It was by no means so simple in the America of the late 1960's and 70's. The radical feminists' views on the subject of children were only part of a general cultural abandonment of the idea that children are vulnerable, unfinished people, in need of protection and training by their elders and love from them. The new esteem in which “young adults” had come to be held—two of the more conspicuous examples of which were the extension of the vote to eighteen-year-olds and the tremendous say in education that university administrators and teachers gave to those they used to think of as their charges—soon began to be applied to younger and younger age groups. By the end of the 1970's, “out of the mouths of babes” had become the avenue for gaining wisdom on subjects as diverse as poverty and race and nuclear war.

The times also saw an astonishing amount of attention devoted to adolescent sexuality. Sex education had become a part of the curriculum of many junior and senior high schools, and information on contraception and, when necessary, abortion flowed freely from adults to teenagers. This, too, was the period of the newly explicit teenage sex movie. The Brooke Shields phenomenon—the child-model, the child as provocative object even of sexual desire—may have been duly deplored in some quarters, but it should have come as no surprise, given the extent to which adults had been devoting themselves to thinking about teenagers and sex. And if the age of the models worked its way down—fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven—that too was part of the devolution of the age of childhood. The apotheosis of the times might have been an audience earnestly watching a movie in which an extraordinarily beautiful teenage girl becomes pregnant, grapples seriously with the issue of what to do, and decides to abort the fetus.

Such was the climate of ideas, such was elite opinion—why not call it evil and profligate?—in which Roman Polanski did what he did. It does not mitigate the extent of his crime in California to ask now a question that seems not to have been asked then: where was “Sandra”'s mother in all of this? Why was she letting her thirteen-year-old take her clothes off in front of a stranger with a camera? Any fair reading of what is publicly known about the girl's mother, in her own way a creature of Hollywood, suggests that she simply did not see anything wrong—at least not with that.

It is probably not overreaching to say that by nominating Tess (starring Nastassja Kinski) for eleven Academy Awards, including Polanski for best director, the Hollywood of 1979 was letting the world know that it did not hold his personal behavior against him as a moviemaker. But it may also be fair to say that by holding Tess to three Oscars in minor categories, Hollywood hedged.

If so, it may well have been for good reason. The contrast in American society between elite and popular opinion is well-documented. There were, there are, those who think they know a child molester when they see one, and Hollywood and its elite audience may have understood that they could be asking for trouble if they tried to say otherwise. Better to acquiesce in the idea that Polanski is “an evil, profligate dwarf”—even though he is your kind of evil, profligate dwarf.

Happily, the complex of ideas associated with Polanski is no longer in the ascendant in America. There is now, for example, a general sense, evident even among radical activists, that we ought to do better by those who are mentally ill. Radical feminism did not quite carry the day on the question of the menace posed by children, and a minor cottage industry of movements has recently emerged dedicated to protecting them: from drunk drivers, from molesters, from drugs, from rock music. By now virtually all the news-magazines have gone on record to the effect that the sexual revolution is over; herpes was the shot fired across the prow, AIDS the fusillade. Even Hollywood has discovered—thanks to market research—that the crucial teenage audience may feel intimidated and put off by nudity on the screen.

Polanski's moviemaking, too, shows signs of being more than a little out of step with America. Pirates, which he made with a number of his friends and collaborators from the old days, is genuinely devil-may-care in spirit, a quality that American audiences generally like. But one of the consequences of the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas triumph in American movies has been to create in audiences the sense that high spirits are not enough, that a devil-may-care effect can only be brought off successfully through calculation and meticulous execution. Those two qualities are absent from Pirates.

Meanwhile, Roman Polanski himself now lives in Europe, now makes his home there. Does Europe make him welcome? It is an important question because the story of Polanski's rise and fall in the United States is the story writ small of American culture's recent embrace of an especially dangerous kind of decadence—largely European in origin, like Humbert and Polanski—and its crucial though far from complete turn away from it.

Europe is a continent of “antiquity and asymmetry,” Polanski has written, and thus “my true home.” The original abode of le bourgeois gentilhomme, Europe has also been home to the most savage attacks on bourgeois gentlemen. The question of how Americans, “modern, four-square” Americans, might feel about a Europe that continues to lap up and live by the sorts of ideas that Americans themselves have been striving mightily to defeat—it is an unpleasant one to think about, though these days it bears thinking about a great deal. The case of Polanski is not the worst place to begin.


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Roman Polanski 1933-

Polish-born French director, screenwriter, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Polanski's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.

Known for his atmospheric and psychologically complex films, Polanski began his career working on state-sponsored films in his native Poland. After the release of his first full-length feature, Nóz w wodzie (1962; Knife in the Water), Polanski relocated to the United States, and later France, where he released a series of acclaimed films that explored such complex issues as corruption, sexual desire, obsession, and the abuse of power. These films include Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Macbeth (1971), and Chinatown (1974). In 2000, when the American Film Institute compiled its list of the top 100 films of all time, Chinatown was ranked nineteenth. Polanski's 2002 film The Pianist examines life in the Polish ghettos during World War II, a subject with which Polanski is intimately acquainted—he was imprisoned in the Krakow ghetto during his youth and his mother was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. The Pianist was awarded the 2002 Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival, and the film also won the best actor, best adapted screenplay, and best director Academy Awards in 2003 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Biographical Information

Polanski was born in Paris on August 18, 1933, to Polish-Jewish parents. When he was three years old, his family returned to Poland, settling in Krakow. During World War II, when Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, Polanski's family was forced to live in the Krakow ghetto, a cramped section of the city where all Jews were forced to live. Polanski escaped from the ghetto when he was eight years old after his father cut a hole in a barbed-wire fence. Soon after, his parents were sent to concentration camps. Polanski spent the remainder of the war posing as a non-Jewish orphan and was taken in by several Catholic families in rural Poland. Shortly before the war ended, Polanski returned to Krakow, selling newspapers to make a living. His mother was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp, but he was reunited with his father when he was twelve. Polanski, who had never received a formal education, later enrolled in a technical school. As a teenager, he also worked as a child-actor in radio shows and appeared as a stage actor in a variety of productions. In 1954 he enrolled in the Polish Film School at Lodz, graduating in 1959. Polanski won five international awards for his fifteen-minute student film Dwaj ludzie z szafa (1958; Two Men and a Wardrobe). His first full-length film Knife in the Water attracted praise from critics and audiences alike, and Polanski began travelling between France, England, and the United States to work on motion pictures. In 1969 tragedy struck when Polanski's wife, the American actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant at the time, was brutally murdered in their Los Angeles home by followers of Charles Manson, a deranged cult leader who used sex, drugs, and violence to control his followers. Polanski was in London at the time of the murder and later left the United States to permanently settle in Europe. He obtained French citizenship and moved to Paris, though he frequently returned to Hollywood for filmmaking projects. In 1977 Polanski was arrested on charges of drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old fashion model in the Los Angeles home of actor Jack Nicholson. While released on bail, Polanski fled the country and never returned for his trial. Due to his legal status as a fugitive from justice, Polanski has not since returned to the United States. However, Polanski has continued to make films produced by British, French, Italian, and American companies. In 1984 he married French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who has starred in several of his films, including Frantic (1988), Bitter Moon (1992), and The Ninth Gate (1999). That same year, Polanski published his autobiography titled Roman. Polanski's films have won numerous awards, including the Grand Prize from the Tours Film Festival for Ssaki (1962; Mammals), the International Film Critics Award for Knife in the Water, the Venice Film Festival Award and the Golden Bear Award from the Berlin Film Festival for Repulsion. He also received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay for Rosemary's Baby, the Golden Globe award for best director and an Academy Award nomination for best director for Chinatown, and the BAFTA Award for best picture and the National Society of Film Critics award for best picture for The Pianist.

Major Works

Polanski's films often include elements of mystery or suspense, typically used to heighten his emotional and psychologically dense thematic material. He also displays an affinity for the absurd—as seen in his early shorts Gdy spadaja anioly (1959; When Angels Fall) and Gruby i chudy (1961; The Fat and the Lean)—which suggest the influence of the surrealist works of playwright Samuel Beckett and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Knife in the Water concerns a tense triangle between a young couple and a mysterious hitchhiker, whom the couple has invited to accompany them on a yachting vacation. After noticing the hitchhiker's preoccupation with his attractive wife, the husband unwittingly creates conflict when he accidentally drops the hitchhiker's most prized possession, a knife, into the ocean. In Repulsion Polanski constructs a narrative around a sexually-repressed young woman's descent into insanity and murder. A wounded criminal and his partner take over an English castle in Cul-de-Sac (1966), and a bizarre relationship begins to form between the kidnappers and their hostages. Rosemary's Baby was Polanski's first Hollywood film to become a worldwide critical and popular success. The film cleverly creates a horrific spin on the anxiety that expectant mothers often experience during their pregnancies. In the film, Rosemary, a new mother, has unwittingly been chosen by a satanic cult to give birth to the Anti-Christ. In 1971, along with screenwriter Kenneth Tynan, Polanski wrote and directed an adaptation of William Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Macbeth. In Polanski's Macbeth, the director emphasizes the duality and irony behind Shakespeare's characters, while vividly portraying the play's inherent violence.

Chinatown is Polanski's most acclaimed work and is considered by many critics to represent a modern deconstruction of the film noir genre. The plot follows Jake Gittes, a Los Angeles private detective in the 1950s, as he investigates a mystery involving the irrigation of the Los Angeles valley. Incest and murder are used as symbolic representations of the deep-seeded levels of corruption that surrounded the founding of the city of Los Angeles. The protagonist in The Tenant (1976) moves into an apartment where the former occupant committed suicide. After a series of strange occurrences, the new tenant begins suspecting that his landlords are trying to make him kill himself, causing him to descend into a state of schizophrenic madness. Polanski followed The Tenant with Tess (1979), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. After releasing the critically-panned Pirates (1986), a parody of swashbuckling Errol Flynn films, Polanski returned to his roots with the psychological thriller Frantic. The film creates an atmosphere of paranoia with the story of an American tourist in Paris who discovers that his wife has been kidnapped. Polanski shifted his focus to sexual obsession in Bitter Moon, an examination of dominance and submission in modern relationships. The plot follows a vacationing British couple on a cruise, where they meet a crippled American and his exotic wife. As the British husband becomes consumed with his lust for the American's wife, the American recounts how he and his wife first met. Death and the Maiden (1994), based on the play by Ariel Dorfman, also explores dominance and cruelty. Taking place in an unnamed South American country, a woman—who has been raped and tortured by government officials—believes she has found the doctor who perpetrated those abuses. She holds the doctor captive in her home, tied to a chair, alternately interrogating him and testifying about the horrors she underwent while imprisoned. Polanski revisited supernatural themes in The Ninth Gate, a thriller about an amoral book dealer who is hired by a millionaire to authenticate his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, a book rumored to be written by the Devil himself. Informed by Polanski's own experiences during World War II, The Pianist is based on the memoir of Polish pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman lived through the invasion and occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, the erection and liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, the deportation of his family to a concentration camp, the Jewish and Polish uprisings in Warsaw, and the eventual defeat of Germany by Allied forces.

Critical Reception

Polanski's career in the film industry has attracted a wide range of responses, encompassing both critical and popular successes and failures. Chinatown has often been regarded as Polanski's masterpiece by critics, with scholars praising the film's multi-layered complexity as a revisionist film noir, asserting that the work both subverts and reinvents the classic genre. Polanski's early films—including Knife in the Water and Repulsion—have been noted for their preoccupation with sexual tension and surrealistic representations of modern life. Reviewers have frequently lauded Rosemary's Baby as an intelligent portrayal of feminine anxiety as well as a remarkably effective story of psychological horror. However, after his successes of the 1960s and 1970s, Polanski's films of 1980s and 1990s have generally been regarded as lesser works by critics and audiences alike. The large-budget productions of Tess and Pirates have frequently been labelled by commentators as unfocused and obtuse. Bitter Moon, perhaps Polanski's most controversial film, has been faulted by many critics for its overly explicit representation of a sadomasochistic sexual relationship. Such reviewers have argued that the film lacks dramatic tension and creates a heavy-handed portrayal of sexual experimentation. Feminist scholars have criticized Bitter Moon as a misogynist text built around sophomoric male fantasies. The film's supporters, on the other hand, have commented that the strength of Bitter Moon lies in its effective ambiguity of tone, placing the spectator in the uncomfortable dilemma of not knowing which character to sympathize with. Despite the critical indifference to several of his more modern films, Polanski has drawn almost universal praise for The Pianist, with some arguing that the work is among the greatest Holocaust films ever made. Commentators have lauded how Polanski utilizes his own experiences to enrich the subject material of the The Pianist, citing the film's emotional complexity and effectiveness. Reviewers have also complimented how, despite his past, Polanski establishes a tone of detachment and emotional distance in his portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust. Some have asserted that this attitude of distance fails to engage the spectator's emotions, but a majority of critics have lauded The Pianist as one of Polanski's most finely crafted films.

William Galperin (essay date December 1987)

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SOURCE: Galperin, William. “‘Bad for the Glass’: Representation and Filmic Deconstruction in Chinatown and Chan Is Missing.Modern Language Notes 102, no. 5 (December 1987): 1151-70.

[In the following essay, Galperin explores how the image of “Chinatown” is used as a physical entity and as a symbol of cultural confusion in Chinatown and Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing. Galperin argues that both films conform to the conventions of specific Hollywood film genres while simultaneously deconstructing certain Hollywood cinematic traditions.]

It is often maintained that foreign directors who come to America become “Hollywood” directors. Examples include the Germans Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder; Hitchcock and John Boorman from England; and even French director Jean Renoir. More recently there have been the emigrés from East Europe, notably Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. Part of the reason for this transformation has obviously to do with the pervasiveness of the Hollywood style, which if not strictly an “international” style has since its “classic” period remained the most influential cinematic mode. Certainly, the foreign filmmakers who have become American directors were entirely familiar with what they were to be long before they became it. In addition, other foreign directors, notably those associated with the French “new wave” (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol), have variously achieved artistic autonomy by reacting to the Hollywood style, often by dubious homage of imitation. This is even truer perhaps of the New German Cinema, particularly of the work of Fassbinder, Wenders and Schlöndorff. Either one is a Hollywood director, or one isn't.1

Whether such polarization has been a good thing, both for the commercial cinema and for the attempts by criticism to understand it, is another matter. Film, it sometimes seems, either proceeds in blind advocacy of traditional representational (and semiologists would argue repressive) techniques or in an adversary posture toward them. Advocates not only include such mannered and derivative filmmakers as George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy,The Sting, etc.); they may also include talented and original directors like Scorsese, Kubrick and Coppola. Adversaries, by contrast, are more various if fewer, ranging from subversives like Godard, to the parodists Chabrol and Altman, to alternative filmmakers like British filmwriter Laura Mulvey. Yet for all, ironically, the host—absent or present—is still Hollywood.

At the same time, Hollywood's primacy either as dominant organism or as a commercial and artistic refuge remains perpetually threatened by the very agents who should threaten the “host” and invariably have. I am referring, once again, to expatriate directors, specifically to Roman Polanski (from Poland) and China's Wayne Wang, each of whom has sought to deconstruct the “Hollywood” cinema (and the representational tradition from which the cinema derives) by adhering to it, indeed by over-representation. Polanski and Wang not only provide exemplary instances of traditional cinematic means and ends as a means of subversion; they are able, more importantly, to point to a world, to a reality, that film may expose without circumscribing. My examples in this case are Polanski's Chinatown (1974) and Wang's Chan Is Missing (1982), though a similar argument could also be waged on behalf of Wim Wender's much neglected Hammett (1982).2 In all of these “Chinatown”—that is to say, Chinatown in American film—is less a social entity than an ontological one, a reality that like the director himself is somehow double-parked along side the traditional Hollywood enterprise and the reality it purports to represent. The advantage of this approach is that it enables the filmmaker to contest the traditional cinema without admitting that cinema's primacy as a condition of contestation.3 The overwhelming impression of Polanski's Chinatown, particularly on first encounter, is not that it debunks the private-eye film in the manner, say, of Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) (to which Chinatown is often likened),4 but more crucially that it shows film in the ability to exceed itself while adhering, presumably, to its various conventions. The same is true of Chan, which effectively conjoins cinema vérité to the comic-pica-resque of Bob Hope's “road” films. The medium, these two films demonstrate, is at least bigger than the message.

Chinatown is a tale of two films or, more precisely, of two tales: a formal text, whose various intricacies are more appreciable to most viewers on repeated screenings, and a more disjunct narrative, which is more appreciable either on first viewing or only after the formal lustre of the initial Chinatown dissipates. Of the formal Chinatown, much has already been said, chiefly that it echoes film noir. In a way this is so, but not in the sense intended by Chinatown's admirers. For these, film noir remains a compelling anachronism, a mode of tragedy made tolerable by its very displacement. But for feminist critics Christine Gledhill and Sylvia Harvey film noir means something else entirely. For Gledhill, Harvey and others, the genre which came to prominence in America in the 40's and 50's in reaction to the cinema of the 1930's, is useful in that it exposes the very “contradictions” it is “the film's project to unify.”5 This is apparent, for example, in the treatment of women—specifically the femme fatales—who disrupt the movement in these films toward normalcy. In engaging the male hero in the manner they do—that is, as romantic objects—the femme fatales effectively see to it that the “norm of the bourgeois family,” and implied end of the hero's story, “becomes markedly absent and unobtainable.” So too, the artificial narrative resolutions in film noir do not “recuperate” (as they are supposed to) the “sterility, in conventional family terms, of male/female relationships.”6 Thus, by embracing the very codes and conventions by which it perpetuates a bourgeois ideology, film noir is paradoxically a “subversive genre.”7

Such conceptions of film noir do not as a rule inform the discussions of Chinatown. In these analyses, the conventional elements of an urban setting, the prevalence there of great evil, and a confrontation with that evil at great sacrifice, are mitigated by an opposition to that evil that proceeds uncontested along conventional representational lines. In Chinatown, which is a detective film, this opposition turns out to be a matter of narrative or of the “knowledge which the film provides of how things really are”8 rather than of physical or even mental prowess. Some conspiracy of evil is at work (identified as such by the transparent good of its first victim Hollis Mulwray, who despite efforts to the contrary—including one initiated by the film itself—remains incorruptible), and is exposed in the course of the film by the hero and quester Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). These disclosures, moreover, particularly the climactic ones involving the Water and Power magnate Noah Cross (John Huston), prove to be Gittes' only triumph, emphasizing the film's peculiarly American spirit. In characteristically Protestant (or perhaps displaced-Protestant) fashion, disclosure proves more than the only triumph Chinatown affords; it is the ultimate triumph insofar as each viewer is privileged (with an assist from Gittes from whose point of view we witness disclosure) to engage the film-text as a kind of scripture, interpreting representation just as Gittes interprets presentation or action. The Nicholson character does not think for us; he is simply Virgil to our Dante.

And yet, because our eventual awareness of it is the only thing that legitimately resists evil in Chinatown (an evil which, despite unmasking, Gittes is unable to stop and even abets), this same viewer consciousness becomes in subsequent viewings an omniscience or pathos to which prior revelation defers in much the way that Gittes earlier defers to the viewer. For now, suddenly, it is no longer evil vs. good that is at issue but merely the prevalence of evil. Chinatown, on second viewing, becomes more pagan, more Continental, more antihumanistic: a drama where, like Oedipus, Gittes is for all good intentions instrumental in the final catastrophe, making his impotence a signpost for our own.9 Virtually every gesture, every line, in Chinatown is subsequently rife with dramatic irony so that like the Athenians, whose prior knowledge of the Oedipus story was a necessary condition for tragic pity, our prior knowledge of the past and future fates of Evelyn Mulwray (Fay Dunaway)—the incest victim turned tragic victim—remains the principal source of textual engagement. How many of us cannot confess to being moved in some way by the foreshadowing of the catastrophic close when wilting under the interrogation of Nicholson-Gittes, Dunaway lets her head fall to the steering wheel setting off a horn blast? Or, when in the preceding scene Nicholson, to facilitate following Dunaway, shatters her car's tail-light, foreshadowing by violent recapitulation the “flaw in the iris [of her eye]” which becomes by a gunshot from behind a fatal wound? Or, more transparently, by the repeated allusions to “Chinatown,” to the scene of an earlier catastrophe wherein Gittes apparently hurt a woman while trying to help her? Or, related to this last, when Hollis Mulwray, the husband of the “woman” in the repeating history and thus an ante-type of Gittes (who is similarly divested of a shoe by the flood and becomes, in the wake of Mulwray's drowning, Mrs. Mulwray's “partner”), avows in an early scene “not [to] make the same mistake twice”? Or, when the villain Cross speaks cryptically of his “daughter” and enjoins Gittes to “find her”? Or, when Evelyn Mulwray, Cross's older daughter and mother by incest of his other “daughter,” remarks a propos of a fight between Hollis and her father: “he never forgave him for it”? All of these gestures, all these indeterminacies, make subsequent viewings of Chinatown qualitatively different from the initial experience. Where the initial “text” is primarily durational, moving linearly in time as well as vertically in consciousness, later texts are largely static in deliberation. Where disclosure, in other words, is initially liberating or enlightening, it is in subsequent instances a return of the already known and repressed.

The presence of a second narrative in Chinatown emphasizes a point necessarily elided by the moral and political dimensions of the first narrative: namely, that the casting of blame, especially as a result of revelation, is no different in its will to power (or in its ultimate weakness) than the object of that blame, in this case Cross. This is a hard point perhaps to accept, particularly in light of Cross's rather formidable legacy. Nevertheless, it is testament to the toughness of Chinatown, to its refusal to be merely one narrative (or one disclosure), that it is driven to expose the illusion of mastery inherent in Cross's damnation. This mastery not only characterizes the viewer's position vis-a-vis Cross about whom there is more (and less) than initially meets the eye; it conveniently characterizes Cross himself, whose mastery is no less illusory than the “knowledge” that ultimately makes it so.

This transference is key in terms of both Chinatown itself and the larger, Occidental tradition it effectively inhabits. In the classic realist text, as Colin MacCabe has detailed, the “dominance” of the viewer or subject is simultaneously a function of the text's inability to “deal with real as contradictory.”10 There exists in the realist text, therefore, a “metalanguage” neither spoken or written that mediates “truth” by “homogeniz[ing]” or transcending various other discourses in the text. A “revolutionary” text, on the other hand, “[combats the] dominance of metalanguage” and the expectation of mastering the real both by foregrounding these suppressed or homogenized discourses and by showing them—as film noir apparently does—as contradictory.11

And what of Chinatown? Neither a realist text that privileges its primary narrative nor a subversive text, whose secondary or static narrative necessarily contradicts the former, Chinatown, paradoxical as it may sound, is both formative and deconstructive. Through the interchange of two narratives (among other things), Chinatown provides a metalanguage and a truth that are indeterminate and deconstructed respectively: a vision of the real that does not privilege the viewer so much as it is made available to the subject in conjunction with a broader, more democratized agenda. This is reaffirmed in the film's central metaphor which is, of course, water. Belonging to the “public” now (as Hollis Mulwray “felt” it “should”), water is far less controllable as a figuring of the “real” than it is controlled by those who see it as a utility or as part of the real: either Noah Cross, who presumes (like his namesake) to control the water so as to control “the future,” or those viewers who through Gittes' investigations presume in the end to know the past.

Chinatown's subversive energies come chiefly, then, from being a different kind of “realist text.” For such “realism,” as expatriate filmmakers have frequently underscored, involves that peculiar “doubling” or dualism by which films can resist their conventions by continuing to bear them. Whether it is the confusion of art and life in the films of Lubitsch, or Ophuls' insistence that the audience resist the very contrivances by which they are engaged in the act of viewing, or Hitchcock's determination to make clear the “suasive” disposition of his medium, expatriate directors seem consistently to demonstrate that contradiction, so long as it is a pejorative, will inhibit access to a uniquely filmic conception of the real.12 The implications for such a view of film's function are manifold, but an immediate consequence, following the demystification of contradiction, is a reexamination of the tyrannical sense of the medium, or of the “visual pleasure” it provides, that is so much a staple of contemporary film theory.13 Film's double-ness, in short, allows us to approach with renewed sympathy the generally maligned idea of cinematic realism by allowing us to redefine the real as to render it less gratifying and more indeterminate.

Writing at the dawn of Nazism a half-century ago, Walter Benjamin observed that compared to other versions of art, film reproduces reality so as to critique and transcend more traditional kinds of representation.14 More than Bazin and Kracauer, whose realistic theories have been subject to critique for over two decades, Benjamin saw film as fundamentally progressive and opposed, unlike other art forms, to the “purposes of Fascism.”15 Central to Benjamin's analysis was the fact that film alone relies totally on the mediation of machinery which “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” and from the “aura,” as Benjamin described it, by which art traditionally imitates authority.16 “Because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment,” film “[offers] an aspect of reality … from all equipment,” which is free consequently “to meet the beholder halfway.”17 If trees, for example, are mechanically reproduced in a film, they remain by virtue of being thus produced more real, less mystified, than either words in a narrative or brushstrokes on a canvas. The reality that film represents, according to Benjamin, is one we would today call “deconstructed,” since reality in film resists at some level the mystifications with which art lends “presence” to idealization.18 And this is especially evident in Chinatown, whose “double detachment” from Hollywood and from representation generally, though undoubtedly a consequence of Polanski's expatriatism, are simultaneously a consequence the medium itself in conjunction with which the limitations of the aforementioned—Hollywood and representation—are continually foregrounded.19 Thus, one can compare Chinatown to the unnoirish, more broadly comic, Chan Is Missing. For here too, in imitation of its maker, cinematic controls are alternately demonstrated and relinquished—that is, relinquished as they are demonstrated—adumbrating a reality intrinsic to cinema in general.

If in the two different experiences of Chinatown Polanski would appear to have the best of both worlds, that subsequent viewings enlarge upon or enhance the initial viewing, it is more importantly the case that Polanski, like his protagonist Gittes, makes “the same mistake twice”: that he fails by two different means—one American, the other Continental—to circumscribe a reality which, like Hollis Mulwray (who early opposes the building of a dam), he knows better than to contain. It is this ability to actualize only to contest the authority of its “representations” that gives Chinatown its peculiar dynamic, that makes it a demonstration of the uses and abuses of cinematic means. Film, more than any other medium again, plays this reconstructive-deconstructive game, pitting the formative against the inchoate, the ideal against the real. In Chinatown the “real” if you will is there—in the film—but as a disruptive or deconstructed presence. The mechanism is Chinatown itself, less a locus now of a specific or repeated action than an agency that effectively refutes “Western” reality or “representation.”20 The emphasis consequently is not on China or the Chinese per se (both of which are subjected to the usual stereotyping), but on China-“town,” on the alien order that has infiltrated our own, challenging our idealized conceptions. It is, in the words of the Mulwray's Chinese gardener, concerned about the effect of saltwater on their lawn, “bad for the glass,” bad for mimesis.

The scene in which this observation (“bad for the glass”) occurs is typical of the way Chinatown functions in Chinatown. Having discovered at considerable embarrassment that he was enlisted to spy on Hollis Mulwray by a woman posing as Mulwray's wife, Gittes decides to visit Mulwray at his home. He is met at the door by Khan, a Chinese servant, ushered through a room where another Chinese domestic is cleaning and then onto a veranda where yet a third Chinese, the gardener, is working rather frantically. When we first see him—when he is first the subject of the shot—the gardener is peering into a pool which at the moment is still and reflective. Espying something at the bottom, however, the gardener reaches in, breaking the plane of reflection. Finding something else apparently—a clump of weeds or seaweed—the gardener hurries off, leaving Gittes to resume his (the gardener's) search. At this point, Mrs. Mulwray enters and the camera, holding both characters in a medium shot, continues to address her thus initiating the conventional pattern of shot-counter-shot in their ensuing exchange.

As for the object the gardener sees but does not retrieve, it is essentially forgotten. Thus, it is not important that the object turns out to be crucial to the film's denouement or that its retrieval, necessarily deferred, is a metaphor as well for the ensuing action between Dunaway and Nicholson. Linked contiguously rather to the veranda, to the scene of represented action (i.e., the dialogue which either pushes the film toward resolution on first viewing or is fraught with dramatic irony on subsequent viewings), the Chinese's activities are chiefly metonymic. They are not only related to the adjacent scene but have by sheer adjacency displaced it, dismantling as simply arbitrary its more subtle correspondences. Content not just to represent representation (the “film” reflected in the pool), Polanski must deconstruct it by disrupting the mimetic plane that the central action imposes on “something” (a pair of broken bifocals as it turns out) for which the gardener reaches. In the ensuing scene, therefore, action vies for primacy with something else: whether in the words and phrases of the two characters or more noticeably in the field of vision that extends now beyond their faces. Like other aspects of Chinatown in this film, the confluence of East and West remains a signpost to otherness, to the presence or “background” we would mystify into absence.21

Chinatown's is fundamentally a bifocal vision, a view of things in which conventional action co-exists with what, to borrow from Wayne Wang, we are apt to regard as “missing.” This is a world where dualism prevails over both contradiction and dialectic, where irreconcilable opposites appear as such only by the reconstitutional pressure of representation. It is a world of summer colds, of sisters who are daughters, of drought and flood, a world where overheating is overflowing and where any attempt to reconcile such opposites, usually by establishing a cause, yields an even greater indeterminacy. The central instance of this futility involves the incestuous relationship of Noah Cross and his daughter Evelyn. In the film's most remarkable exchange, Gittes, having failed in his attempt to identify Hollis Mulwray's “twist,” persuades Evelyn Mulwray to tell him the “truth”:

Who is she? and don't give me that crap about it being your sister. You don't have a sister.
I'll tell you the truth …
That's good. Now what's her name?
Katherine? … Katherine who?
—she's my daughter.
(Gittes stares at her. He's been charged with anger and when Evelyn says this it explodes. He hits her full in the face. Evelyn stares back at him. The blow has forced tears from her eyes, but she makes no move, not even to defend herself.)
I said the truth!
—she's my sister—
(Gittes slaps her again.)
(continuing) —she's my daughter
(Gittes slaps her again.)
(continuing) —my sister
(He hits her again.)
(continuing) My daughter, my sister—
(He belts her finally knocking her into a cheap Chinese vase which shatters and she collapses on the sofa sobbing.)
I said I want the truth.
(almost screaming it) She's my sister and my daughter!(22)

The truth for Evelyn (and presumably for the film) and the “truth” for Gittes, the truth he “want[s],” are two different orders. Reality for Evelyn is dualistic, chaotic, irresolute. For Gittes, on the other hand, “truth” is less a condition of what is than of what should be; it is a function not of being but of resolution and demands, in conjunction with his aggression, a prime mover or cause. That this mover, this cause, this absent father, turns out to be the father is as much a disclosure therefore as a kind of joke, albeit a grim one. For it remains ironically the resolution that Gittes “wants,” the reconciliation of opposites (“she's my sister and my daughter”) that representation—a nostalgia for the absent father, according to Derrida—demands.23 (It is no accident either, then, that Gittes' demands for the truth involve, though barely visibly, a destruction of “a cheap Chinese vase,” which may be read as a destruction, however futile, of deconstruction.)

What Gittes and representation “want” is not, of course, what Polanski and Chinatown provide. This is underscored in the closing shot with its pervasive dark and still earlier in the denouement when Cross himself makes clear what has been indicated throughout: that resolution and reconciliation, the identification of a prime mover and the assignment of onus to him, are mere fictions. Charged by Gittes with both the rape of his daughter and the murder of his son-in-law, Cross responds by deferring responsibility for his actions not once, but twice. First, in reaction to Gittes' query (in conjunction with the murder charge) about the motivation behind his determination to make millions of dollars he cannot possibly live to enjoy, Cross replies after long pause: “the future, Mr. Gittes—the future.” As there is evidently more (and less) to Cross than the desire to be worshipped by posterity—indeed, he is exponential in his quest for immediate gratification—such causality remains a masterpiece of indeterminacy: an answer beyond both our capacity to comprehend and the capacity of the film to represent. It is, in Derridean terms, a mere “trace.”24 And in response to Gittes' other accusation, the rape of Evelyn, Cross is equally indeterminate. “I do not blame myself,” he replies in the encroaching dark. “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.” Such absolution is vital to Polanski's purpose, for it demystifies the very thing, the individual self possessed of will and choice, on which the two narratives of Chinatown, the disclosure which assigns blame and the omniscience that laments it, simultaneously depend. What transpires in Chinatown happens also, as we shall see, in Wayne Wang's “Chinatown” where is-ness or being isn't, where “Chan is / missing.” It happens not according to an idealized notion of will or causality but “is” rather like the “tidepools” much beloved by Hollis Mulwray of which Cross, gazing absently into Mulwray's unreflective pond (into water “bad for the glass”), is suddenly reminded:

Hollis was always fond of tidepools. You know what he used to say about them?
Haven't the faintest idea.
—that's where life begins … marshes, sloughs, tidepools … he was fascinated by them. …

Committed unlike Mulwray to making the same mistake twice, Gittes is naturally unimpressed by the latter's fascination with beginnings—with beginnings as opposed to causes—nor does he fully fathom now the perspicuity of his earlier metaphor regarding Lieutenant Escobar's integrity (also in conversation with Cross) in which the policeman is observed to “swim in the same water we all do.” But the film obviously does, and it is precisely the marsh-like or slough-like nature of reality that Chinatown manages to convey. “Chinatown” by this measure is not a representational eventuality, as John Simon, Richard Jameson and others argue,25 but rather an anti-representational obstruction: a reminder of the “life” that having once begun resists imitation or mediated reflection. Thus, as Garrett Stewart observes, “ordinary narrative suspense, the train of multiplying clues and partial discoveries, is to a large extent replaced by a sense of atmospheric foreboding divorced from plot, and more importantly by a suspension in the symbolic details themselves, a consistently withheld relevance that defines the true plotline of the film.” “What does it mean,” asks Stewart, “that Noah Cross eats whole fish? Or that he is named Noah for that matter? That Mrs. Mulwray has a black flaw in her green eye? What have her Chinese servants to do with the film's title? What, in fact, has the title to do with the film?”26

Some of these of course I have endeavored to answer; but Stewart's point, I think, is that none of their answers necessarily makes Chinatown a better film to the extent that “better” means more integrated or more symbolic. If anything, the apparent randomness of the movie, its flight from integration, exists for the same reason that Lieutenant Escobar has a summer cold, that Evelyn Mulwray has a daughter and a sister who are one person, that there is both drought and flood. They are all, in the words of Evelyn Mulwray, “the truth,” just as Evelyn's offhand remark that her husband didn't wear bifocals—the truth once again for Gittes in that it implicates Cross in Mulwray's murder—leads immediately in the film to a larger truth: to the bevelled mirror in her make-up case which splits, or deconstructs, what then, in the disclosure, was “represented.” Moreover, to emphasize this truth, to alert us to the film's continuous resistance of the representations to which as film it is in large degree committed, Polanski does something extremely shrewd. He recurs to the conventions of film noir by using venetian blinds in almost all of his interiors.

We see blinds in the very first scene, where Curly, a client of Gittes' whose wife's infidelity has been confirmed by a series of photographs, is humorously cautioned against eating the venetian blinds which Gittes has just installed. Our attention is thus directed both to the blinds themselves and simultaneously to the world beyond, which they mediate and partially conceal. This interchange is repeated in Yelburton's (the Water Commissioner's) office, in the City Morgue, in Gittes' office again on the day after his nose has been severely cut by a henchman played by Polanski himself (more on this later), in Mulwray's office at the Department of Water and Power, in Yelburton's office again during a later exchange between Gittes and Yelburton, and in Gittes' office in a subsequent interview with Evelyn Mulwray. It exists also in displaced form: in the veil that covers Evelyn's face, in the scene mediated by the barbershop window, in the corrugated backgrounds in the various photos of Cross, in the chain-link fence surrounding the reservoir, in the opaque glass windows on various office doors, in the glass bricks that separate Gittes from his secretary, and in the leaded glass windows in Cross' stable. And finally, in such chiaroscuro effects as Gittes' bandaged face, or in the nursing home at night, or in the interplay of light and shade in the closing scene. The interchange, then, although virtually pervasive, tends not to distract us from the central action so much as it reminds us—as it is the shadows of the blinds we most frequently see—that what is before us remains from at least one angle of vision more mysterious, more murky, more fluid than we may be inclined to expect, indeed to “want.”

That angle, I would argue (indeed as the metonymy argues), is as much from the outside looking in as from outside, or inside, yet another “window”—the Benjaminian machine—looking out. Cinema, in fine, has turned against itself, defacing its images now, its represented action, in the same way that the hoodlum played tellingly by Polanski himself defaces Nicholson, the conventional hero from whose conventional point of view a conventional drama unfolds. And why venetian blinds? Apart from their stylized echo, the answer—to answer Garrett Stewart—is in the film's title. Like Chinatown, Venice too is at the interstices of East and West and thus an apt source for an artifact which in imitation of Polanski's window (“Chinatown … everybody” Gittes muses at one point) compels us to accept mystery and at the film's end darkness as truths beyond understanding.27 “You may think you know what you're dealing with,” Cross earlier warns Gittes, “but believe me you don't.” Gittes replies, obviously amused: “That's what the D.A. used to tell me about Chinatown.” “Was he right?” Cross asks.

Like Chinatown,Chan Is Missing—a black and white marvel which cost $22,000 to produce—has been praised as parody, in this case of the “Charlie Chan” films of the 1930's and 40's.28 And like the case for Polanski's film, this approbation, however well-intentioned, is somewhat ill-conceived. That the film's principal characters, cabdrivers Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi), are themselves aware of this achievement, of the similarity between their “real-life” search for the missing Chan and the cinematic tradition that precedes them, is perhaps proof enough. But the real evidence is in the film itself, or in Chan's filming, which shows that if Chan is indeed out to debunk its namesake, it is for reason of the representational tradition of which the Charlie Chan movies are merely a single instance. Here, in virtually every shot and in every scene, we are presented with a choice, with a myriad of alternatives from which we must fashion or, as the film encourages, abandon a conception of reality. This point, in fact, is the subject of the film's very first shot in which adjacent actuality—the buildings and the sky beyond them—is alternately reflected in the window of an on coming car continually obliterating its driver, Jo. Everything is suspended and, with the exception of the frame itself, beyond the bounds of circumscription. As the cab moves, so the reality it reflects moves, usurping character (Jo) and with him the arbitrary narrowing of reality into either his “story” or point of view, or as the relationship between car and camera windows inevitably suggests, into film itself.

There is scarcely the space, or need at this time, to enter more specifically the ideology of cinematic technology, to reiterate how the camera frame and lens, for example, are culturally predetermined, or how deep-focus—the technique of realism—caters to an essentially Western humanism, empowering the viewer to possess the visible world.29 Suffice it to say that if, like all film, Chan is necessarily limited by these, it contrives as film (and as the allegory of the disappointed cabwindow suggests) to turn each against itself. Most vulnerable in this respect are the long-take and depth of field, which in Wang's hands are less the cinematic tropes of power than techniques that render power, the ability to control or, in Chan's case, to find reality, meaningless. In this, not surprisingly, Wang, like Polanski before him, is heavily indebted to Chinatown, San Francisco's Chinatown, which more than the Chinatown of Chinatown is a world viewed yet a world elsewhere. Where Chinatown is a shadow presence in Polanski's movie, a background that casts the foreground or narrative into dubious relief, Chinatown in Chan is omnipresent, a background so completely foregrounded that it serves to redefine our conventional conception of presence. Chan, it cannot be emphasized enough, “is missing”—a paradox or a dualism, which far from contradicting itself shows being as both becoming (or time) and nothingness.

In Chan's closing montage a young Chinese male is glimpsed in deep-focus standing at a busstop where various others are waiting but also coming and going. Composed of several takes, this sequence—recording one man's endurance in the eddy of life—establishes an affinity between the figure and his audience: between a representation in one and the viewer, who not only possesses this world visibly but temporally as well. Nevertheless, at the instant when these holdings are possibly at their fullest, when the film's editing and furtive cinematography combine to further the illusion of viewerly omniscience, the figure suddenly disappears. Whether this is a result of Wang's editing or of the man's having boarded a bus is never established nor is it especially important. What is important is that everything is suddenly reversed and unchanged. With a single gesture, Wang not only reverses the hierarchic, perhaps voyeuristic, relationship of viewer to film (and, in the extended allegory, of filmmaker to the world), making us all prisoners of the time and space we formerly control; he effectively pardons us—and himself—for our crime, for subjectivism specifically and its introjection of power which is suddenly turned against the subject. Our release is the realization, conveyed in the disappearance, that presence is in no way authenticated by representation, that representation as we are accustomed to it is inured to us not reality. The helplessness we experience with Wang's departure is an unwillingness more properly to accept helplessness—to accept nothingness as a condition of being, and to accept indeterminacy as something more (and less) than mere absence.

All the same, it devolves to Chinatown to justify this obvious polemic, to provide a grammar or metalanguage that will serve as an alternative to our own. This grammar, which may be best described as relational rather than oppositional (or subjective), turns out to be as much a function of the filmed phenomenon of Chinatown, with its multiplicity of images in random juxtaposition, as of Wang's determination to grant no single element a primacy that would negate multiplicity. Nowhere is this more clearly or ironically demonstrated than in the plot. Founded on the most cyclopean of forms—the odyssey or search (in this case for a man named Chan Hung who apparently owes Jo and Steve money)—the narrative is governed not by the expectable—an unrelenting point of view—but by an enormous deference or tendency to dwell in possibility. Thus, in the interior shot of the small hotel where Chan was last in residence, the camera, instead of ascending the stairs in anticipation with Jo and Steve of finding Chan, assumes a stable position at the head of the stairwell recording the ascent and departure (off-screen) of the two questers.

Lingering on the stairs with a broad, almost mandarin, responsiveness, the camera provides another “story” altogether, one whose hierarchies and relationships are spatial and perpetual rather than temporal and soluble. Such a grammar, moreover, is inherently Chinese, or so it is asserted by the well-meaning social worker whom Jo and Steve later contact. Recounting an incident involving Chan and a perplexed policeman who had stopped him for a traffic violation, the social worker explains that Chan's negative response to the accusation—“You didn't stop at the stop sign”—owes entirely to a Chinese way of reading that must take into account the relationship of listener, speaker and the action involved. It is unthinkable for Chan to answer a “negative with a positive,” indeed to follow any but a negative way.

In a world, then, whose various subjects are related rather than opposed, where the juxtaposition, for example, of the Hotel St. Paul and Club Paradise is random and unironic, it is simply wrong not to follow the via negativa. For Jo's part, the “investigation” into Chan's disappearance is less a search for Chan than an inquiry into one's own disappearance—this, as evidenced by Jo's long standing habit of using his stove as a storage space for various electronic gadgets. Not only, in other words, is Jo capable of accepting “mystery … without solution”; like Chan, he plainly understands the wisdom of supplanting a positive with a negative. “What is not there,” to Jo's way of thinking (and the film's), has “as much meaning as what is there,” making his gadgets in this instance, like the missing pictures on Chan's wall, or the missing photograph Chan has apparently clipped from a newspaper, components all of an acceptable, plausible, reality.

There are, to be sure, aspects of Chan that are more conventional or conventionally mimetic. However to the extent these elements are employed—Steve's deracination for instance in the wake of Vietnam, or such ethnic sidelights as a Chinese version of Saturday Night Fever—they invariably prove a point: that it is better to look down the stairs at nothing than upward in expectation of achieving something. The example of Steve is the most provocative on this score, for unlike the middle-aged Jo or the still older Chan who is an immigrant, Steve is sufficiently American to want to dispel mystery or, like Jake Gittes, to “want” a solution. This materialism is reflected in a variety of ways: in the sexual expletives that color Steve's every speech, and more broadly, in his insistence whether in jest (his mock gun-play outside Chan's hotel room) or in earnest (his repeated claim that they have been deceived by Chan and that Chan's disappearance is a police matter) that life imitate its most conventional representations.

Nor is it any accident that just as the Americanization (or Hollywoodization) of Steve finds it aesthetic correlative in Charlie Chan, so its objective correlative is in Vietnam and in the wounds Steve has visibly incurred. Like the viewer in the closing montage, Steve's continued belief that he can control things, that all things are part of a material, hence soluble reality, makes him vulnerable to their revenge—to his humiliation eventually when the money he assumed was stolen is mysteriously returned by Chan's streetwise, yet uninterested, teenage daughter. Nor is it merely accidental that Steve is the most attractive and accessible of the film's characters, that without him Chan would likely founder amid a host of meaningless phenomena. Like Milton's Satan, Steve attracts our fallen nature, makes us realize what we are and more important what we must resign to become like Jo or to imitate the still greater example of Chan Hung. Chan's continued absence, like the figure's disappearance at the close, proves more than a challenge to conventional representation. It remains a challenge cinematically to presence itself and to the way we live, to our proclivity toward the “positive” whose effects—aesthetic or otherwise—are as self-mystifying as they are self-destructive.30


  1. See in particular Timothy Corrigan, New German Film: The Displaced Image (Austin: U of Texas P, 1983), which argues that the films of Fassbinder, Schlöndorff and Wenders are caught up in a “double movement” for which “the America of Hollywood became a pivot”—specifically as “the object of both an imaginative hate and love” (6). In general, too, the Hollywood studio system, which standardized cinematic conventions, created a product that for many theorists today not only placed the burden of an “art” cinema upon the Europeans, but saw to it, in effect, that all cinema, insofar as it relied on standardized conventions, promoted a bourgeois ideology. This has given rise, in turn, to an alternative cinema, which has sought to expose Hollywood conventions as bourgeois mystifications.

  2. Born in Hong Kong and educated in America, Wang—whose experience as a filmmaker and has been restricted almost exclusively to China—is a cinematic expatriate in the truest sense. As he recounts (Peter Todd, “Chan Is Missing: An Interview with Wayne Wang,” Framework, 20 [1983], 21-22), Wang learned about “Western films” by making Oriental ones which are steeped, no matter their orientation, in the Hollywood tradition. Wenders, who is still regarded as a German director, has long been fascinated with American film, notably in An American Friend, where Nicholas Ray (the subject of Wenders' later documentary Lightning over Water [1981]) and Samuel Fuller are appropriately given cameo roles. Hammett, however, which is an “American” film (a fiction about the “life” of Dashiell Hammett), was made after Wenders relocated to New York, where he has lived for some time. Much of this information is recounted in the Ray documentary which was made concurrently with Hammett. Since then, Wenders has made another American film, Paris, Texas (1984), which beginning with its title encounters even more directly the questions of conventionalized representation, framing and intentionality. For more on Wenders' equivocal position toward America and American film, see New German Film, pp. 25-41. See also Corrigan's “Cinematic Snuff: German Friends and Narrative Murders,” Cinema Journal 24 (1985), 9-18, which discusses Lightning over Water, particularly Wenders' perception of himself in relation to Ray.

  3. Unlike the New German directors who, according to Corrigan, privilege American films in order to deconstruct them, Polanski and Wang are less self-conscious in their adherence to Hollywood conventions. Their deconstruction, in other words, shows a reverence for film and its proclivity towards the indeterminate rather than excoriating the medium for its over-determined nature and repressive influence. It is this, then, that distinguishes an “expatriate” vision from a European or “displaced” vision, where the resistance to American film is, as Corrigan shows, part of a larger recognition not only of America's pervasiveness in matters of art, but also of the pervasiveness and seductiveness of American culture in post war Germany (3-23). For more on the expatriate vision in film, see “The Expatriate Art: European Directors in Hollywood,” ed. Richard Macksey, MLN 98 (1983), 1064-1196.

  4. See, for example, Garrett Stewart, “The Long Goodbye from Chinatown,Film Quarterly 28 (1974-75), 25-32; Richard T. Jameson, “Son of Noir,” Film Comment (November, 1974), 30-33; and Bill Oliver, “The Long Goodbye and Chinatown: Debunking the Private Eye Tradition,” Literature/Film Quarterly (1975), 240-48.

  5. See Christine Gledhill, “Klute 1: A Contemporary Film Noir and Feminist Criticism” in Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Inst., 1980), pp. 6-21; and Sylvia Harvey, “Women's Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir,” Women in Film Noir, pp. 22-34.

  6. Harvey, p. 33.

  7. Gledhill, p. 19.

  8. Colin MacCabe, “Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses” in Tracking the Signifier (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985), p. 38.

  9. The parallel between Chinatown and Oedipus Rex is touched on by Wayne D. McGinnis in “Chinatown: Polanski's Contemporary Oedipus Story,” Literature/Film Quarterly (1975), 249-51. For a more detailed treatment of the Oedipal situation in the film and its implications for the film as representation, see Deborah Linderman, “Oedipus in Chinatown,enclitic 5-6 (1981-82). Unlike McGinnis, who is concerned with the way the themes of incest and corruption inform both the film and the play so as to disclose “inevitable human weakness,” Linderman deals more directly with the psychoanalytic aspects of the problem and the way these are mystified by the movie.

  10. “Realism and the Cinema,” pp. 38-39.

  11. “Realism and the Cinema,” pp. 54-55. See also “Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure,” Tracking the Signifier, pp. 62-64.

  12. See Leo Braudy, “The Double Detachment of Ernst Lubitsch,” MLN 98 (1983), 1071-84; George Wilson, “Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman,MLN 98 (1983), 1121-44; and Mark Crispin Miller, “Hitchcock's Suspicions and Suspicion,MLN (1983), 1143-86.

  13. See especially Laura Mulvey's paradigmatic essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 14 (1973), 6-18, which argues for the essentially voyeuristic, thereby tyrannical, nature of conventional film as it manipulates viewerly fixation.

  14. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 217-51.

  15. The specific point of this observation about “fascism” (218) involves the adulatory critical writing about art that Benjamin opposed. And indeed, as Benjamin makes clear in his essay, film can be put to fascistic use. But the main thrust of Benjamin's analysis is a conception of film whose mimetic capability, as Miriam Hansen observes (“‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology’: Benjamin on Representation and Reception,” SCS Annual Symposium, 15 June 1985), can no longer be “claimed by human and social intentions” since it belongs, more properly, to a larger optical unconscious. In short, film can liberate by supplanting the contracted, conventional, subject with a more expansive, collective self, which has access—through the experience of film—to a “whole range of experiential modes outside so-called normal perception” (p. 9).

  16. Benjamin, pp. 221-23.

  17. Benjamin, pp. 234, 220.

  18. Benjamin, pp. 220-21.

  19. Polanski in this sense, as Leo Braudy observes of Lubitsch, is engaged truly in what Kracauer first termed the “redemption of [reality].” This redemption—for both directors—is a redemption of the means of redemption, namely the medium itself. It is important to remember that “displaced” as he is from Hollywood, Polanski, like the New German directors, makes use of a medium that, as expatriate filmmakers have long shown, is “necessarily self-reflexive” (New German Film, p. 17).

  20. By “representation” I mean two related concepts: first, Auerbach's notion of “realism” as he traces its evolution in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (trans. Willard R. Trask [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953]); and second, a notion subsuming Auerbach's in which representation, following Schopehauer, Nietzsche, and most recently Derrida, is seen as mere idealization.

  21. In “Odysseus' Scar” (Mimesis, Ch. 1), Auerbach observes that, in contrast Homeric representation, the stories of the Old Testament are “fraught with ‘background’ and mysterious [and contain] a second, concealed meaning.” From the standpoint of “representation” this “meaning” is necessarily absent, just as with the rise of “interpretation,” as Auerbach observes, the stories soon lost their “reality” (15). The sense of the way art traditionally bestows “aura” upon the real as a way of claiming its autonomy as art is also taken up by Benjamin, whose purpose it is to show that film—a far more democratic medium—manages ultimately to dissolve aura and demystify the represented.

  22. Citations from Chinatown are from the third draft of the screenplay by Robert Towne, which was revised in conjunction with directives from Polanski. With minor exceptions the citations in this essay correspond to those in the film. It should also be pointed out that although Chinatown is an original screenplay by a writer whose other scripts, notably Shampoo and The Last Detail, reflect a similar preoccupation with betrayal, authority in Chinatown, especially in the film's opposition to authority, is clearly Polanski's. The screenplay, as conceived by Towne, is at once a moral parable and a history of the making of Los Angeles: a “narrative,” in short, whose moral authority is also an epistemological authority. For further discussion of Towne's project, particularly as it involved a sequel to Chinatown,The Two Jakes, see David Thomson, “Trouble in Chinatown,” Vanity Fair 48 (November, 1985).

  23. The concept of representation as the re-presentation (or idealization) of an absent father or presence, is treated extensively by Derrida in “Plato's Pharmacy” in Dissemination (trans. and ed. Barbara Johnson [Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981], pp. 63-172). Thus, speaking about the basis of art in “cult,” Benjamin draws inferences between the needs satisfied by art or conventional representation and the way film reconstitutes those needs in a more collective, less authoritarian way.

  24. The conception of language as a trace of something to which it does not refer—in short, the concept of indeterminacy—is the central issue of Derrida's Of Grammatology (trans. and ed. Gayatri C. Spivak [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1981]). However, as it is the function of Chinatown to make present the indeterminate, collapsing as it were the gap of referentiality, statements such as Cross's are more or less realized by the “atmospheric foreboding” (as Garrett Stewart terms it) inherent in the film and, as Polanski is at pains to show, inherent in film generally.

  25. For Simon's reading “of a Chinatown of the mind to which, the film says, all roads lead,” see Esquire (October, 1974), 14-16. For a more detailed analysis of the various references to Chinatown in the film, see Jameson, “‘Forget It, Jake. It's Chinatown,’” Movietone News 33 (1974), 1-12.

  26. Stewart, 28.

  27. The metaphorical freight of the venetian blinds, particularly to suggest cinema's opposition to itself and to its moralizing and transcendent tendencies, is further indicated in the French (and also Polish) term for them—jalousies. I am grateful to Richard Macksey for bringing this to my attention.

  28. Erick Dittus, “Chan Is Missing,” Cineaste 12 (1983).

  29. See, for example, Brian Henderson, “Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” Film Quarterly 24 (1970-71).

  30. I am grateful to my colleagues Sandy Flitterman, Ann Kaplan and most especially Miriam Hansen for their advice and criticism in the preparation of this essay.

Principal Works

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Rower [Bicycle; director and screenwriter] (short film) 1955

Dwaj ludzie z szafa [Two Men and a Wardrobe; director and screenwriter] (short film) 1958

Gdy spadaja anioly [When Angels Fall; director and screenwriter] (short film) 1959

Gruby i chudy [The Fat and the Lean; director and screenwriter] (short film) 1961

Nóz w wodzie [Knife in the Water; screenwriter with Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg; director] (film) 1962

Ssaki [Mammals; director and screenwriter] (short film) 1962

Repulsion [screenwriter with Gérard Brach; director] (film) 1965

Cul-de-Sac [screenwriter with Gérard Brach; director] (film) 1966

The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck [screenwriter with Gérard Brach; director] (film) 1967

*Rosemary's Baby [director and screenwriter] (film) 1968

Macbeth [screenwriter with Kenneth Tynan; director] (film) 1971

What? [screenwriter with Gérard Brach; director] (film) 1972

Chinatown [director] (film) 1974

The Tenant [screenwriter with Gérard Brach; director] (film) 1976

§Tess [screenwriter with Gérard Brach and John Brownjohn; director] (film) 1979

Roman (autobiography) 1984

Pirates [screenwriter with Gérard Brach and John Brownjohn; director] (film) 1986

Frantic [screenwriter with Gérard Brach; director] (film) 1988

Bitter Moon [screenwriter with Gérard Brach and John Brownjohn; director] (film) 1992

Death and the Maiden [director] (film) 1994

#The Ninth Gate [screenwriter with John Brownjohn and Enrique Urbizo; director] (film) 1999

The Pianist [director] (film) 2002

*The screenplay was based on the novel by Ira Levin.

†The screenplay was based on the play The Tragedy of Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.

‡The screenplay was based on the novel by Roland Topor.

§The screenplay was based on the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy.

∥The screenplay was based on the novel Lunes de fiel, by Pascal Bruckner.

#The screenplay was based on the novel El Club Dumas, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 28 March 1988)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Suspense and Less Suspense.” New Republic 198, no. 13 (28 March 1988): 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann compares Frantic to The House on Carroll Street, arguing that Frantic never convinces the audience to suspend their disbelief.]

The House on Carroll Street stands out among recent thrillers chiefly because of its subject. It's not one more variation on the haunted house or the perfect heist or a struggle for domination of the entire universe. It tackles an infrequently regarded, grim subject: the United States' importation of German scientists after World War II, an action carried out with wartime secrecy. This action, spurred by fear of Soviet scientific advances and by our need to keep abreast, or ahead, was one more triumph of practicality over morality. In a word, realpolitik.

The screenplay is by Walter Bernstein, whose long career includes, among other kinds of scripts, a number with political coloration: The Molly Maguires,Fail-Safe, and The Front, a film in which Woody Allen played a role allegedly close to Bernstein's own experience while on the blacklist. Commissioned here to create a thriller out of complex and shocking data, Bernstein applied the techniques of the genre with dexterity. We can see him molding the materials into the form, which requires regularly spaced outbursts of violence, a purring villain, a tegument of romance, and an unusual setting for the climax. But fundamentally what holds us, as the rituals are observed, is the underlying theme.

It's 1951. Kelly McGillis is a picture editor at Life who belongs to a group labeled leftist by a Senate committee. She is subpoenaed by the committee and refuses to name names of fellow members. The committee's lawyer, Mandy Patinkin—in a role patently suggested by Roy Cohn—subsequently puts FBI pressure on her. One of the two FBI agents assigned to tail and harass her is Jeff Daniels. Thus that sturdy reliable of this genre, attraction between enemies, falls into place between him and McGillis.

Life fires her, and she has to find work. She becomes a reader to an old lady who lives in a house across a back garden from another house. In that other house McGillis accidentally spots odd goings-on that are connected, she has reason to think, with the government. At this point the whole opening subject, blacklisting, is dropped, and we move to the principal subject, the smuggling of German scientists. The two subjects have a link, which I can't disclose; still, there's a distinct breach. Within this second major subject there occurs one more breach—it smells like producers' afterthought—concerning a Russian Orthodox wedding. I wasn't quite clear why or how the German scientists became involved in this and were speaking Russian.

But the structural shifts would dim, would become no more than the rules of this particular game, if the leading role were better played. McGillis is inadequate. She has been genuinely winning in tender, “receptive” roles—Reuben, Reuben and Witness. In Top Gun she showed that once she has to do more than be wooed, once she has to supply progressive energy of her own, she is in trouble; and she is in even deeper trouble in Carroll Street. She never persuades us of the intellectual vitality that would have made her join a social action group; and in physical action, of which there is a great deal as the story progresses, she is forced and gawky.

The role of the FBI agent, a fellow from the country who hates the city, called for a new James Stewart, which Daniels is not. On a Stewart scale of 10, Daniels rates about 4. But he is tolerable. Patinkin summons up the right scaly viciousness as a man who enjoys cruelty under the guise of patriotism. The director, Peter Yates, is somewhat infatuated with zooms and with the platitudes of espionage films. (If the camera lingers on the front door of a house after someone goes inside, we know that the camera will then pan slightly to reveal a spy who has been watching that person.) Still, Yates underscores well enough the strength of the film's main subject.

Another thriller, Frantic, was done by a much more clever director, Roman Polanski, but it quickly becomes much less interesting. Not because it's not political: if you hang on to the end, you'll find that our old thriller friends, the nuclear bomb and world domination, turn up. But the script, by Polanski and Gerard Brach, until that point and beyond, is ghastly.

It's not only that the first 25 minutes are flat and plotless—they're just about an American doctor and his wife arriving at a Paris airport, getting to their hotel, checking in, and cleaning up. It's not only that there are interludes of sheer dullness—inserted interludes, at that: a flat tire en route to the hotel, a long disco dancing scene near the end. It's that the logic of thrillerdom, to which The House on Carroll Street is fairly loyal, is repeatedly betrayed. Frantic frequently unsuspends our disbelief.

More, Polanski's direction has lost its slyness. He seems to have made this picture with his thumbs. Instance: a small white ladies' suitcase is crucial to the plot. When attention first centers on it, the camera rolls in for a close-up while ominous music growls on the sound track. Even you and I, gentle reader, will guess that this suitcase Matters.

And what has happened to Polanski's ability with actors? The fact that he cast an unbearable woman as the doctor's wife is helped by a story that keeps her offscreen much of the time. The fact that he cast Harrison Ford as the doctor was no doubt a coup of bankability; but what about Ford's performance? Couldn't anything be done about his mugging, about his supposedly deep emotional responses that are at best just barely subcutaneous? To call his performance amateurish would be to offend a lot of gifted amateurs. There's another woman in the plot, the young and purportedly sexy Emmanuelle Seigner, who is present, I can only assume, to keep us up to date on Polanski's private life.

Tom O'Brien (review date 8 April 1988)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Tom. “The Life and Death of It: New Spring Films.” Commonweal 115, no. 7 (8 April 1988): 210-12.

[In the following excerpt, O'Brien discusses a selection of recent thrillers, including Frantic, and notes that Polanski's film lacks suspense, wit, and originality.]

Some recent movies live by understatement, but some die too. Frantic, for example, belies its title. It's a tired thriller from Roman Polanski, who has actually made many fine films (Macbeth,Chinatown,Tess,Knife in the Water). But Frantic is just dead in the water. At first Polanski tries to set a realistic tone—so steady and unmelodramatically monotonous is the early pace. Harrison Ford also manages some presence as a doctor whose wife (Betty Buckley) disappears while they visit Paris. Polanski tracks him doggedly trying to make sense of the mystery.

Predictably, all the usual suspects show up: drug dealers, Arab terrorists, CIA agents, and a very sexy, long-legged girl in punk regalia (Emmanuelle Seigner). Worse, Polanski provides no tightening of suspense, no wit, nary a soupçon of originality to redeem the banality. When the kidnapper finally contacts Ford and arranges ransom, he warns, “Don't do anything stupid, doctor, or your beautiful wife goes bye-bye,” an early candidate for the worst line in 1988.

Witch-hunting cold warriors used to ask, who lost China? In The House on Carroll Street, the question is who lost the screenplay? The film, a political thriller about McCarthyism, has been cut down to ninety-five minutes, a quarter shorter than the standard feature. Worse, what's left is imbalanced. Director Peter Yates is involved with sex and chases at the expense of background and character.

Despite improbabilities, the film's premise is intriguing. Kelly McGillis plays a Life assistant photography editor hounded from her job for belonging to a group called Liberty Watch. Writer Walter Bernstein, who wrote the semi-comic The Front on the same themes, creates a Congressional committee HUAC-type inquisition of McGillis—the kind Bernstein knew too well from being blacklisted. Later, at a new job, reading books to a rich old woman (Jessica Tandy), McGillis comes across evidence of a plot to smuggle ex-Nazis into the United States. Heading the plot is Ray Salwen (Mandy Patinkin), McGillis's interrogator.

The screenplay may be far-fetched, but at least it blends imaginatively two sets of headlines. The casting lends credibility, especially when Patinkin (named to evoke Roy Cohn and made up as Robert de Niro), casts greasily menacing glances at McGillis. She also provides authenticity in her early fifties' clothing (the production design and costuming is superb). With her thick brows and husky physique (which, in interviews, she derides as “Junoesque”), McGillis is aptly cast as an American heroine before the Age of Aerobics.

But Yates doesn't draw much out of her—no background regarding why she joined Liberty Watch, or why she pursues the Nazis after losing so much. Early atmospherics that recall the sleaze of All the President's Men degenerate, especially when an FBI agent (Jeff Daniels) becomes McGillis's knight in shining armor. Just guess what happens one night when he has to shield her in his apartment after hers is firebombed!

From there on, it's cliché chasing cliché, all the way to the top of Grand Central Station. None of it, not even an improbable happy ending (in 1951!) would be so bad, if more flesh were left on the characters. I wish they had remained Junoesque.

A face worth watching belongs to Natasha Richardson, the young daughter of Tony Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. She waltzes through A Month in the Country with her mother's graceful mass, peach-blossom cheeks, and a nose beaked like a delicate bird's. Despite her clichéd role as a parson's wife, she makes one regret this waste of her powerful loveliness.

A Month in the Country stretches understatement to its outer limits. Directed by Pat O'Connor (who made the fine Cal on the IRA), it concerns two Great War vets in Yorkshire during the twenties. One (Colin Firth) comes to clean an interior church wall, behind which lies a medieval mosaic. It is that kind of English chapel Larkin described in Church Going, with “its tense, musty, unignorable silence brewed god knows how long.” The second vet (Kenneth Branagh) digs outside the church grounds for some archeological oddities. They share a love of art, an unearthing of psychic war wounds, and at last a kind of healing.

Firth also gets to exchange plenty of sighs with Richardson, whose husband (de rigueur) is a cold puritanical oaf who ignores her. Surprise! O'Connor must be under the impression that he is onto new ground in exploring English repression, sexual anxiety, inability to speak, and the war's heritage of quiet on so many fronts. His labor is a noble effort, but a snooze.

Further Reading

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Fawell, John. “Cruel Fates: Parallels between Roman Polanski's Chinatown and Sophocles's Oedipus Rex.Armchair Detective 29, no. 2 (spring 1996): 178-85.

Fawell draws parallels between Chinatown and Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex, noting such common themes as false happiness, the pursuit of truth, and how heroes can be destroyed by their own ingenuity.

Kennedy, Harlan. Review of Bitter Moon, by Roman Polanski. Film Comment 30, no. 1 (January-February 1994): 12-15.

Kennedy offers a positive assessment of the effective balance between comedy and surrealism in Bitter Moon, describing the film as a stylishly mordant black comedy and “a rich picture of psychosexual suffocation.”

McCarthy, Todd. “Pianist Hits Right Note for Cannes.” Variety 387, no. 3 (3-9 June 2002): 20, 29.

McCarthy comments that although The Pianist is a solid, respectable work, the film is disappointingly conventional and lacking in emotional power.

O'Toole, Lawrence. “Lost in the City of Light.” Maclean's 101, no. 12 (14 March 1988): 58.

O'Toole argues that Frantic is a “less-than-gripping thriller,” but notes that the film is effective in its sense of bereavement and grim humor.

Scott, A. O. “Surviving the Warsaw Ghetto against Steep Odds.” New York Times (27 December 2002): section E, p. 19.

Scott praises The Pianist as “a tour de force of claustrophobia and surreal desperation, ” observing that the film effectively expresses a deeply paradoxical perspective on the Holocaust and a bitter sense of the absurd.

Additional coverage of Polanski's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 16; and Literature Resource Center.

John Belton (essay date December 1991)

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SOURCE: Belton, John. “Language, Oedipus, and Chinatown.Modern Language Notes 106, no. 5 (December 1991): 933-50.

[In the following essay, Belton examines Chinatown in terms of the intersection of discourses regarding narrative, psychoanalysis, the Oedipus myth, the detective story, and classic Hollywood cinema.]

What the detective story represents, of which social formations and tendencies it is the expression, this we all know. … [It embodies] certain aspects of bourgeois ideology …, serving as one of the most pointed forms of expression of private-property ideology.

(Eisenstein 128)

[Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus] portrays the gradual discovery of the deed of Oedipus, long since accomplished, and brings it slowly to light by skillfully prolonged inquiry, constantly fed by new evidence; it has thus a certain resemblance to a course of psychoanalysis.

(Freud 340)

Laura Mulvey has interpreted the coincidental rise of the detective novel and the development of psychoanalysis (and that of archaeology) in the mid to late nineteenth century in terms of the fascination “Freud's world” had in “things that are concealed from the surface [and which] have roots in the past.” Mulvey in turn links these phenomena to the structure of the Oedipus myth, which takes the form of an investigation of that which is “hidden from consciousness” (186). Again and again, contemporary narrative theory has returned us to the site where these three roads meet—narrative, psychoanalysis, Oedipus1—thereby taking on an archaeological project of its own, a search for the origins of narrative in the Oedipus myth. Yet this project is flawed not only by a certain essentialism, whereby the nature of a phenomenon is explained by its origins, but also by the self-fulfilling logic of its own hermeneutic enterprise. The Oedipus it uncovers is not the ancient story of Sophocles or Greek myth but the more recent, nineteenth century re-writing of it by Freud.2 Though Sophocles' narration does indeed resemble a course of psychoanalysis, uncovering that which is known but repressed, modern narratives of investigation, including Freud's own recounting of the Oedipus myth in the language of a modern-day mystery, do not. That which is repressed in detective fiction, for example, is known only to the author; while Sophocles' audience, which was quite familiar with the Oedipus myth, perceived its working out ironically, readers of contemporary detective fiction remain in the dark, enmeshed in the process of narrative movement toward a final revelation. Even popular mystery novels, like Ross Macdonald's The Three Roads and The Galton Case, and films, like Joseph H. Lewis' So Dark the Night, which consciously model themselves on the Oedipus story, withhold their solutions from their audiences. Unlike earlier narrative forms such as myth, epic poetry, miracle and morality plays, and Renaissance drama, in which the narrator shares information with the audience, modern narrative forms tend to play games of cat and mouse with the audience; they strive “to maintain the enigma in the initial void of its answer,” repeatedly postponing the mystery's final solution (Barthes, S/Z 75).

The scenario which Freud and his followers have constructed out of Oedipus is itself, in part, a by-product of the modern detective story. It is not so much Oedipus which gives birth to a certain kind of narrative—detective fiction—but vice versa: narrative produces Oedipus. The scenario of detection is, in turn, a product of the “commodification of narrative” that takes place in the consumer culture of late capitalism (Jameson, “Reification” 133). Sophocles' drama, the original power of which hinged on the interplay of various levels of knowledge (that of the audience, that of Oedipus) existing in a field of simultaneity, is transformed into a linear trajectory consisting of a succession of interdependent events which culminate in a solution. Within what Fredric Jameson refers to as the “instrumentalized culture” of modern mass society, popular literature, like all other phenomena, becomes an instrument which facilitates its own consumption. “A thing,” he argues, “no longer has any qualitative value in itself, but only insofar as it can be ‘used’: the various forms of activity lose their immanent intrinsic satisfactions as activity and become means to an end” (Jameson, “Reification” 131). Thus the detective novel, unlike Greek tragedy, is “‘read for the ending’—the bulk of the pages becoming sheer devalued means to an end—in this case, the solution—which is itself utterly insignificant” (Jameson, “Reification” 132). In other words, within the contemporary culture of mass consumption, narrative undergoes a process of materialization and reification which abstracts it from the Real, gives it an “unnaturality” (Jameson, “Reification” 132), and reduces it to the status of an instrument, rendering it dramatically different from earlier forms of popular culture, such as Greek tragedy, which were “organic expressions … of distinct social communities” (Jameson, “Reification’ 134).

From a Jamesonian perspective, the historical coincidence of the development of psychoanalysis and of popular detective fiction is no accident; both are products of eighteenth-century rationalism and science. They represent attempts to produce knowledge, symptomatic, in part, of the extent to which the commodification of culture had permeated not only popular fiction but science as well. In other words, detective fiction and psychoanalysis derive from the reification of capitalist culture, from a process of isolation and abstraction which first breaks down then reorganizes the totality of experience into discrete, semi-autonomous, knowable fragments.3 Psychoanalysis becomes implicated in this reification process through its reliance upon language—the “talking cure,” which partly translates human experience into linguistic texts. These are recounted in the form of the dreams, childhood memories, etc., which the analyst and the analysand read in an attempt render rational certain aspects of the irrational. Detective fiction, by contrast, emerges as a much more mechanistic restructuration of the reading process whereby phenomena are reorganized into formulaic categories which reduce the complexity of experience to a series of delays, snares, equivocations, partial answers, suspended answers, and jamming actions (Barthes, S/Z 75). As a form of knowledge production, detective fiction attempts to reduce phenomena—the enigma or mystery—to terms which can be readily understood and consumed. Because psychoanalysis and detection share a structural identity as forms, which have as their object the production of knowledge about the irrational, psychoanalysis has itself been appropriated and commodified as a kind of narrative of detection by writers of detective fiction and by filmmakers who, like Freud in his analysis of Sophocles, find a “figural” resemblance between narration and psychoanalysis. The result of this appropriation and commodification is psychoanalytic detective fiction, which looks back beyond Freud and the advent of psychoanalysis and which takes its shape around a reductive psychoanalytic scenario involving quasi-mechanistic attempts to rationalize the irrational. It is with this scenario that the present paper deals.

Contemporary critics of modern detective fiction see in Oedipus Tyrannus a source for narrative patterns and thematic concerns, structured around a series of basic binary oppositions, which inform the narrations of investigation from Sophocles to the present but which change in their configuration from period to period. Though Sophocles' play does not literally take the form of a “whodunit” in that the audience knows “whodunwhat,” it is nonetheless centered on the revelation of the identity of a murderer, and its detective hero solves the mystery through an adaptation of the question-and-answer techniques of Socratic reasoning (Knox 95). The pure reason of the detective confronts the irrationality of the criminal, the forces of the Superego struggle with those of the Id, and out of these oppositions emerges a tenuous compromise between that which can be known and understood and that which cannot.

Sophocles construes the epistemological dilemma which characterizes the genre's interplay between the rational desire to know and the irrational repression of knowledge as an internal one, situating it within his detective hero who is also the criminal he seeks, whereas Poe and other, modern, practitioners of the genre externalize it, pitting the rational detective figure against an irrational counterpart. Thus, in Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841), Dupin represents the powers of pure reason which triumph over the nightmarish ape, who, though human in shape, remains bestial in behavior. Dupin's historical successor is Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, who relies on the powers of deductive reasoning, acute observation, and scientific method to solve his mysteries. Though American hardboiled fiction tends to de-emphasize the detective's allegorical identification with pure reason, in large part through a demotion of the detective figure in status from upper class, intellectual, invulnerable armchair detective to middle (or even lower) class, intuitive, highly vulnerable as well as flawed gumshoe, it nonetheless preserves the genre's essential binarism.4 Though the irrational universe of the crime and of the criminal milieu often includes the detective within it, the story of the crime and the story of its investigation necessarily remain distinct, as Tzvetan Todorov has pointed out (44-46).

At the heart of the detective genre lies a central paradox that governs works as disparate as those of Sophocles and Chandler: through the acquisition of knowledge the limitations of knowledge are discovered. Like Oedipus, the detective hero is led step by step to an acknowledgement of the essential irrationality that governs human existence.5 And, like Oedipus, the detective struggles under the weight of this knowledge, denying it by means of an arbitrary restitution of the symbols of order—that is, by “seeing justice done.” Oedipus blinds himself and casts himself into exile; the detective turns to the reassuring logic of language—the rationalization of events in a summary speech which “explains away” the mystery. Through language, the disturbing threat of the irrational is “contained” or held in check.6

It is no accident that American detective fiction has become identified with a certain attention to verbal style, especially in the hardboiled work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross Macdonald, who, though widely disparate stylists, share a fascination with the power of what Mencken referred to as the “American form of the English language” (Mencken, vi). Though the proletarian tough guy of American detective fiction may lack the mental powers of his predecessors, he compensates for his failings as a man of intellect with his verbal wit. Both the writer and the detective hero “control” their worlds through linguistic means. Hammett's sparse, highly verbal prose style and paratactic syntax establish a world in which the laconicity and the linear logic of the detective hero testify to his ability to penetrate the subterfuge of his antagonists. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Chandler's hypotactic syntax, colorful metaphors, and descriptive excesses establish a narrative voice which values verbal excellence. The prowess of his private eye is measured by the control of language, especially of witty repartee, which enables him to best his opponents in the verbal arena even though they may dominate him physically. In Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe even dubs one of his flat-footed, slow-witted antagonists “Hemingway,” taking a jab at the minimalist, excessively laconic verbal style that informed a number of Hemingway-influenced American mystery writers and confirming the privileged status of verbal wit over linguistic directness within the genre.7

The first encounter, in the film version of Double Indemnity, between Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson provides the locus classicus for hard-boiled repartee used as a mode of playful combat. Always the glib insurance salesman trying to make a sale, Neff attempts to talk his client's wife into bed with him while she coyly parries his advances (see note for full text).8Double Indemnity's double entendres about “speeding” and “traffic tickets” not only introduce the couple's relationship in terms of crime and punishment, but also establish the basic sexual antagonism which structures the remainder of the film and prepares the ground work for the final, non-verbal exchange in which they shoot each other. The success as detectives of film actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and Dick Powell, who have a talent for handling dialogue, underscores the centrality of verbal prowess to the genre.

The detective hero, in other words, is clearly situated on the side of patriarchy, using its tools (such as language) to render knowable that which cannot be known. From the perspective of patriarchy, the source of mystery in the genre—that which defies the rationalizing power of the detective figure—is woman, who uses language deceitfully, a figure epitomized in femmes fatales such as Miss Wonderly/O'Shaunessey (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon, whose lies block the detective's investigation.

Narrative, psychoanalysis, Oedipus; the detective story; the cinema. To the late nineteenth century developments of detective fiction and psychoanalysis singled out by Mulvey we might add that of photography and the cinema, which share a similar fascination with the reconstitution of the past in the present. Though more obviously concerned with that which is accessible to than with that which is hidden from consciousness, photography and the cinema share certain of the epistemological concerns which also structure detective fiction and psychoanalysis: they produce a consciousness of phenomena. But the consciousness which they produce eluded earlier forms of representation. As Merleau-Ponty has suggested, the cinema is the phenomenological art par excellence: it “make[s] us see the bond between subject and world … [and makes] manifest the union of mind and body, mind and world, and the expression of one in the other” (58). Its basic apparatus constitutes, through the agency of camera lenses and microphones, a consciousness of things; its signifying practices, ranging from editing to mise-en-scene, read events for us, providing a form of knowledge of them. The cinema submits the Real to the epistemological regimes of the Symbolic and the Imaginary. But, unlike the detective novel and psychoanalysis, the knowledge which it produces exceeds language and other Symbolic systems. The cinema puts us, as subjects, in contact with that which remains, in part, resolutely other. If the irrational is broadly understood as that which evades the attempts of the Symbolic to “know” it, then the cinema, as we shall see, has the unique ability to represent the irrational.

Narrative, psychoanalysis, Oedipus; the detective story, the cinema, Chinatown. Questions of knowledge, the cinema, and their relation to language lie at the heart of Chinatown (1974), as they lie at the heart of the detective genre as a whole. Indeed, Chinatown emerges as an exemplary instance of the genre, tacitly acknowledging its roots in Sophocles, in American hard-boiled fiction, and in earlier detective films. The “drought-stricken” Los Angeles of Roman Polanski's film resembles the plague-ridden city of Thebes; both cities are being punished, as it were, for Oedipal crimes. Both narratives play with the themes of sight and vision as metaphors for knowledge and conclude with a ritualistic blinding which testifies to the horror which knowledge brings.9 At the same time, Chinatown's narrative, which, unlike that of Sophocles, is “read for the ending,” recalls both the plot patterns of Macdonald's novels, which carefully trace back the source of the present mystery to some familial disturbances in a previous generation and the character types of film noir; it is peopled by alienated, morally ambivalent, passive anti-heroes inhabiting the fringes of a violent, criminal milieu, femmes fatales, neurotics, psychopaths, and other psycho-sexual misfits.

More specifically, Chinatown alludes directly to The Maltese Falcon (both the novel and the film), beginning with a scene that closely resembles the initial interview between “Miss Wonderly” and Sam Spade in which the detective is “used” by his client. Ida Sessions, the woman who visits Jake Gittes' (Jack Nicholson's) office as “Mrs. Mulwray,” has been hired to set the detective up. And, it appears, she has been hired by none other than the director of The Maltese Falcon, John Huston, who plays the patriarchal villain, Noah Cross, in the film.10 But such allusions serve to call attention more to the underlying differences between the two films than to their similarities.

In Maltese Falcon, Spade, though torn between duty and passion (between reason and the irrational), sends Miss Wonderly/Brigid “over,” solving the mystery of the murder of his partner and seeing justice done. Indeed, his final speech, in which he marshalls the facts of the case and arranges them in a ledger of moral account-keeping, testifies to his investment in the forces of reason exemplified by language. The verbal eloquence of his final description of the falcon as “the stuff that dreams are made of” places Spade solidly in the camp of romantic cynicism where rationalism can unmask human folly. While in the proto-noir Falcon the irrational remains in check, in the post-noir Chinatown the delicate balance between reason and passion has gone awry. The film's innocents—Hollis and Evelyn Mulwray—are killed and their deaths go unavenged. Noah Cross remains unpunished for his crimes of incest, murder, and illegal land speculation. In fact, Cross emerges the victor, securing what he wants. Evelyn's (and Cross's) daughter, Catherine, traumatized by first Hollis's then her mother's death, is taken away by Cross, possibly to beget for him another sister, daughter, grand-daughter, like herself.

The detective hero here, like Oedipus at the start of Sophocles' play, is unable to solve the mystery because its solution lies in the realm of the unnatural, with which he will remain unable to deal. But as Sherlock Holmes tells Watson in “The Sign of Four,” “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (Doyle 111). Though Holmes rationalizes the irrational, using deductive reasoning to arrive at the truth, even Holmes, when faced with the unnatural, in the form of a mystery whose explanation lies in miscegenation and tabu sexuality (see “The Yellow Face”), cannot countenance that truth and fails to solve the mystery.

Chinatown's detective hero looks back to those of Hammett, Cain, Chandler, and Macdonald—“the classless, restless man of American democracy, who spoke the language of the street” (Macdonald 15). Polanski's decidedly more modernist hero, however, lacks the cunning and energy of Sam Spade and the incorruptibility of Marlowe. Gittes is a sort of burnt-out Marlowe; he has lost his moral vision and deadened his feelings. Giving himself over to the good and easy life of a bed-room dick, Gittes catches not criminals but husbands and wives cheating on one another. The verbal style of his hardboiled predecessors is, in Gittes, repressed and displaced, surfacing not in what he says but in what he wears—in his stylish suits, hats, and Florsheim shoes. His self-obsession undermines his oedipal function as psychoanalytic detective; he remains more intent on satisfying his own curiosity than on fulfilling his professional obligations to his clients.

Gittes' activities as a detective involve neither intelligence nor instinct. Like Mike Hammer in Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (which also deals with the poverty of language in the face of unnatural knowledge), he is driven more by greed and sexual curiosity than by reason. And he is just as problematic a figure in terms of the audience's identification with him. Though Nicholson's good looks and star status invite our involvement with the character, Polanski prevents his star from playing as anything but a perverse surrogate for our basic voyeuristic drives. Nicholson's Gittes is clearly no ego-ideal: how can one identify with an actor whose physical appearance—his bandaged nose—testifies to the unattractiveness of his nosiness?

The desire for knowledge which characterizes the detective genre as a whole is translated by Polanski into virtually pornographic interest in sexual misconduct. From the black and white photos of Curly's wife fornicating with another man to the apparently adulterous affair between Hollis and Catherine to the bloody finale in Chinatown, the film repeatedly engages Gittes and the audience in the act of looking—looking not only at evidence but at evidence of a particular sort, evidence of sexuality. In this way, Polanski fuses the generic concerns of the detective story with the primary drives of fetishism and scopophilia which characterize the spectator's voyeuristic relationship with the cinema. Chinatown thus transforms explicit concerns with detection into implicit concerns with the nature of the cinema as well, concerns with have been extensively explored by contemporary psychoanalytic film theory (Metz, 58-78).

The widescreen, Panavision frame repeatedly contains both an object/event/clue and an observer/perceiver of it, such as Curly shuffling through surveillance photos of his adulterous wife in the post-credit sequence or Gittes following Hollis Mulwray from the hearing room to the dry river bed.11 We watch Gittes watching Mulwray in the rear view mirror of his roadster or see the reflection of Mulwray and Catherine in the lens of Gittes' camera as he takes photos of them from a nearby roof top. The film's mise-en-scène regularly juxtaposes both the perceiver and the object perceived in the same frame, self-reflexively inscribing onto the on-screen action the status of the film camera itself in relation to the pro-filmic event. Through techniques such as these, the film calls attention not only to the knowledge which Gittes produces through his investigation but to that produced by the larger narrative as well, critiquing the cinema's apparent objectivity and exposing its inability to produce satisfactory knowledge.

As the film progresses, symbolic systems begin to break down, refusing to produce knowledge and to render the irrational fully rational as they do in the classic, pre-noir detective film. Linguistic systems collapse, as do other forms of “readable” representation. The femme fatale, whose verbal facility (seen in her ability to lie) makes her a worthy opponent for the detective hero, loses her control over language. Evelyn tries to describe for Gittes her relationship to Catherine, the film's mystery woman, with the explanation that “she's my sister … she's my daughter … she's my sister and my daughter.” Not only do these words have to be beaten out of her by the detective, but when she finally tries to explain the significance of what she has just said, language fails her again; she speaks haltingly, unable to give a name to their relationship. To name it would be to bring it within the ordering structures of language, rationalizing its essential otherness. Much as her earlier stutter when she says “father” betrays her awareness of the inadequacy of language to render the truth of her own feminine experience—that her “father” is also her “husband”—her words here reveal her linguistic status as that of “infans,” of a child unable to speak the language of the father. And it is literally her father who has placed her in this position, who has denied her access to the Symbolic and forced her to remain within the shadows of the Imaginary.

The film's detective hero, Jake Gittes, serves to confirm the lack of linguistic authority for the “feminine” voice within patriarchy. His knowledge of Evelyn's secret towards the end of the film renders him suddenly mute. Formerly glib and articulate, now he, like Evelyn, is unable to say what he knows, to give verbal form to his knowledge; and his attempt in the final scene to explain the truth to Lt. Escobar—to use language to control events—fails. Not only must he fall back on quasi-truths concerning Hollis Mulwray's murder and Noah Cross's real estate schemes, which overlay the unspeakable truth of the incestuous father-daughter relationship at the heart of the mystery; no one will listen to him. As soon as he knows the truth, he loses control; he is outwitted by Cross and forced to betray Evelyn and Catherine to him. Jake is reduced to the role of the pawn of patriarchy. Literally handcuffed to one of its representatives, the policeman Loach, Jake is unwittingly complicit in its punishment of female transgression: his forward lunge in an attempt to interfere with Escobar's aim drags Loach into range. Loach, in turn, shoots and kills Evelyn. To paraphrase Jake's comment about a past love: in trying to prevent her from being hurt he only made sure that she did get hurt.

Images also become “obtuse,” resisting attempts to decipher their meaning.12 Photographic or visual evidence grows more and more problematical as the complexity of the plot progresses. We read the photos of curly's wife as concrete evidence of her adultery, but the rendezvous between Hollis and Catherine, which we see being photographed (and actually reflected in the lens of Gittes' camera, repeating the voyeuristic motif of object/observer depicted within the same frame), snares us into a misperception; we read it, as Gittes does, as evidence of sexual transgression. Later, when we learn that Catherine is Hollis' step-daughter, we re-read the scene from a new perspective, suddenly seeing that their relationship was entirely innocent. Intent on catching Mulwray with another woman, Gittes dismisses the revealing photos which show Mulwray and Cross in a heated argument (and which, if read “properly,” could explain much of the mystery) and rushes off to Echo Lake to spy on the harmless outing of Hollis and Catherine. By the end of the film, we have learned not to trust appearances, but that's about all. The film provides us with no logic to use in the decipherment of its images, leaving us only with an inarticulate representation of horror and absurdity—with the gaping bullet-hole in Evelyn's face where her left eye used to be. The film's rhetorical strategy brings us closer and closer to a sense of the essential incomprehensibility of human desire. It gives us experience of rather than knowledge of the irrational. The “logic” of Chinatown suggests that, though irrationality can be adequately represented in certain powerful images, it cannot be understood.

The title of the film comes from screenwriter Robert Towne, who once had a friend who had been a member of the vice squad of the Los Angeles Police Department. Though he never worked in Chinatown, he saw it as a place where “they really run their own culture” (Leaming 94). In other words, he saw it as a site of absolute difference. The title, then, refers to a world that cannot be understood. As a title, it actually conveys what the film is about—otherness or, as William Galperin more precisely puts it, the film's own continuous resistance to representation (1162). Towne's script develops this notion of Chinatown as a source of mystery. Before it is ever seen, Chinatown is discussed by the film's characters. Gittes, when asked by Evelyn what's wrong with Chinatown, replies that “you can't always tell what's going on there,” acknowledging, through his presumed racial and cultural alienation from things Chinese, its status as a site that lies beyond “human” (i.e., white, male) rationality. But he then adds, “like with you,” identifying Evelyn both with Chinatown and with the racial, cultural, and presumably sexual indecipherability with which it is associated. Evelyn's presence in the film and her secret “fill in,” as it were, for the absent place of Chinatown, which remains unseen until the last sequence in the film. As the femme fatale, Evelyn is Polanski's lady from Shanghai who, though Caucasian, is given an Eurasian quality by the make-up artist's orientalization of her face (shaved eyebrows, monochromatic make-up) and by the way in which her face is shot, highlighting her high cheekbones.

Cross provides a similar opportunity in the script for linking Evelyn and Chinatown. In describing his daughter to Gittes, Cross tells him, “You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't.” Gittes immediately replies, “That's what the D.A. used to tell me in Chinatown,” associating the woman, her mystery, and the place. Because Chinatown is, like Rosebud in Citizen Kane, not seen until the last few minutes of the film, its meaning—i.e., what it designates—floats. The object or place to which the word refers remains unseen, enhancing its status as place of mystery and enabling it to function abstractly. It figures, then, as a quality or attribute that attaches itself to certain characters, like Evelyn (whose house servants happen to be oriental as well); or it becomes associated with certain ideas, such as mystery, inscrutability, and, finally, sexuality.

The association of Chinatown with sexuality actually takes place quite early in the film. Towne introduces a crucial reference to Chinese sexuality and otherness in the form of an apparently anecdotal, off-color joke which Jake's barber tells him about “screwing like a Chinaman.”13 When Jake then repeats this joke to his partners at the office, Polanski places him in the foreground while Evelyn, of whose presence he is unaware, stands listening in the background and his partners desperately try to alert him to the fact that there is a lady in the room. The scene is played to set off Jake's vulgarity against her propriety. (We learn that she has come to sue Jake because the photographs he took of her husband and Catherine have been published in the paper, causing a scandal.) But the telling of this dirty joke accompanies her first appearance in the film, attaching connotations of sexual otherness to her through a process of proximate association.

It is Jake himself, however, who is most directly linked by the script to Chinatown through his awe of its otherness, an awe revealed, in part, in the joke and, in part, in his subsequent references to his prior experience as a policeman in Chinatown. Further implicating Jake and his past in the mystery associated with the meaning of the term “Chinatown,” the script suggests parallels between Jake's past and the present mystery in the form of an enigmatic girl in Chinatown whom Jake once tried to help. The place is connected not only with the past but with an undisclosed personal tragedy that once took place there. Jake characterizes “his” Chinatown for Evelyn, telling her that “it bothers everybody who works there, Chinatown, everybody. To me it was just bad luck.” Evelyn asks, “Why was it bad luck?” Gittes explains, “I was trying to keep someone from getting hurt; and I ended up making sure she was hurt.” Though we learn no more than this about Jake's past traumatic experiences in Chinatown, the past is obscurely illuminated through its apparent repetition in the present. In trying to help Evelyn, Jake makes sure that she gets hurt. He dispatches her and her daughter to Chinatown to hide from her father and the police with her servant, Khan. Then he is forced to lead Cross and the police to her, setting in motion various forces that ultimately result in her death.

In Towne's original script, Evelyn Mulwray kills Cross, and Gittes helps her and Catherine escape across the border into Mexico (Leaming 99). Polanski's final sequence reverses Towne's original happy ending. Though shot at point blank range by Evelyn, Cross demonically survives, and it is Evelyn who dies. Chinatown's downbeat conclusion has its roots in the nihilistic resolutions of 1940s films noirs, like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, rather than in those of the conventional detective films of the 1930s, like The Thin Man and its sequels.14 It does not conclude with the triumph of the heroic detective and the forces of reason, epitomized in the detective's last-minute identification and apprehension of the criminal and his final summation, which usually entailed a lengthy account of who-did-what, how it was done, and how the detective solved the mystery. It ends instead with a sense of bewilderment, alienation, and despair; with an assertion that individual action is either unable to effect change or counter-productive. In terms of an oedipal scenario, it culminates with paralysis, with a frozen order: the original authority of the criminal-father is not renegotiated by the detective-son nor does it look forward to the creation of a new order in which the son eventually takes the place of the father. Chinatown closes with barely articulate mutterings which convey only the impoverishment of language in the face of the events that have just taken place.

At the conclusion of the film, Gittes murmurs the phrase “as little as possible.” The words refer back to an earlier conversation between Jake and Evelyn in which he tells her the D.A.'s advice to cops who work in Chinatown: he tells them to “do as little as possible.” After Evelyn's death, Jake's partner pulls him away, saying, “Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.” It is a place where you do as little as possible because nothing can be done. It is a place where Jake's knowledge of the truth (of Cross's crimes) is of no use; Gittes cannot tell the police all that he knows for the facts are too incredible. In pleading with the police, Gittes can only appeal to the cover stories about murder and political corruption, which are merely superficial symptoms of a more profound moral corruption. Chinatown is a place where corruption, the unnatural, and the irrational reign, where reason has no force.

The development of psychoanalysis and of detective fiction reveal a central axis within the deep structure of the late nineteenth century, western European mind—a fascination with scientific exploration and a profound belief in the power of rational investigation. In both forms, the past comes under the careful scrutiny of a quasi-positivist, rationalization-reification, is exhumed, and rendered accessible to knowledge. The psychoanalytic method, like the modus operandi of the detective hero, is a form of rational investigation that not only takes place through the agency of language but also takes language as its object of investigation, regarding the recounted dreams of patients and the testimony of witnesses and suspects as texts which must be deciphered. Once deciphered, these texts are then translated into secondary texts—the psychoanalyst's report, the detective's summation.

Chinatown, however, problematizes the traditional genre of psychoanalytic detective fiction by laying bare the gap between psychoanalysis, which produces knowledge of the irrational—which brings it to the surface—and detection, which rationalizes the irrational—which explains it away. The film brings us into contact with the unnatural, giving us access to it, but calls attention to the failure of its figural representative of human reason and logic, the detective hero, to produce a rational reading of phenomena. Lacking the wit and/or powers of reasoning of the traditional detective, Gittes is unaware of what he is looking for or, as Cross puts it, he may think he knows but he doesn't. Unable to see much beyond the tip of his slashed nose, Gittes can only blindly blunder forward. As a detective “hero,” he functions only inadvertently as a psychoanalyst, unwittingly succeeding in getting the patient (or subject under investigation) to articulate the original trauma or mystery which lies hidden. Yet Gittes does not so much release the repressed, cathartically dispelling it by bringing it out into the open and exposing it, as re-repress it, pressuring it to the surface through violent rather than through verbal means (when he beats the hidden secret out of Evelyn), then quickly suppressing it once again, unable to deal with it himself.

And the detective fails to function as a detective. Gittes gradually loses his prowess as an investigator of representations. Having lost his ability to interpret language and signs, he is reduced to doing and saying “as little as possible.” Neither the psychoanalyst nor the detective can function in a world in which language has lost its traditional ties to meaning, in which there is no longer the relative play of difference but only the absolute otherness of “Chinatown.” For both psychoanalyst and detective. Chinatown's Real “resists symbolization absolutely” (Jameson, Unconscious 35). With Chinatown, the genre of detective fiction loses touch with its origins in nineteenth century rationalism and comes face to face with the Real, which has broken through the cracks of its excessive reification in the post-modern culture of 1970s American.15 In Chinatown, language, Oedipus, and narrative no longer meet at the crossroads, functioning together to produce knowledge of the Real, but rather fall apart in the contemplation of it.


  1. See, for example, de Lauretis 118-157 and Mulvey 178-200.

  2. Marie Balmary comments at length on Freud's highly selective reading of the Oedipus myth (8-28). She does not, however, discuss the radically different narrative process implicit in Freud's version, which views the story purely in terms of Oedipus' investigation rather than in terms of Sophocles' “double” narration, which plays the audience's prior knowledge of the myth off against the main character's investigation of an apparent enigma.

  3. Fredric Jameson (Unconscious 62-63) equates Weber's term “rationalization” with Lukacs' term “reification” to describe the ways in which psychoanalysis and other late capitalist forms broke down and reorganized “traditional or ‘natural’ unities,” transforming phenomena into abstractions (rationalization) which were then given the status of things in the new order (reification).

  4. The Black Mask school of detective fiction, represented by figures such as Hammett and Chandler, felt that earlier mystery novelists had lost contact with life and language. Chandler explains this position in a discussion of Hammett's essential difference from his predecessors. “Hammett,” he wrote “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley … Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes” (Murder 16).

  5. This is best exemplified in Sam Spade's apparently digressive anecdote in The Maltese Falcon about a certain Mr. Flitcraft whose encounter with the irrational (a falling beam) is answered by an abrupt departure from his normal routine and identity. Yet Flitcraft's brush with the irrational results not in any control over it but rather in his increased reliance on reason and order—on his construction of another normal routine and identity in a different city.

  6. The psychiatrist's speech at the end of Psycho lays bare this process in its essential inadequacy to “rationalize” the irrational. It tends to distance spectators from the immediacy of Norman Bates' insanity by giving a name to it.

  7. Marlowe repeatedly plays on “Hemingway's” ignorance of who Ernest Hemingway is, initiating a running gag that culminates a chapter later. Hemingway asks Marlowe, “Who is this Hemingway person at all?” M: “A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.” H: “That must take a hell of a long time. … For a private dick you certainly have a wandering kind of mind” (Farewell 138).

  8. The exchange runs as follows:

    There's a speed limit in this state. Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles per hour.
    How fast was I going officer?
    I'd say around ninety.
    Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket?
    Suppose I let you off with a warning this time?
    Suppose it doesn't take?
    Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles?
    Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder?
    Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder?
    That tears it! [pause] Eight-thirty tomorrow evening then?
    That's what I suggested.
    Will you be here too?
    I guess so. I usually am.
    Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
    I wonder if I know what you mean?
    I wonder if you wonder?
  9. The “blinding” in Chinatown is not self-inflicted by the hero but is displaced onto the heroine, Evelyn Mulwray, who is shot through the eye by a policeman. Themes of sight and vision are integrated into the compositional design of the film (discussed later) in which the voyeuristic detective hero and the object of his investigative gaze appear within the same shot. Finally, a pair of glasses found in the Mulwrays' garden pool becomes a crucial piece of information linking Noah Cross to Hollis Mulwray's murder. The film literally plays with this object, planting verbal cues foreshadowing its eventual discovery when the oriental gardener, cleaning the salt water pool, comments that the salt water is “bad for glass,” pronouncing the “r” in the word “grass” with an “I” sound. Polanski's racial humor is typically in poor taste, yet it serves to further integrate orientalism into the larger thematic tapestry which links sight, vision, and knowledge. For a discussion of the relationship of knowledge and sight in Sophocles' play, see Knox 126-128 and Balmary 16-18.

  10. The name “Noah” testifies to the character's archetypal role as father, though the script perversely plays against the Biblical Noah's denunciation of corruption and his association with flood (rather than with drought).

  11. Polanski films some of this as a reflection in the side mirror of Gittes' car, emphasizing both the voyeuristic nature of the detective's action and the notion of Hollis as an “image” whose meaning the observer desires to interpret or understand.

  12. The term “obtuse” is applied by Roland Barthes (Image 54-55) to a group of still photographs in an attempt to describe the nature of that meaning which cannot be articulated in language yet which the stills can be seen to nonetheless possess.

  13. The joke characterizes Chinese male sexuality as both different from and superior to occidental male sexual prowess. Intercourse is repeatedly interrupted by the Chinaman prior to climax in order to prolong the sex act. At the same time, it incorporates notions of sexual transgression through the white woman's recognition that her white husband is “screwing like a Chinaman,” a recognition which supposedly betrays her intimate familiarity with the sexual habits of Chinese males. These associations reinforce the sense of otherness attached to Evelyn and Chinatown in this scene.

  14. Unlike other noir-influenced films of the 1970s, such as Farewell, My Lovely, or of the 1980s, such as Blade Runner,Chinatown does not evoke the stylistic patterns of film noir (shadowy or expressionistic lighting, claustrophobic sets, disorienting editing patterns, hallucinatory nightmare sequences, etc.), though its lone wolf detective, femme fatale, cynical narration, and pessimistic conclusion do look back to certain thematic concerns of film noir.

  15. Jameson includes Chinatown in his list of contemporary films which illustrate post-modern tendencies in American cinema, but he limits his discussion of the film to its nostalgic value (the 1930s setting and costuming) and to its supposed parody of film noir stylistics “Postmodernism” 117). As noted above, Chinatown eschews film noir stylistics, though it does borrow heavily from noir thematics.

Works Cited

Balmary, Marie. Psychoanalyzing Psychoanalysis: Freud and the Hidden Fault of the Father, trans. Ned Lukacher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1982.

Barthes, Roland. Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

———. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

———. “The Simple Art of Murder: An Essay.” The Simple Art of Murder. New York Ballantine, 1977.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. “The Sign of Four,” Chapter 6, The Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Doubleday, 1930.

Eisenstein, S. M. “Film Form: New Problems” Film Form, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949.

Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans. Joan Riviere. New York: Permabooks, 1953.

Galparin, William. “‘Bad for the Glass’: Representation and Filmic Deconstruction in Chinatown and Chan Is Missing,MLN 102 (December 1987).

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

———. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983.

———. “Reification and Utopia,” Social Text No. 1 (Winter 1979).

Knox, Bernard. Oedipus at Thebes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

de Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Leaming, Barbara. Polanski: His Life and Films. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1982.

Macdonald, Ross. “The Writer as Detective Hero,” in On Crime Writing. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1973.

Mencken, H. L. The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. New York: Knopf, 1937.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Sense and Non-Sense, trans. H. L. and P. A. Dreyfus. Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Metz. Christian. The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Ben Brewster. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1989.

Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Typology of Detective Fiction” in The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

David Gritten (essay date 15 December 1991)

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SOURCE: Gritten, David. “On Location in Exile.” Los Angeles Times (15 December 1991): 7C, 88, 90-1.

[In the following essay, Gritten comments on the explicit sexual content in Bitter Moon and discusses the film with Polanski and his actors.]

Roman Polanski is on the run. Here he is at the Studios Billancourt on the banks of the Seine, an impish figure in a floppy beige sweater, jeans and sneakers, dashing from his office up flights of stairs to lunch in the studio restaurant overlooking the river. Here he hurriedly tears at an artichoke before literally sprinting down to the set of his latest movie, Bitter Moon. He immediately takes charge, commanding dozens of extras to move this way, then that, lunging and gesticulating all the while. It's exhausting just watching him.

Polanski is 58, though he has the energy of a man 20 years younger. It may be that he feels the need to stay a step ahead of those elements who would like to see him brought to heel. When Bitter Moon is released, those elements will be out in force. A reading of its script confirms that a new chapter of controversy is about to be added to Polanski's already stormy life story. The script is sexually explicit to a degree rarely found in mainstream films these days. Observers around the set here are predicting that it will be the most shocking major film since Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris became such a scandalous success in 1973.

“Yes, it will cause controversy,” Polanski agrees. “Especially in the United States. But is that any reason for not making a film in which I believe a lot?” He shrugs.

Bitter Moon, adapted from the popular French novel Lunes de Fiel by Pascal Bruckner, is about the relationship of a couple who meet in Paris. Oscar is an expatriate American of about 40, a womanizing would-be writer living on a private income as he tries to emulate the lifestyle of Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. Mimi is a waifishly beautiful Frenchwoman in her 20s who becomes his obsession. American actor Peter Coyote (E.T.,Jagged Edge and A Man in Love by French director Diane Kurys) plays Oscar. Polanski's own wife, the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who starred in Polanski's last movie, Frantic, is Mimi.

The couple meet and fall helplessly in love until their relationship begins to demand different means of gratification. This begins almost innocently, with a highly original application for liquid yogurt, but soon intensifies, with bondage and sadomasochism coming into play. One scene shows a Parisian prostitute performing a sexual act on Oscar while her white poodle licks his toes.

Beyond sexual gratification, Oscar starts to get his kicks with forms of emotional abuse toward his partner before she starts to wreak her revenge. Oscar may be a deeply unpleasant character, but Coyote is playing him with a raffish charm that might make it difficult for audiences to identify the point where his behavior crosses from self-indulgent to unacceptable.

“It's a serious film,” Polanski notes. “If it's explicit sometimes, it's for valid reasons. It's not for exploiting the public, not for commercial reasons, that it talks about sex or shows nudity. It's the story of a couple, and it's inevitable if you go to extremes that you may shock certain people. But you make a choice—what kind of audience are you aiming at?”

If Bitter Moon was just one film distinguished by its explicit treatment of sexuality, one could dismiss it as atypical. But other films at various stages of development suggest that several major film makers—none of them American—are, like Polanski, ready to test the limits of the currently restrictive attitude toward the portrayal of sexuality in film.

Consider the following:

Canadian director David Cronenberg has completed his film adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, and 20th Century Fox is expected to release the movie in Los Angeles on Dec. 27. It is produced by Jeremy Thomas, who also produced The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky both directed by Bertolucci.

The Burroughs novel details aberrational sex practices in a junkie subculture. Thomas declined to be interviewed for this article, but Ginger Corbett, his London-based publicist, said she had read the script and agreed that certain scenes were “near the knuckle.”

Post-production work is now being completed on The Lover, based on the autobiographical book by novelist Marguerite Duras. It is the story of an outrageous affair set in French Indochina (now Vietnam) between the 15-year-old daughter of French colonialists and a 30-year-old Chinese man. The Lover is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose,Quest for Fire,The Bear).

Timothy Burrill, co-producer of the film and of Polanski's Bitter Moon, says of The Lover: “It contains some of the most beautiful, dramatic and violent sex scenes I have ever seen on film.”

Basic Instinct, the hugely controversial thriller directed by Dutch-born Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall) and starring Michael Douglas, is also part of this apparent trend. Producer Irwin Winkler and writer Joe Eszterhas at one time quit the film, complaining that Verhoeven wanted to make the film more sexually explicit than originally intended. Winkler told The Times that he left Basic Instinct because Verhoeven wanted to show body parts “in various stages of excitement.” (Eszterhas later returned to the movie when he and Verhoeven agreed on changes.)

The film made headlines while it was shooting in San Francisco, because of protests by members of the gay community, who were enraged by the script's portrayal of gays and lesbians. This led to another disagreement between Verhoeven and Eszterhas; the March issue of a San Francisco magazine quoted Eszterhas as saying that Verhoeven “seemed solely interested in emphasizing and sensationalizing the erotic aspects of my script.” The film is scheduled for release in April.

It seems that Bitter Moon,Naked Lunch,The Lover and Basic Instinct are each likely candidates for an NC-17 rating, the adults-only category of films introduced last year by the Motion Picture Assn. of America. The NC-17 rating replaced the X rating, which had become synonymous in the public mind with pornography.

But the NC-17 rating has itself become a source of contention in Hollywood. Philip Kaufman's Henry & June, an account of writer Henry Miller's sexual relationships, remains the only major studio movie to be released under an NC-17 rating. And filmmakers have complained that studios routinely ask them to cut explicit passages from their films so that they may be released with an R rating, and may therefore be seen by a wider audience. Even Ken Russell's recent film Whore, which starred Theresa Russell as a working prostitute who describes graphically the sexual practices her clients demand, was cut at the behest of its American distributors and received an R rating.

So are these impending films, controversial and explicit, the beginning of a new, more permissive era in filmmaking? Timothy Burrill dismisses any talk of a new trend: “As far as the two films that I am associated with are concerned, Jean-Jacques simply wanted to make a love story next, and Roman might have been making one of two very different films instead of Bitter Moon, but they both fell through.”

But Polanski himself is not so sure. “I think that Hollywood went through many periods like [the last decade],” he says. “It's another swing of the pendulum. You go from one extreme to the other. I already knew about The Lover and Basic Instinct, and that three films like this are being made now … there must be something to it.

“There is a reason for everything, for every occurrence. It may be that more ambitious filmmakers are trying to reach in a different direction from the current trend. It's not my job to analyze this, but I satisfy myself with the assumption that there is a reason.”

The mood on the Bitter Moon set is one of gaiety on this particular day; a New Year's Eve party is being staged on a cruise ship, from which Oscar relates his and Mimi's story in flashback to a fascinated, seemingly strait-laced English couple (played by Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott-Thomas).

French extras, some in formal wear, others in fancy dress, throw streamers, burst balloons, roar with laughter, act tipsy and dance. To duplicate the rocking motion of the cruise ship, the set has been constructed on wooden rollers; when on a command the set is pushed and pulled, the floor tips and heaves quite realistically. Coyote wears a red fez and a cream suit; his character Oscar, through a twist in the plot, is confined to a wheelchair. But this is one of the film's happiest scenes; for the intense exchanges between Coyote and Seigner, Polanski declared the set closed to all visitors.

Polanski, laughing and exuberant, darts about, controlling the mood on set effortlessly. He looks carefree today, though it is hard not to reflect on the problems and tragedies that have beset his life. He grew up in the Polish ghetto of Krakow and narrowly escaped the Nazi roundup of Jews in that city. His mother died in Auschwitz, and young Roman had a tough childhood in the squalor and brutality of postwar Poland.

His earlier work—Knife in the Water,Cul-de-Sac, and Repulsion—reflects a talent afflicted by psychological torment. After Polanski settled in America, more horrors followed: His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and her friends were brutally slain by the followers of Charles Manson.

Polanski is currently living in Paris, a fugitive from the United States after a 1977 charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old Woodland Hills girl. He fled to London rather than face sentencing.

Though there have been suggestions that his legal status might be reviewed to allow his return to the United States, Polanski confirms that the situation is “no change, status quo.” “I'm very happy to live in Europe,” he adds. “I have a desire to end my problems with American justice, but that's for my peace of mind rather than any design of going to live in America.”

Because of the sexually explicit nature of Bitter Moon and the nature of the charge against him, might not the film's release give his enemies ammunition?

“Well, so be it,” Polanski says with a long sigh. “This is a risk I have to take. I can't be making pictures respecting the feelings of people toward me or against me as a person. I have to be the artist first.”

Peter Coyote, for one, is fully aware of the step Polanski is taking with Bitter Moon. “To think that Roman would like to clear up his legal business in the United States, and go back and visit—and this [film] is the billet-doux that he sends,” the actor says, shaking his head with wonder. “My guess is there's every possibility that the forces representing God, Christ and decency will seize on this as exactly what's wrong with the secular, amoral world.”

Coyote also understands that there is an element of risk to his own career in taking the part of Oscar.

“When I first saw the script,” he recalls, “I called my agent, and said, ‘Hey, are there too many clients in the agency or something? Is this a way of getting rid of me?’ I don't ever have to worry I'll be playing any more Disney dads after this movie. So I was very frightened, and I can say unequivocally that if it was any other director, I'd never have considered it. Not for an instant.

“But no one produces a great picture by accident, and Roman has made Cul-de-Sac and Knife in the Water and Rosemary's Baby, and Chinatown, so this is unarguably one of the world's greatest directors.

“It was a great moral test for me. I have kids to support, bills to pay. I'm at an age and a place in my career where I feel I have something left of a window of opportunity—that my image has not yet gelled inexorably in the Hollywood community. There's some slim chance that one day I may win great roles. I'm proud to say that even considering that this [film] might imperil that, I agreed to do it. It's a matter of self-esteem.”

Coyote agrees that many actors would take a look at the script and firmly rule out the chance to play Oscar, “Which is probably why I have the role,” he says. “The dynamics of the film business are such that one would seek to find the most bankable actor one could. Though I'm quite well known and respected in Europe, I'm not a bankable actor in America by any stretch of the imagination. I know other people's footprints preceded me into the chamber of Polanski. I suspect I was the only actor who didn't demand changes and chose instead to trust Polanski's innate sense of talent.”

Polanski partially confirms Coyote's theory: “Peter was one of the first names we looked at. When we started to organize the financing of this picture, whenever American distributors were going to get involved, they wanted some name. So we went through masses of names, an episode I would rather forget. Eventually it came down to Peter. I'm glad that it did, because I can hardly imagine anyone better for this part than him.”

But had some actors backed off from playing Oscar? “It was not only actors turning this down but technicians,” Polanski admits with a rueful grin. “And not only Americans but British technicians too—a cameraman and an editor. It's surprising, isn't it? To me that was tremendously surprising.”

Polanski concedes that the more intense scenes in Bitter Moon had taken their toll on his young wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. “She does it all for real; she's what you'd call a Method actress. When she cries, she cries for real. She builds up her emotions to the state required by the scene, and this influences her life outside the studio. It's been difficult for her, and since we're husband and wife, for me as well. She's fighting with her partner on set all day, and when she comes home she's more or less in the same state. It's impossible to switch it off like a faucet.”

As it is, Polanski and his film could not have found a more eloquent defender than Coyote. “Roman's the most ethical director I've ever worked for,” he says. “He absolutely refuses to violate the integrity of his vision, no matter what the cost—time, energy, struggle or commitment. This is a man who's driven to be excellent.”

Polanski could also do worse than to send Coyote as an advance man to shield Bitter Moon from the inevitable flak. “I'd love the opportunity to talk about pornography and obscenity, because I have my own very clear, stringent definitions,” he says, warming palpably to his subject.

“Gimme the Barbara Walters show, let's talk. Let's talk about the obscenity of people stepping over other people in cardboard boxes on their way to the opera. Let's talk about selling cocaine to finance anti-Communist activities in Latin American countries, which the voters and Congress have voted down. I'm ready to talk about that in a hot minute. And to pose all that against one movie that has some dirty words in it and deals with one questionable man's ideas on sexuality. Let's talk! I'm formidable at this.”

Coyote thinks it's no accident that a film like Bitter Moon is being made outside Hollywood. “None of those people [will] make a $4 million movie and be happy it made $11 million or $12 million,” he says. “It's low status to them, it's small time. Because basically they're not artists. An artist has to do what he does. Basically if a producer in Hollywood couldn't get laid and couldn't make a lot of money making movies, he'd sell artichokes. He's not compelled to do what he does.”

The verdicts on Bitter Moon must wait until the film is released next year. Timothy Burrill worries that American audiences, which readily accept violence in movies, find it harder to be sanguine about candid treatments of sex. “I can understand films about physical relationships,” he says. “I don't get distressed at seeing people make love. I find it difficult to relate to horror films—Friday the 13th Part 67, where there's a lot of violence and blood.”

Coyote notes that Americans “will not blink at showing the most intricate acts of murder and dismemberment, but they will react in outrage at frank discussions of sexuality. I can't tell whether it's anything more than a cultural peculiarity.”

He fears that Bitter Moon might be swept aside by faint praise. “The way America deals with something they can't handle is to dismiss it,” he says. “They'll say it's boring. If they really want to do it in, you'll hear, ‘It's not Polanski's best work.’”

Can Bitter Moon reverse the trend of prudishness toward sexuality that has characterized films in the last decade? “Ah,” Polanski says, “you're asking the $100 question. I don't consider it. All I do when I make movies is to hope audiences will share my liking for certain thoughts and ideas and the way I'm expressing them. One should never ask oneself, ‘Will this be received the right way, will it please, will it make money?’ Nothing good can come out of it. It's like a painter who asks whether each brush stroke will please certain groups of people. It's absurd.”

He sighs deeply. “No writer, artist or philosopher ever had an easy life in expressing their ideas. Or even in choosing a subject.”

Julian Graffy (review date October 1992)

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SOURCE: Graffy, Julian. Review of Bitter Moon, by Roman Polanski. Sight and Sound 2, no. 6 (October 1992): 53-4.

[In the following review, Graffy offers a negative assessment of Bitter Moon, calling the film a “lazy male fantasy” that is “shot through with a nasty, prurient misogyny.”]

[In Bitter Moon,] Nigel Dobson, a British Eurobond dealer, and Fiona, his wife of seven years, are sailing to Istanbul en route for India. They encounter a beautiful French woman, Mimi, and that night Nigel meets her again, as she dances alone in the ship's bar; later, her crippled American husband, Oscar, takes Nigel to his cabin and begins to tell him their story. … After living in Paris for several years, trying to be a writer, he becomes obsessed by a young woman with whom he has a chance encounter on a bus. Tracking her down, he finds her working as a waitress (though her ambition is to be a dancer); they begin a rapturous love affair, and soon Oscar is “enslaved body and soul.” …

Next day, Oscar joins Hugh and Fiona at lunch and borrows Nigel to continue his narrative. … Over time, his relationship with Mimi had dulled, needing to be spiced up with doses of perversity and sado-masochism, and was further distorted by jealousy. … Later that day, Mimi insists on talking to Nigel, who is tricked into betraying his growing attraction to her. Oscar tells of a dinner with a New York literary editor, Beverly, being sabotaged by the jealous Mimi. During a violent argument he throws her to the floor and concusses her. Chastened, he takes her back to the funfair of their early love, but then throws her out. After a night drinking in a bar, he finds her lying outside his flat. He takes her back but treats her with calculated callousness; when she tells him that she is pregnant, he talks her into an abortion, and then tricks her into flying off alone to Martinique. …

Nigel's increasingly long absences and evident fascination with the story of Oscar and Mimi provoke Fiona into bitter recriminations about their marriage and her childlessness. Oscar continues his story. … Two years pass and Mimi becomes a distant memory. He stops pretending to be a writer, concentrating on his hedonistic night life. Then, early one morning, he is knocked down by a car and breaks his leg. The only person to visit him in hospital is—Mimi. She pushes him out of bed, causing injuries that paralyse him from the waist down. After this, she becomes his taunting, sadistic nurse. For his birthday, she gives him a gun. Then she marries him; they are “survivors of a catastrophe.” …

New Year is celebrated with a party on board ship. Nigel dances with Mimi and confesses he has fallen in love with her. She replies, “I'm just a fantasy, it's just a game”. Later Mimi dances alone; Fiona joins her and they kiss. A violent storm breaks up the party and Nigel retires alone to the deck. Then, looking for Fiona, he returns to Mimi's cabin, where Oscar is watching the “two nymphs” lying together in bed. Nigel tries to strangle Oscar; Oscar shoots Mimi and then himself.

In Roman Polanski's first feature, Knife in the Water, a middle-aged couple pick up a young hitch-hiker and take him on their sailing trip, during which the husband involves him in an increasingly sinister power game. In Ian McEwan's novella, The Comfort of Strangers, filmed by Paul Schrader, a young English couple in Venice are drawn into the corrupt web of an Italian and his crippled Canadian wife. In Bitter Moon, Polanski seems to blend these two prototypes (the actual source is a novel by Pascal Bruckner), but somehow manages to jettison both the meticulous detail and emotional precision of Knife in the Water and the cool rigour and taut prose of McEwan.

The clash between its two couples, between the prim propriety of the English and the reckless blatancy of the Parisians, is central to the meaning of Bitter Moon. But the film fundamentally miscalculates which couple's story might be the more interesting, and grossly overestimates the audience's fascination with Oscar and Mimi's danse macabre. After a promising start, Oscar's story soon lapses into a succession of flaccid clichés, from Notre Dame by night to rides at the funfair, to bars and girls and whisky and the lower depths. The relentless vapidity of his first-person narration (“the rapture of that first awakening”, “our mad love was a sacrament”) makes it amply clear why Oscar has failed to emulate his mentors Hemingway, Miller and Scott Fitzgerald, and Beverly the literary editor is surely right that Paris, this Paris, is “vieux jeu”.

The script of Bitter Moon is a lazy male fantasy in which a beautiful, compliant young woman (Emmanuelle Seigner, again cast by Polanski, as she was in Frantic, as a wild girl getting involved with an American in Paris) remains besotted with a middle-aged man no matter how badly he treats her. It is shot through with a nasty, prurient misogyny, which first subjects her to any number of cruel humiliations and then presents her intricate revenge as merely a variation of emotional thralldom, requiring us to believe that Mimi will trade working as a dancer in Martinique for a place between the handles of Oscar's wheelchair. In one of the film's few genuinely powerful scenes, Mimi, her sculpted black dress and lustrous hair recalling another icon of decadence, Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, is joined on the dance floor by Fiona in sardonically complicitous rebellion against masculine inadequacy. But her escape is short-lived, and the script's final misogynistic trump is for Oscar to choose the timing of her death.

Potentially much more interesting is the film's Forsterian strain, the English journey abroad in search of emotional awakening. Both Oscar and Mimi suggest on occasion (though these hints of parodic intent seem a lamely self-defensive device on the writers' part) that their story may not be true, that it may be a fantasy designed to trigger a response in Nigel and Fiona. Hugh Grant gives a finely nuanced performance as dull, decent Nigel, repeatedly at a loss for words, a hilariously clumsy dancer, powerless in the face of emotional aggression, and Kristin Scott-Thomas (who, like Grant, has played this kind of part before) brings a haunting sadness to brittle, frustrated Fiona.

Their parts are underwritten, however, and their emotional turmoil disdained, though it is through their encounters with the dignified widower Mr Singh (Victor Bannerjee) and his grave and quiet daughter that the film finds its fragile moments of insight. Asked by Mr Singh why they are going to Bombay, Nigel suggests that “India's got so much to teach the West. Inner serenity, that kind of stuff …”. Mr Singh replies that India is the noisiest place on earth. At the film's close, the couple stand huddled together on deck, their Passage to India no longer necessary.

Anne Billson (review date 2 October 1992)

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SOURCE: Billson, Anne. “Cry until You Laugh.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 222 (2 October 1992): 36.

[In the following review, Billson asserts that Bitter Moon, while undoubtedly a male fantasy, accurately expresses the power-dynamics of real relationships in the modern world.]

This has not been a good year for relationships. The newspapers have been full of the celebrity schisms of Chas and Di, Andy and Fergie, Woody and Mia. And most of us know of at least two or three other, non-celebrity couples who have auto-combusted after years of close-knit comfort.

I blame it on Hollywood—not on those immoral lifestyles they supposedly lead, but on the diet of romantic movies on which most of us have been weaned. Without realising it, we have assimilated an unrealistic and totally impractical blueprint for life, which involves two people getting married and living happily ever after.

It's an idealised formula that might once have been a convenient way of keeping the plebs parcelled up into smooth-running units, but it's hopelessly out of synch with the way people live now. It would be so much easier, as Gore Vidal suggested in NSS a few weeks ago, if people stuck to partners of the same gender. Or if they were at least to set out with an awareness that the twin peaks of sex and romance are not in themselves enough to sustain a lifetime of mutual devotion.

Anyway, I have always found films that scupper the notion of true romance far more affecting than the starry-eyed variety. Vertigo, for example, is one of the great romantic films of all time, because it deals in delusion—the very stuff from which romance is fabricated.

So I reckon Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon is the ideal movie for dating couples. Take your partner! See what he or she thinks! Bicker about it afterwards! And there will be plenty to bicker about.

Bitter Moon, like the same director's Knife in the Water, is set at sea, but in 30 years Polanski has replaced the crisp economy of his debut with a sort of cynicism so baroque that it's no longer possible to tell where his funnybone stops and starts.

Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott-Thomas play characters who are celebrating their seventh wedding anniversary—a traditionally itchy point in any long-running relationship. These two behave like a couple from some frightfully British E. M. Forster adaptation who have strayed into an overripe continental sex farce starring Peter Coyote as a ranting paraplegic, and Emmanuelle Seigner (aka Mrs Polanski) as his blowsy wife.

Like The Comfort of Strangers, this is the tale of innocence lured down the dark alley-way of corruption, but—oddly, and against the grain of the story—it also seems to be Polanski's most optimistic film in years, in that innocence goes hand in hand with delusion, and corruption may be able to teach us a thing or two.

Grant, looking like Prince Andrew and playing up his “I say, steady on” Englishness for all it's worth, is intrigued by Seigner, and duly has his ears bent by the wheelchair-bound Coyote, a failed American writer in Paris who unleashes a torrent of intimate but embarrassingly clichéd reminiscence about his marriage. “Nothing ever surpassed the rapture of that first awakening,” he blathers.

In a series of flashbacks, we follow the course of their true lurve from initial infatuation and the winning-of-the-fluffy-toy-at-the-funfair, via erotic shimmying and milk-dribbling, dressing up in PVC macs and pig masks, to cruelty, degradation and despair—an entire relationship stripped down to its extremes.

Discerning film-goers will think cool Scott-Thomas is a hundred times sexier than Seigner. The point is, though, that Seigner is precisely the sort of pouting sexpuss that movie directors and third-rate writers would like to have as their willing sex slave.

Bitter Moon is male fantasy, but not entirely bogus in its claim that women collude in the fashioning of their own bonds. If you ever doubted it, here's Mrs Polanski herself acting it out before our very eyes.

This may well be the most controversial movie of the year, though not for its sado-masochistic sex, nor even for its cynicism. Bitter Moon is controversial because no one can agree as to whether or not it was intended as a comedy. The nervous tittering at the preview I attended indicated the audience had decided that the laughs were unintentional.

But the words “Polanski” and “humour” have never sat cosily together, particularly when taking what we know of his private life into account. I have yet to meet anyone who finds the so-called comedy Fearless Vampire Killers hilarious, though parts of it have given me the heebie-jeebies more effectively than anything in, say, Repulsion.

Conversely, there are moments in Rosemary's Baby that are far more rib-tickling than Pirates, which is not the rollicking laff-riot its director fancied it to be, but a deeply disturbing meditation on fate and big toe abuse.

We are talking here about a director whose unfunny films are often funnier than his funny ones. Try deciding to which of these categories Bitter Moon belongs, and you've got problems. But why should it matter? We're so used to films laying it on the line in black and white that it's refreshing to be confronted by a few grey areas, even if the ambiguities are as much in the tone as in the material. So bicker on.

Nicholas Lezard (review date 9 October 1992)

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SOURCE: Lezard, Nicholas. “Blue Cruise.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4671 (9 October 1992): 19.

[In the following review, Lezard faults the heavy-handed thematic content and poor dialogue in Bitter Moon.]

[In Bitter Moon,] Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) are a childless couple of seven itchy years, on a cruise to rejuvenate their marriage. Nigel meets Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) in the ship's bar, vamped up and dancing to Peggy Lee singing “Fever”; thus we know, as subtly as if she were wearing a badge saying so, that she is no sexual slouch. She comes over to Nigel and says, “Okay, Nigel, amuse me. Say something funny.” To which Nigel, a twerp of the old school, can only say, “Blimey.”

On deck, Nigel meets Oscar (Peter Coyote), a wheelchair-bound American who, in a series of flashbacks, tells him his life story. Nigel wants Mimi (and you can tell, just by placing those names next to each other, that he hasn't a hope); he can have her, says Oscar, if he hears the whole story.

Oscar is a rich layabout who fancies himself as a new Henry Miller, screwing around in Paris and writing rotten novels. He becomes obsessed with a young girl—Mimi—he sees on the number 96 bus. When he finds her again, there follows an early romance sequence of horrific triteness, all funfairs and hopscotch and twee restaurant scenes. Roman Polanski used to be very good at making you cover your eyes even when there was nothing obviously horrible on the screen, but you wonder if this is what he wanted us to do here. They have Great Nookie: she spreads her breakfast yoghurt over her breasts, and he licks it off. All, we imagine, in great contrast to stuffy old Nigel and Fiona.

When things begin to pall for Oscar and Mimi, she pees on a television set (we don't see this), and he crawls over to catch the last drops. Their passion reawakens. “I felt a megavolt of electricity, a blinding flash in the back of my eyeballs”, says Oscar, which first makes you think she's short-circuited the TV and electrocuted him, but no, it's only an orgasm. And that, apart from a shopping spree in a sex shop, and a scene where a pit of sexual ennui opens up in front of them, is that. “I should jolly well think so”, says Nigel.

Up to this point, the film is a mess, bad dialogue trying to excuse itself by pretending its characters can't speak in any other way. When Mimi, cruelly dumped and arm-twisted into an abortion by Oscar, exacts revenge and cripples him, things pick up. Polanski starts squeezing horror from little things, like a cold bath; there is a cynical inventiveness about the way Mimi torments Oscar, bringing round a physically gifted but mentally crippled dancer whom she screws almost in front of him. In a moment of wild implausibility, quickly glossed over, Mimi and Oscar marry each other. Is that the end of the story? No, not over yet. We have yet to have the ship's New Year dance and Fiona's sexual awakening.

Sometimes, the film looks deliberately second-hand, if not second-rate: about half the script has come from somewhere else, the plot is The Comfort of Strangers on a boat, and even the shots of Paris look like they've been dragged from some 1950s travelogue. Significant lines can be heard coming round the corner, and then scream in your ear until you get the message: “Where are you going?” “Further. [Pause] Much further.” Or, as Nigel tries to get Fiona to take a soporific seasickness pill: “You like it when I take pills, don't you?” Then she says “The Pill”, carefully, so you can hear the initial capitals. In case you didn't, she then talks about not having children.

These lazy quirks perhaps make the film look sillier than it actually is. Its silliness rings true, partly because it's easy to make fun of sexual boredom, but mainly thanks to the performances: Hugh Grant is a splendid public-school oaf, who responds to trauma by tugging his ear; Scott Thomas, before her final fling, pushes herself into dowdiness, a slow suicide by boredom. Together, they're the couple you'd least like to meet in a confined space (a confined space, incidentally, that Polanski might have made more use of). Peter Coyote is great: hip in early middle-age, like an ageing Beatle, in the flashback scenes; and a wasted yellow-toothed gargoyle on the ship, like an ageing Rolling Stone. In the film's final scenes he shifts up a gear, whether giving Hugh a grotesque, leering thumbs-up as he dances with Mimi, or roaring out “Nearer, my God, to thee”, as the ship pitches in a storm. But black comedy alone can't save a film with only two messages: 1. Have children. 2. What the English need most of all is a damn good poke.

David Thompson (review date March 1993)

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SOURCE: Thompson, David. Review of Knife in the Water, by Roman Polanski. Sight and Sound 3, no. 3 (March 1993): 54.

[In the following review, Thompson praises the re-release of Polanski's early film Knife in the Water, arguing that the work is still compelling thirty years after its initial release.]

[In Knife in the Water,] Andrzej, a prosperous sports reporter, and his young wife Christine are driving to the lakes for a weekend on their yacht when they are stopped by a hitch-hiking student who jumps in front of their car so suddenly that Andrzej has difficulty in stopping in time. Furious with the boy, but half admiring his nerve, Andrzej agrees to give him a lift, and when they reach the yacht he impulsively asks the boy to join them. Andrzej is an expert yachtsman. He prides himself on his fitness and physical prowess as well as on the many gadgets which symbolise his success. Throughout the weekend he baits the youth, who has never sailed before, mocking his clumsiness. Moreover, he can see that the boy finds his wife attractive, which adds piquancy to the game.

The boy affects indifference, but is soon roused to envy and rage, while Christine watches both of them with silent disdain. Eventually they come to blows over the boy's only cherished possession, a flick knife. He is knocked into the water and vanishes. As he has claimed earlier that he cannot swim, Christine and Andrzej are alarmed and, after a fruitless search, Andrzej angrily swims ashore. When he has gone, the boy emerges from hiding, soaked and freezing. Christine, angry but relieved, comforts him and, in a moment of abandon, they make love. The boy goes on his way, and Christine catches up with Andrzej before he has time to report to the police. She tells him what happened on the yacht, leaving him divided between feelings of guilt and anger at his wife's infidelity.

Looking at Knife in the Water 30 years on, it remains striking for the way Polanski's signature overrides the marks of its Polish origins. Some specific references survive; the married couple are shamelessly nouveau riche, and Christine taunts the young man with a litany of impoverished student life that recognisably belongs to the Communist era. At the time, Polanski was put under considerable pressure to make the film more conformist. The ambiguous ending was criticised for showing the characters' lack of resolution and had to be trimmed, while the couple's car was changed from a Mercedes to a Peugeot lest a Polish audience should feel that Western affluence was too prevalent.

What makes the film a superbly confident and stylish debut is Polanski's assured handling of the medium. His camera technique involves fluid hand-held over-the-shoulder shots, often close in on the sides of faces, creating a point of view with the added frisson of physical discomfort. His compositions, some of which look similar to Welles' in The Lady from Shanghai, make the most of the limitations of the boat-and-water setting and mock any symbolism in the young man's role, framing him as Christ with outspread arms and a halo of coiled rope, or making him appear to walk on water. The soundtrack, composed after filming, antagonises the ear rather than soothes it—as with the buzzing fly in the confined cabin, or the dangerous thuds of the knife on wood in the game of splayed fingers.

The concise narrative and careful planting of telling plot details also ensure the film's impact as spectacle rather than sociological document. Supposedly written in three days by Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski, the script's exposition of sexual rivalry evidently benefited from the artistic competitiveness of the two directors. Indeed, each saw himself playing the young man, with the result that the actor dyed his hair blond (à la Skolimowski) and his voice was dubbed by Polanski himself. Throughout Polanski's films, the married couple has often been split apart, whether by sado-masochistic impulses (Cul-de-Sac), diabolic intervention (Rosemary's Baby) or vaulting ambition (Macbeth). In Bitter Moon, marital discord against a watery background was once again the focus of the narrative, with a hint that parenthood might provide salvation. In Knife in the Water, the couple seem to be bound together by material necessity (he is an older man, an egotistical sports writer, while she is a young woman apparently drawn to his bourgeois lifestyle) with no suggestion that they might produce a family. The situation is the familiar Polanski set-up in which one character attempts to dominate another as a rootless outsider upsets the uneasy status quo. Where this film scores over the melodramatic sprawl of Bitter Moon is in its masterly use of a single location and the claustrophobia of the tiny yacht. Confined settings have always suited Polanski's theatrical conception of character best, and this is nowhere more evident than in this still compelling film.

Randal Robinson (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Robinson, Randal. “Reversals in Polanski's Macbeth.Literature/Film Quarterly 22, no. 2 (1994): 105-08.

[In the following essay, Robinson notes how Polanski's adaptation of Macbeth highlights several central themes in Shakespeare's text, noting Polanski's effective use of cinematic techniques to emphasize the play's thematic oppositions.]

Pigs and chickens eat in the courtyard; later, servants carry four of the chickens and one of the pigs away—the chickens upside down—to become food in a noble feast. Music plays, and Lady Macbeth, dressed in blue, moves through her courtyard in the free morning light, reading her husband's letter; later, that music returns, and Lady Macbeth stands behind an imprisoning grating, an exhausted woman in impure white, reading again her husband's letter. The Thane of Cawdor swiftly ascends the tower stairs: having gone up, he leaps to his death. Duncan rides wearily to Macbeth's castle as a king on horseback: he returns as one of the carted dead, a corpse with a crown, his horse being led behind him. Dancing in virile celebration of their monarch's victory, two grooms brave swords planted in the banquet hall floor; they wake to find their daggers smeared with the monarch's blood and to face a killing sword held by their host of the previous evening. Macbeth's victim, Banquo, dies face down in a stream; Macbeth, to escape Banquo's ghost, lies face down on the banquet hall floor and buries his face in his hands. Macbeth leaves the severed head of a groom in Duncan's chamber, a spectacle for all; Macbeth ends his life as a severed head who sees himself a spectacle for all.

Reversals such as these abound in Polanski's Macbeth. Its world, like the world of Shakespeare's play (on which, see Goldberg and Berger), contains mainly hunters and hunted, eaters and prey, persecutors and victims, subduers and subdued. Governing here, more than any individuals, are traditions that foster competition and glorify awe-demanding aggressors. The chief players are subordinates who want to be strong and rulers who fear decline but, paradoxically, bring it on.

Literally, it is a world ruled by warriors. Yet it corresponds to a world we have all perceived and helped produce as children. Its aggressors are large, intrusive, penetrating, much like the figure Polanski remembered while working on the scene with Macduff's son: “I suddenly recalled,” he writes, “how the SS officer had searched our room in the ghetto, swishing his riding crop to and fro, toying with my teddy bear, nonchalantly emptying out the hatbox full of forbidden bread” (333). Aggression of this kind causes painful fear in a child, irrepressible anger, and desires to replace the aggressor. But, as Shakespeare's play and Polanski's film both remind us, identification with a hated aggressor can bring not only pride but also self-loathing and weariness, sometimes expressed as a malice toward life and a wish to attack the borrowed, forbidden, ugly warrior-self by ending existence. The suicide of Polanski's Cawdor is instructive, and foreboding. “Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it” (1. 4. 7-8 in Shakespeare's play; my text for Shakespeare's Macbeth is the one provided in the Pelican Shakespeare [Harbage]).

To demonstrate the care with which Polanski emphasizes reversals in his film, and the morbidity of the world that makes reversals as inevitable as witches on the heath, I intend to concentrate on three sections of the film that are almost entirely Polanski's creations: those in which Duncan confronts the original Cawdor, Macbeth murders Duncan, and Macbeth dreams of Fleance. Though differing in style, these pieces have much in common. In each one, a male with a sword, dagger, or arrow sits or stands above a man who lies on his back, and the man on his back is particularly vulnerable in his throat or neck. What's more, the aggressor in the first episode becomes the victim in the second episode, and the aggressor in the second episode becomes the victim in the third. Finally, each episode leads into a shot or a sequence where a woman or women appear. For anyone who has seen Polanski's other films—especially Repulsion,Chinatown, and The Tenant—this last detail cannot be insignificant. The women—principally the young witch and Lady Macbeth—connect with the youngest aggressor in the three sequences I am considering, the one who appears last but seems fundamental to all, the boy Fleance, against whom Macbeth has set two murderers. Woman, for Polanski, can correspond with the frail inner boy of the man—a figure who feels threatened by, or is subjected to, some sort of raping penetration. The boy-like woman may have a knife or razor ready to make herself the aggressor instead of the victim, and if the woman, having been trained as victim, becomes an aggressor, she cannot keep her new identity long. In Repulsion, Carol, like Lady Macbeth, finally leaves herself as passive and weak as a rabbit with a severed head, even though at moments she is a killer. And Polanski's association of the triumphant aggressive boy Fleance with Lady Macbeth at the end of the Macbeth-Fleance sequence makes Fleance's triumph, like all triumphs in Macbeth, less a victory than a fall.

Polanski's ironic treatment of power in Macbeth starts early. In the Duncan-Cawdor sequence, Duncan appears mainly strong, controlling, unassailable. In the first shot of the sequence, the King and his supporters ride toward Ross and the captured Thane of Cawdor as soldiers kneel obediently on the wet beach. In the eight shots that follow, Duncan talks with a smiling Ross, also on horseback, and condemns the prisoner who has challenged his power. Cawdor lies tied to a frame behind his horse, his head lower than his feet. He is bare-chested, and he has a bloody shoulder. The camera looks down on Cawdor with Duncan and up at Duncan with Cawdor. Duncan is free of blood, and the crown sits securely on his helmet. The camera also views Duncan in profile, his face half covered with protecting mail; it watches Duncan's sword, fixed in his armed hand, move behind the rebel's neck and remove the chain of Cawdor; then it watches Duncan again as he takes the chain from the sword, instructs Ross to greet Macbeth with the rebel's former title, and slides his sword into its sheath, confident in the sound of metal slipping on metal.

But while the Duncan-Cawdor sequence impresses us with Duncan's authority, it also hints that his power is merely transitory. Using mainly short takes (most takes in this sequence are two to five seconds long). Polanski rapidly brings the King in and out of view. Polanski also makes the subject of three shots in the nine the treacherous Thane of Ross, in whom Duncan is now putting as much trust as he earlier put in Cawdor. Further, in the first shot of the sequence, as Duncan rides toward Cawdor and soldiers kneel in the changeable sand, we see the King only from the back. He is simply the monarch, a figure without a particular face. Most foreboding of all is the cut that ends the sixth shot of the sequence. Hearing Ross report the victories of bold Macbeth, the seemingly invulnerable Duncan begins to say “Great happiness,” but he finishes only “Great hap—” We hear the rest of his “happiness” during a surprising reaction shot of Ross. The powerful monarch has disappeared from the frame, not just suddenly, but at a moment when his disappearance was completely unexpected.

The striking cut that takes Duncan out of the frame in mid-word anticipates the last cut of the sequence, which even more strongly brings the King's power into question. As soon as Duncan's sword is sheathed, Macbeth's head, hooded in mail like Duncan's, replaces Duncan's in the frame. In this new sequence Macbeth and Banquo briefly watch the hanging of rebels and then ride to the point where the witches are waiting. Significantly, their discovery of the witches occurs as the young witch is having her bare, wet back rubbed by her blind companion. The stabbed son of Macduff, fresh from his bath, will resemble the young witch, and so will the nude, suicidal, hand-cleansing Lady Macbeth. The penetrated boy, the tortured woman, the armed subjects of patriarchal power, and the shaggy misfit from a subterranean world mix and blend in Polanski's highly associative filmscape like the images of dreams.

The Duncan-Cawdor sequence, then, and the one that follows it, look to a darkening future, and they anticipate especially the sequence in which the young and usually obedient Macbeth murders his monarch. In building this sequence, Polanski is careful to make it different in obvious ways from the Duncan-Cawdor sequence. Existing in twenty-seven shots (the first being the one in which Macbeth opens the outer door of Duncan's apartment), it features long takes at the beginning and some very short takes at the end, when Macbeth frantically murders the struggling Duncan. In addition, the action occurs indoors, in front of a wall-torch in one room and a large fire in the other, rather than outdoors over wet sand, and the heavy side lighting, as opposed to the flat lighting of the Duncan-Cawdor episode, causes strong, concealing shadows.

In producing such evident differences, Polanski is in part creating the variety on which art depends. But he is also challenging us to look beyond the differences to the patterns that the film, like fate, is producing. Once more, one man towers over another and wills his death. The victim lies on his back. Macbeth, the chain of Cawdor about his neck, presses his blade against the throat of the man who has put his sword under the neck of the previous Cawdor. Duncan, who has looked down at his unshirted, bloodied prisoner, now looks up at a thane who causes his blood to flow and makes his shoulder red. The crown that sat on Duncan's head now falls to the floor, along with the dagger with which he tries to reassert his power. The crown, briefly rocking this way and that, is like a pendulum, marking time, marking the vicissitudes of power, stressing the ephemeral nature of royal life in Scotland. Aggressor and victim, it seems to say, aggressor and victim. The blood from Duncan's throat spurts onto Macbeth's robe. When the sequence ends, we see the face of Lady Macbeth in a starless night. The man who has taken Duncan's life resembles the castle-bound woman whose life has never been her own—the woman who, in Polanski's source, fancies herself like Duncan's daughter.

But the child who becomes an aggressor, the film tells us, also remains a child who hates aggression and, having been trained to be a suffering child, must, as aggressor, seek self-punishment. And this message appears most sharply in the Macbeth-Fleance sequence. Corresponding to nothing in Shakespeare's text, this sequence exists in six shots. Set in the King's private apartment, it begins as Macbeth dismisses two murderers he has just instructed to kill not only Banquo but also Fleance. After the murderers depart, Macbeth drinks wearily, removes his crown, places the crown at the foot of his bed, and lies in the bed on his back. The light that pours through the window at the center of the frame sets the time of day as late afternoon. In the next shot, the room is suddenly darkened, and the camera moves up the hand and arm with which Macbeth killed Duncan. Then, in the following shot, Fleance rises from nowhere to leap onto Macbeth's bed and stand above him. Dressed in ordinary clothes, the boy looks at the crown that has somehow come to rest beside Macbeth's hand. Macbeth tries to keep the crown from Fleance, but Fleance easily brushes Macbeth's hand away. Then Fleance puts the crown on his head, and the heavy side lighting on Fleance's face resembles that which marked the face of Macbeth in his attack on Duncan. Banquo, in the next shot, smiles joyously, in slow motion. In the next shot, the camera looks at the crown on Fleance's head and moves down his body, covered now with armor that resembles Macbeth's own. The boy's hands, like taunting weapons, prod Macbeth's sides, and an arrow suddenly catches the light. Fleance aims the arrow's point at Macbeth's unguarded throat. The King's body jerks. Banquo puts his hand over the monarch's mouth to stifle his screams. The sequence ends as the hand in the frame becomes the comforting hand of Lady Macbeth, resting on her husband's shoulder. Late afternoon light falls on her arm. The Fleance we have seen has been merely a figure Macbeth has willed, in a dream. He is the disapproving child in Macbeth himself, and he corresponds with the later, suffering Lady Macbeth. Truly, they all hate as well as envy monarchs, including the monarchs they have now become.

Polanski's Macbeth is the tortured child. In his society, the strong penetrate the weak with demands for unremitting obedience, for selflessness, for service, for suffering, for sacrifice of the body. Rebelling, the subjects kill their aggressor and become aggressors they hate. Having been trained to believe they ought to be victims, how can they not want to kill themselves? The justice they conceive “Commends th' ingredience of our poisoned chalice / To our own lips” (1. 7. 11-12). Life, “In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly,” rocks to and fro, like the crown on the floor, or the riding crop of the SS officer in Polanski's boyhood home, in “restless ecstasy,” and only death, real or imagined, can bring peace (3. 2. 18-19, 22). After “life's fitful fever” (3. 2. 23), Duncan, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth sleep well only in their graves.

Works Cited

Berger, Harry, Jr. “The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation.” ELH 47 (1980): 1-31.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Speculations: Macbeth and Source.” Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor. New York: Methuen, 1987. 242-64.

Harbage, Alfred, ed. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (The Pelican Shakespeare). Baltimore: Penguin, 1969.

Polanski, Roman. Roman. New York: Morrow, 1984.

Peter Rainer (review date 18 March 1994)

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SOURCE: Rainer, Peter. “Moon a Cruise Full of Eroticism.” Los Angeles Times (18 March 1994): F1, F8, F12.

[In the following review, Rainer comments that Bitter Moon is disappointingly conventional in its attempts to shock the spectator, observing that the film is “like a dirty joke that somehow got lost in the translation.”]

This much can be said for Roman Polanski's carnal hoot-fest Bitter Moon—it keeps you wondering from scene to scene if the director has gone bonkers. No doubt a lot of the lunacy is intentional, but it's still lunacy.

And not terribly enjoyable lunacy either. The film plays like a dirty joke that somehow got lost in the translation. Polanski, with his screenwriters Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, must have figured that an obsessive sadomasochistic love triangle (or is it a love parallelogram?) would work better if the whole thing was tarted up and fatuous—equal parts put-down and put-on. They try for a rollicking, aghast tone to mimic the daffy mood-swings of sexual compulsion. And, to be sure, Bitter Moon holds your attention. How could it not when we're allowed into a world where our hero-heel, Peter Coyote's Oscar, indulges in sex games disguised as a giant oinker?

The film begins with a suggestively slow zoom in and out of a luxury cruise ship's portal—a sly hint of subtleties to come, Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas) are a tight-lipped British couple Bombay-bound for their second honeymoon when they encounter Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), a seriously smashed jeune fille throwing up in the ladies' room. (It's meet-cute time in Polanski World.) Nigel, a (yawn) Eurobond trader, is drawn to this messy-mouthed bundle of curves in spite of himself. That evening he wanders over to the bar and spots Mimi's little impromptu hoochie-coochie rumba numba and gets turned on by being brushed off. (He says “blimey” a lot, just in case we failed to recognize what a repressed twit he is.) She leaves the porthole of opportunity slight ajar though. This woman could smell a masochist five fathoms deep.

Oscar, her husband, can too. Wolfish and wheelchair-bound, he encourages Nigel's itch. He dragoons the chap into a series of monologues about his marriage that have a heady, Arabian Nights effect on the poor man. Nigel keeps harrumphing and then coming back for more. Oscar, crazed and cackling about what a sick joke his life has become, regales Nigel with tales of how he fell desperately in love with Mimi and how that love eventually became sour and twisted.

The flashbacks, mostly set in a distinctly un-touristy, twilit Paris, come complete with Oscar's florid voice-over narration. Example: He describes his first communion with Mimi by saying, “I might have been Adam with the taste of apple fresh in my mouth.” Oscar is supposed to be a failed American expatriate novelist—a Henry Miller with the glands but not the talent.

Mimi, a shy dancer who responds swoonily to Oscar's oo-la-la entrancements, first shows her mettle when she accidentally nicks him shaving. The blood tastes warm. Later she sort of accidentally spills a carton of milk on her breasts whereupon Oscar develops a powerful thirst. Even when she evolves into a dominatrix and uses Oscar for a privy or roots him out in his pig-man mode she's still his adoring co-conspirator. But Oscar becomes bored suiting up for decadence and his passion turns sadistic. He troops other women around his cramped, book-lined pad and turns Mimi into a frumpy clown. She's pathetic until you realize—perhaps before Mimi does—that she's biding her time for some pay-back.

Bitter Moon can be taken as a cockeyed allegory for what happens when love runs dry but lust doesn't (or maybe it's the other way around). It's a movie about the jollies of sexual degradation made by a martinet. Polanski, who is married to Seigner, is probably working out some sort of married—man crisis in this film. That's one of the advantages of being a movie director—you get to really work out your crises with the camera.

But what's disappointing about the shocks are how conventional they are. Polanski the expressionist libertine heads straight for the most bourgeois transgressions: Mimi's crowning insult to Oscar is to (gasp) get it on with a black man. Her final insult to Nigel is a naughty whopper that plays like a racier kicker to a “Love Boat” episode. The point of all the parading seems to be to reconcile Nigel and his wife in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God rapprochement. Polanski ascends to the pulpit.

He is at least a more interesting scourge than, say, the Louis Malle who made Damage. The sexual obsession in that film was as heavy as a 10-ton shroud. By comparison, the Zalman King huff-a-thons, like 9[frac12] Weeks and Wild Orchid, are trashier and campier and more fun—maybe because the women in them lose their marbles about as often as the men. But Polanski, like Malle, seems fixated on showing us how sex can turn men into dumbos—or porkies. It's a deranged kind of alternate-universe feminism: It's OK for women to drive men nuts because men are pigs. Life is a wallow.

Could Bitter Moon be the date movie that brings the Bobbitts back together again?

Brian D. Johnson (review date 21 March 1994)

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SOURCE: Johnson, Brian D. “Muse, Model, or Slave.” Maclean's 107, no. 12 (21 March 1994): 60-1.

[In the following review, Johnson asserts that Bitter Moon, effectively fluctuates between parody and melodrama, despite Polanski's penchant for “bad taste and carnal excess.”]

In Bitter Moon, a young French woman is the love slave of an American writer twice her age. In Sirens, a trio of happily naked women serve as live-in models for a painter in the wilds of Australia. And in The Scent of Green Papaya, a Vietnamese servant girl steals the heart of a handsome composer by cooking, sewing and cleaning for him in submissive silence. Three movies from abroad about women who serve male artists in the role of muse, model or slave: in the current climate of sexual correctness, each film sounds hopelessly retrograde. But all three have redeeming qualities that defy simple moral equations. A crafty, satirical intelligence lurks behind the bad taste and carnal excess of Bitter Moon. The centrefold nudity of Sirens is stapled to a delightful comic parable of sexual liberation. And The Scent of Green Papaya's Buddhist meditation on a domestic's life has a brushstroked beauty that transcends its rude squiggle of a plot.

Bitter Moon comes from the playfully perverse imagination of filmmaker Roman Polanski, who directed such Hollywood classics as Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, and has lived in Paris since fleeing a 1978 U.S. conviction for statutory rape. His latest movie is a shipboard tale of two couples. A straitlaced young Englishman named Nigel (Hugh Grant) and his wife, Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas), have embarked on a luxury cruise to the Orient, hoping to breathe some life into their childless marriage. On board, they meet a paraplegic American writer named Oscar (Peter Coyote) and his glamorous young wife, Mimi (played by Polanski's own wife, Emmanuelle Seigner). Cornering Nigel, Oscar regales him with the saga of his passionate but destructive romance with Mimi.

Unfolding in flashbacks, his story turns into a salacious memoir of sadomasochism. Against his better judgment, Nigel keeps coming back for fresh installments, while Oscar offers to set him up with Mimi if he hears the whole story. Both titillated and appalled, Nigel, a peach-faced naïf with an Etonian accent, lets his inner voyeur win out over his inner prude. Polanski preys on a similar dilemma in the viewer—whenever you think you are watching a bad movie, it starts to turn into a good joke. Oscar's narration, for instance, is ludicrously overwritten, but then you remember that his character is a failed writer.

Polanski keeps having the last laugh. And as the narrative pitches and rolls between parody and melodrama, the director never loses his bearings. Caulking every angle of his narrative with irony, he makes it watertight—and irresistible. Meanwhile, Coyote, devouring his role with mischievous relish, is superb, especially in his scenes with Grant, who is priceless as the eminently shockable Nigel.

Sirens features Grant in a similar role: as Anthony, a prudish clergyman who tries to persuade an artist to withdraw a picture of a naked woman on the cross from a travelling exhibition. Set in the 1930s, the story is fictitious. But the painter, Australia's Norman Lindsay, and the painting, The Crucified Venus, are not. The controversy that swirled around Lindsay, who died in 1969 at the age of 90, becomes the background for a sensual, lighthearted fable about sex and censorship.

The clergyman travels to Lindsay's country estate in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with his demure wife, Estella (Tara Fitzgerald). They were planning a brief stay, but a train derailment leaves them stranded in the artist's bohemian refuge. Lindsay (Sam Neill) has just started painting a canvas based on the legend of the Sirens, who lured sailors to their deaths. His three uninhibited models spend much of their time in the nude, even when not posing. Both the clergyman and his wife are taken aback. But while Anthony desperately tries to shield himself from iniquity, Estella slowly succumbs to the models' influence, until she starts to behave like a Siren herself.

Written and directed by Australia's John Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke), Sirens is witty, guilt-free erotica. Fitzgerald (Hear My Song) creates an artfully shaded portrait of a woman discovering her sexuality, while Grant (a rising English star who played the journalist in The Remains of the Day) serves as a hilarious foil. The women playing the models include Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Elle Macpherson, who acquits herself credibly in her first acting role. And, posing as Ulysses, a rugged—and frontally nude—male provides equal-opportunity objectification.

But the film goes beyond soft-core porn. Resurrecting a debate over art and censorship that is still relevant, Sirens hums a sunny anthem to erotic freedom. After the sexual Gothic overkill of his previous movie, the Jamaican saga of The Wide Sargasso Sea, Duigan restages the clash of eros and civilization as comedy. The menacing Australian wilderness, complete with a large snake that writhes through several scenes, turns out to be benign. Sirens offers a pre-AIDS world of temptation without retribution, an Eden of serpents and skinny-dipping without original sin. It may not be great art, but it is great fun.

The Scent of Green Papaya is devoted to sensuality in its own way, although the theme is not explicitly sexual. An Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, Papaya explores the delicate rituals of a servant girl in a Vietnamese household. Set in Saigon between 1951 and 1961, it takes place in a hushed, interior world, a Vietnam far removed from the one portrayed in Oliver Stone's Platoon and Heaven and Earth. The only violence in Papaya is the crash of a vase falling to the floor, or the shriek of vegetables sizzling in a wok.

The story, such as it is, focuses on Mui (Lu Man San), a timid 10-year-old girl from the provinces who becomes a servant in a merchant's house. Tutored in the domestic graces by an old servant woman, Mui learns to sail serenely through her duties, immune to pestering children and family tragedies. She is a child in a matriarchal world—the master of the house, who whiles away his time strumming a lute, just gets up and leaves one day, never to return. Later in the film, as a lovely 20-year-old (Tran Nu Yên-Khê), Mui is sent to work for a wealthy young composer. He is a French-cultivated Vietnamese who plays Chopin and Debussy on the piano while his supercilious, high-fashion fiancée flits about, vying for attention. Although Mui and her master never speak, romance finally emerges from the tension of their silent glances.

On face value, Papaya is the tale of a quiet, patient girl who finds true love by making a mean stir-fry. But the movie is about images, not story, and the images are enchanting: a lizard crawling from a vase, milky sap oozing from a papaya stem, a boy's fingertip crushing ants trapped in candle wax. There are a half-dozen sequences of Mui simply washing her hands in an enamel bowl. She incarnates the Buddhist idea of doing everything with love. And so does the film's Vietnamese-born French director, Tran Anh Hung, who shot the film entirely on a set in Paris. Moving the camera like a watercolor brush, Tran conjures the exquisite out of the ordinary, and fulfils the essential chore of a good filmmaker: he transports the viewer to another world.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 4 April 1994)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Triple Grant.” New Republic 133, no. 4 (4 April 1994): 24-5.

[In the following review, Kauffmann assesses three films starring actor Hugh Grant—Bitter Moon, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Sirens—and argues that Bitter Moon is the worst of the three.]

The arrival of two films with the same leading actor is not all that unusual. (Nick Nolte is currently viewable in two.) But three—well, that's noteworthy. Here's the note.

Hugh Grant, English, 32, made his debut picture while he was still at Oxford and was first really visible in the film version of E. M. Forster's Maurice. Most recently he was seen as the journalist nephew who comes snooping around his uncle's manor in The Remains of the Day. But, agreeable as Grant has been, nothing has prepared American audiences for this current volley.

Let's begin at the top. The best of the three films is Four Weddings and a Funeral (Gramercy). It's a lightweight romantic comedy, written by Richard Curtis, author of that neglected hoot, The Tall Guy (with Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson), and directed by Mike Newell, who did The Good Father (a grossly neglected Anthony Hopkins gem). The screenplay's basic premise is to trace the development of a romance, over the course of a few years, between two people who meet at other people's weddings. The funeral seems added arbitrarily for variety—not only because of the occasion but because the deceased was a gay man whose lover speaks the funeral oration, complete with a poem by Auden.

Curtis's premise may sound forbiddingly cute, but Four Weddings sparkles with the sheen of cleverly arranged banter pretending to be spontaneous. The very ending slips into threadbare contrivance—a last-minute change of cast at a wedding—but most of the time the film provides that extra glow we can get from patterned comedies: if the people are attractive, we feel proprietary about the picture because we know how it's all going to turn out.

Mostly, it amuses because of Curtis's snare-drum dialogue; because of Newell's spirited directing, which exploits various British types—of persons and settings; and because of Grant. He juggles his comic troubles with polish and dispatch, but he is also an absolute virtuoso of embarrassment, and he is frequently embarrassed in this nuptial odyssey.

His romance is with Andie MacDowell; she plays an American visitor who eventually does more than visit. Apparently, MacDowell is affected by the actors she works with. In Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, she was at ease—American pacing, silences, sidewise glances. Here the English rapier play around her makes her look a bit stolid. Of course she couldn't, and shouldn't, have played in English style; Rosalind Russell didn't play English with Cary Grant or Myrna Loy with Leslie Howard. Those women simply had more effervescence.

Along the way we get some nifty comic turns, especially Rowan Atkinson as a nervous priest performing his first marriage service. (Besides getting names wrong, he stammers something about the “Holy Goat” and an “awful wedded wife.”) Atkinson is a big revue and T.V. performer in Britain: it's easy to see why. Along the way, too, there's one sheer disaster—Simon Callow as an engulfingly convivial partygoer. Callow behaves like a great actor showing us his frolicsome side. He isn't and doesn't.

Kristin Scott-Thomas has a small role in this comedy, but she has a major one in a supposedly grave film, Bitter Moon (Fine Line), which is the worst of the three pictures under review—far, far below the other two. Here she plays Hugh Grant's wife. The couple are on a cruise, a second honeymoon to help them re-spark their torpid marriage. Unfortunately the (figurative) skipper of the cruise ship is Roman Polanski.

Polanski is also the co-author of the screenplay, derived from somebody's novel, which surely was chosen and colored by him. In this age when sexual gymnastics are as obligatory for films as coloratura gymnastics were for old-time opera, it may seem strange to single out any film for ostentatious sex doings and talk, but Bitter Moon makes it obligatory. The plot entangles Grant and wife with another couple on the ship—he's paralyzed, she's young and seething. The paralyzed man inveigles Grant into listening to the story of his life, replete with flashbacks. These confidences eventually involve Grant and wife in glandular shenanigans.

Besides the dialogue, which is laughably ponderous from time to time, besides the incredibility of Grant's willingness to listen to the tale and to return for more, the film is laden with display of the narrator's wife. She is played by Polanski's own (much younger) wife, Emmanuelle Seignier. Eighteenth-century aristos used to devise court entertainments in which they exhibited their mistresses in the nude. Polanski emulates.

Grant deserves a rebuke and a medal: a rebuke for appearing in this swill, a medal for bearing up heroically once he was in it.

In the middle of the Grant triptych is Sirens (Miramax), written and directed by John Duigan and set in the Australian outback around 1930. Grant plays an English vicar who arrives there with his wife, Tara Fitzgerald, sent by his bishop to visit a notorious artist. Grant has been asked to persuade the artist to withdraw a scandalous painting from an exhibition. (The painting is of a crucified nude woman.)

The artist lives in rural splendor, with several big houses, magnificent gardens, his own lush statuary scattered about and three or four lush models on (shall we say) hand. He is named Norman Lindsay. There was an Australian artist-novelist of that name, known for his lubricious work, and perhaps Sirens has some basis in fact. Fact or not, the film's chief problem is that we have had a plethora of life-celebrating artists on screen and T.V., all of them seemingly fictional descendants of Augustus John, all prattling of the beauties of the body and of sex and always with some straitened soul as captive audience. The anti-conventional artist long ago became a convention.

Still, he is played here with relish by Sam Neill, who is given a Rubenesque wife, along with the other female attendants. To complete the D. H. Lawrence fantasy, there is even, if not a game-keeper, a husky, handsome, young odd-jobs man who rides around on a white horse and who is blind. (Thus has to feel his way.) All these atmospherics have some loosening effect on the clergyman, who is bright enough to know what's happening to him, and even more on his wife. Nothing about Sirens is surprising, but except for the artist's ringing declarations about Life Lived to the Full, it's so enthusiastically well-done that it's never boring.

As for Grant, the best compliment is that seeing him in three roles in a fairly short time is not a drag. He doesn't have commanding force or deep feeling, but then he hasn't needed them so far. He does have charm, wit and intelligence, displayed through subtlety of inflection, timing and an ability to convey unspoken thoughts between utterances. That's quite a good deal.

John Simon (review date 27 June 1994)

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SOURCE: Simon, John. Review of Bitter Moon, by Roman Polanski. National Review 46, no. 12 (27 June 1994): 61.

[In the following review, Simon faults Bitter Moon as a work of soft-core pornography lacking in genuine eroticism, effective performances, or skilled direction.]

One might pass over Bitter Moon, in silence, were it not made by the formerly brilliant Roman Polanski, and beginning to find an undeserved audience. Based on Lunes de fiel, by the French novelist Pascal Bruckner, it may have been of some interest before Polanski got through with it. It is now soft-core pornography devoid of genuine eroticism, affecting performances, or even incisive direction.

In the past, Mr. Polanski and his scenarist Gérard Brach (sometimes joined, as here, by John Brownjohn) have been able to whip up interest. Here they have contrived a confused and confusing story of sadomasochist sex, in which the novelist hero, Oscar, now wheelchair-bound, relates both a novel he has written and his stormy marriage to the much younger Mimi—two stories that manage only to detract from each other. The setting is an ocean crossing, where Oscar keeps luring Nigel, a young English fellow passenger, to come listen to him in his cabin, away from Fiona, Nigel's bride, who does not take kindly to hubby's absences, or his interest in Mimi, Oscar's sexy wife, around whom most of the action revolves.

Mimi is played by Emmanuelle Seigner, the granddaughter of the great Louis Seigner, but talent can skip two generations as easily as one. Her basically pretty face is made unappealing by what I can describe only as a look of stupidity. Intelligence, luckily, is not required in an actor, but Mlle Seigner, who may be bright as a button, has the misfortune of looking dumb, which acts as a powerful aphrodisiac, and sabotages the film.

Peter Coyote, a San Francisco actor whom I've usually found wanting, and who now seems to be making a career of playing Americans in European movies (the last stop before the knacker's yard), portrays a successful novelist as a man who could at best write captions for horror comics. Far more interesting is the young British couple, effectively enacted by Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but the film is only secondarily about them, which is a pity. Tonino delli Colli, the Italian cinematographer, works his usual wonders, but they are wasted on a mean-spirited little movie that comes across as a clean dirty joke, the worst kind of joke there is.

Jonathan Romney (review date 21 October 1994)

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SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “Love's Torments.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 325 (21 October 1994): 35.

[In the following review, Romney praises Bitter Moon as an underrated film that effectively uses irony and excess in order to deconstruct the conventional romantic love story.]

L'amour toujours, in French cinema at least, means nothing more than “business as usual”. Thirty-five years after Jeanne Moreau's definitive display of the art of ooh-and-aahing in Louis Malle's Les Amants, French film-makers still can't seem to get enough of the tropes of grand passion. Some impressionable young critic in the bowels of the Paris Cinematèque must have gawped at Jean Gabin's pithy imprecation, “Tes beaux yeux …”, taken it literally, and rushed out to spread a gospel that has lasted generations. From François Truffaut building an entire career on indulging his Svengali syndrome, to Patrice Leconte's weedy gentleman of a certain age convulsing themselves over fantasy odalisques, or Diane Kurys' Interminable trentaine-something entanglements for mature professionals … You can see why the Germinal school is there, with their blustery historical theme-pageants. It's something else to do.

Of course this is a narrow, stereotypical view of French cinema, but then it's a view that UK distributors tend to cater to. What used to be called “continental passion” sells, and has done since at least the 1950s, while other European waves come and go. One film that did effectively deflate Anglo-American notions of Gallic passion was Roman Polanski's massively underrated Bitter Moon. An acute, if indulgent, study of male hysteria, and of the Svengali complex itself, Bitter Moon was so finely tuned in its ironic use of romantic excess that when I saw it, half the audience was rocking with laughter—and I'd like to think that half of them were doing so out of discomfort. Bitter Moon, had an embittered would-be Hemingway in Paris regaling a deeply embarrassed Bertie Wooster type (Hugh Grant in best “steady on!” mode) with the saga of his tormented passion for Emmanuelle Seigner—Polanski's own current muse, whose whole persona is almost a parody of Anglo-American fantasies of simmering Frenchness. Bitter Moon was a cruel dismantling of the myth of amour fou, and it proved that even such a dead topic could come alive, given attention to the finer points of story-telling. In fact, Polanski's elaborately constructed trick box didn't so much tell the story as untell it. Only a deconstructive love story could have been so exquisitely embarrassing.

Claude Chabrol's L'Enfer comes nowhere near. The laziest of all the Nouvelle Vague veterans, Chabrol here resorts to film-making as ghost-writing, taking on a script by the late and indisputably great Henri-Georges Clouzot, maker of Le Corbeau and Les Diaboliques, and at his best, a film-maker to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock (Clouzot died before he could film L'Enfer).

It's the story of Paul, a hotelier (François Gluzet) and his young wife Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart). At first, he's crazy about her, then he's just crazy, and starts storming around their rural idyll, convinced she's screwing every guy in sight. Love is hell, warns this blackest of scenarios, but Chabrol's lost the grip on the infernal that he once had. He gives us dual optics, so that what we see could either be the evidence of our senses, or the non-evidence of Paul's perceptions. Eventually we reach the point where the optics jar with each other so much that we're no longer certain if we're seeing anything at all, and we end up with a trick ending that isn't one: It looks like a poignant twist, but it might just be that Clouzot never completed the original and Chabrol is simply respecting the final dotted line.

But there's nothing here to grip us, much less worry us. Too much of the film rides on Cluzet's ability to pop his tightly crammed cork at short notice, and on Béart's ability to reduce her considerable acting range to just the cheesecakey moues and shimmies. Considering how hard-edged she was in La Belle Noiseuse, it's odd to see her staking all on her pout. But then Clouzot had already done full justice to the theme of “pouting women, doubting man” in his 1960 film La Vérité, in which an absurdly kittenish Brigitte Bardot worried several older men rigid. With L'Enfer, he got out when the going was good.

Christopher Frank's Love in the Strangest Way doesn't promise us hell but gives us an odd sort of static purgatory. It's a much tougher film than Chabrol's, and much more Clouzotian, in its emphasis on power and deceit (and self-deceit). Frank in fact wrote the novel that Bitter Moon was based on, and you can see the similarities—again, it's about a man whose folly drives him into a downward spiral, and again, it's an old story un-told, or un-picked. So while it may simply look like Fatal Attraction all over again, it actually proves to be something quite different—we're completely misled about the sort of love hinted at in the English title (the original title is Elles n'oublient pas). The twist is at the expense of the lead-character, a dull would-be urban Lothario (Thierry Lhermitte). It's clear the minute he meets femme fatale Nadia Fares that she's out of his league, but for reasons that aren't immediately obvious. Frank's minor, but nonetheless ruthlessly effective film, works because it conveys the tone of male hysteria in a very contained form—austere framings and repeated shots containing manic obsession in a tight forensic framework. The result is unexpected—a lucid reading of something that isn't amour by any stretch of the imagination, but is fou none the less.

Peter Rainer (review date 23 December 1994)

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SOURCE: Rainer, Peter. “Torture, Revenge, Death and the Maiden.Los Angeles Times (23 December 1994): F16.

[In the following review, Rainer observes that Death and the Maiden is “an expert piece of claustrophobic cinema” but comments that the film is ultimately ineffective due to its overly schematic and self-important tone.]

Death and the Maiden is about the consequences of torture, and it never lets up. Essentially a three-character drama in a single location, it's an expert piece of claustrophobic cinema, but after a while you may want to break away from it. The film bears down on the audience with an almost sadistic relish. It's an unsettling experience, but not a particularly rich one. It's too schematic and self-important for that.

Ariel Dorfman's play, produced on Broadway in 1992 and from which the film is adapted, has its roots in the playwright's exile from Chile in 1973 during the coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Like the play, the film, adapted by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias and directed by Roman Polanski, is set in an unnamed country in South America after the fall of a right-wing dictatorship.

It begins with Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) pacing like a tigress within the confines of her cliffside home as a rainstorm strikes and the power goes out. Then her husband, Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), a lawyer newly appointed by the President to head up a commission investigating the human rights violations of the overthrown fascist regime, is dropped off at home after his car has broken down in the flood. His Good Samaritan is a Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), a convivial physician who professes his admiration for Gerardo's leftism. Paulina—who was blindfolded, tortured and raped repeatedly by a fascist physician 15 years earlier—overhears Miranda's voice and freezes in horror. Is this the voice of the man who brutalized her?

The film is about what happens when Paulina turns the tables on the man she believes is responsible for the horrors she still lives with. Strapping him to a chair, bludgeoning him, stuffing his mouth with her panties, she demands he confess to his crimes—that's the only way he'll be allowed to survive. Her husband, willing at first to believe Miranda's protestations of innocence, assumes the role of his defender.

And that's about it, for 103 gruesome minutes. As we hear more and more details of Paulina's torture and Miranda's denials, the film turns into a grindingly creepy whodunit. (Even the closed-off, candle-lit set is reminiscent of a murder mystery.) But the characters are so ideologically drawn that they lose our sympathies—they're stand-ins in Dorfman's existential morality play about justice and revenge.

Polanski, who no doubt connected up to this material on personal levels of his own, does a very good job of keeping the creepiness at full boil; there's never a moment in this film when you don't feel the threat of sudden violence. But if there's a larger dimension to be found in all this, Polanski didn't find it (and perhaps it's a good thing he didn't go looking). Death and the Maiden—the title comes from the Schubert string quartet played repeatedly while Paulina was raped—works best as a horror movie.

Weaver plays the role in high-style heroic fashion. She's overwrought with vengeance. There's nothing frail or damaged about this woman—she has become pure will. Kingsley, in the film's most difficult role, keeps you guessing about Miranda's motives.

Miranda has such a wheedling, flabbergasted, enraged presence that a few of his scenes with Paulina play like a nightmare parody of a bad marriage. She accuses him of lying, he pleads innocence, she tortures him. The batterer gets battered. Wilson's Gerardo, caught in the middle, has all the ineffectuality of a spurned suitor. He wants to believe his wife, but he also—perhaps out of cowardice—wants to believe Miranda.

Polanski has rightly resisted the urge to “open up” the play by bringing it outdoors. When he finally does move the action cliffside, the ocean vistas are as intimidating and closed-off as the Escobar's living room/torture chamber. Everything in this film works up to its final ambiguous image, and yet Polanski may have overvalued its inexorability. We're supposed to get a case of the cold creeps, but a response of “So what?” would be equally appropriate.

David Sterritt (review date 27 January 1995)

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SOURCE: Sterritt, David. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Roman Polanski. Christian Science Monitor 87, no. 43 (27 January 1995): 14.

[In the following review, Sterritt offers a generally positive assessment of Death and the Maiden, observing that Polanski's direction is “efficient” rather than “inspired.”]

The setting [of Death and the Maiden] is a Latin American country after the fall of a military dictatorship. One main character is a woman who was once kidnaped and tortured by the old government; another is her husband, a lawyer recently named to investigate and denounce such crimes. The third is a stranger who comes to their house by chance, only to be seized and brutally interrogated by the woman, who identifies him as her former tormenter. The movie's fascination comes partly from uncertainty as to whether the stranger is indeed the guilty party or a victim of mistaken identity. On a deeper level, the woman's violent behavior poses troubling questions about the effect gratuitous suffering may have on a decent person. Sigourney Weaver isn't quite up to her most demanding scenes, but Ben Kingsley is expertly enigmatic as the stranger, and Stuart Wilson is excellent as the husband who doesn't know whom to believe. Based on Ariel Dorfman's play. Directed by Roman Polanski with an efficient touch, if not an inspired one.

Roman Polanski and David Thompson (interview date April 1995)

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SOURCE: Polanski, Roman, and David Thompson. “‘I Make Films for Adults.’” Sight and Sound 5, no. 4 (April 1995): 6-11.

[In the following interview, Polanski discusses his body of work, cinematic techniques, and the process of adapting Death and the Maiden from stage to screen.]

There are three characters—two of them a married couple, the other an outsider—in an isolated dwelling by the sea: it could be Cul-de-Sac, the 1966 film Roman Polanski has often cited as his best, when the setting was the castle on Holy Island, the unlikely couple Donald Pleasence and a coquettish Françoise Dorléac and the outsider Lionel Stander, growling like a Hollywood gangster in a B-movie plot. But it is also the dramatic situation in Polanski's adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's much-vaunted recent play about the legacy of political torture, Death and the Maiden. Now the setting is a South American country just after the fall of a dictatorship (a thinly-disguised Chile), and the house a remote bungalow on the edge of a cliff subject to a storm-induced powercut. A tense confrontation takes place between Gerardo, a high ranking government official, his wife Paulina, formerly the victim of torture under the dictatorship, and a stranger, Dr Roberto Miranda, who has given the husband a lift home and may or may not be the man who raped the wife when she was incarcerated, blindfolded, and subjected to horrific burns and electric shocks. This is hardly the stuff of humour, though Mike Nichols apparently directed it as an absurdist comedy on Broadway. But Polanski is not above injecting the odd unnerving moment [in Death and the Maiden] when Paulina's outrageous behaviour—gagging and threatening with a gun an outwardly beneficent stranger because she recognises his voice—becomes too much for her anxiously liberal husband. But if the tone of the proceedings is necessarily more serious and more intense than might be expected from his earlier films, it should be remembered that the best of Polanski's work has always featured surprises, and unsettling shifts in tone.

In adapting Dorfman (working with the playwright himself and also Rafael Yglesias, the writer of Fearless) Polanski has pruned much of the original's earnest speechifying to focus in on the visceral impact of the situation. The single basic location is the same, but the time structure has been tightened and the suspense increased: the director's familiar attention to detail in sound and composition keeps the tension at a high level. He has even added a familiar Polanski trademark, a telephone conversation (in this case to establish the outsider's alibi as a doctor at work in Barcelona at the time of the alleged tortures) that explores all the exasperating problems of establishing contact with persons unseen. But then he has always shown an acute understanding of a world in which bureaucrats cannot be believed, reasonable requests of human behaviour easily slip into threatening gestures, and nothing and nobody is wholly innocent. He may have always denied such suggestions himself, but his own experiences—as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland, as the husband of a Manson murder victim, as the subject of an unresolved sex scandal—surely offer considerable insight into lives dominated by suffering and vengeance.

Thanks to his casting, Polanski has benefited from a persuasively febrile performance by Sigourney Weaver as Paulina, while Stuart Wilson gives unobtrusive dignity to the role of Gerardo, a character who could easily disappear amidst the fireworks. As the ambiguous Miranda, Ben Kingsley is suitably unknowable, slipping disquietingly from bore to boor as his trial at gun point drains him of patience (what's more, his bald pate and occasional air of weary dementia evoke something of Pleasence's performance in Cul-de-Sac). Death and the Maiden—like Bitter Moon, shot by the estimable Tonino delli Colli—was mainly filmed on a sound stage in Paris but tellingly uses one exterior (in Spain) where a perilous cliff edge is the setting for the possible resolution to the drama. And the whole is framed by a concert attended by the protagonists, where Schubert's ‘Death and the Maiden’ string quartet is played, the music which once accompanied the sessions of Paulina and her mystery torturer. It may be Polanski's least showy film, but by drawing out the play's strengths as drama and potential as cinema, he shows his artistic grip has not slackened.

To ask Polanski to explain his art anew is another matter. Early on in a lavishly illustrated French volume entitled Polanski par Polanski, he stated his position very clearly: “Don't ask me why I make ‘these’ films. I am just a director.” He later adds: “I've never given a good interview in my life, and I've given hundreds.” Readers of his autobiography will know well his determinedly dispassionate tone of speech. Perhaps it's all part of steeling himself against the many vicissitudes that life has already dealt him. Perhaps it's also, quite genuinely, a case of the director really not having to think like a critic, and preferring to retain an innocence with regard to the “whys” of his profession.

[Thompson]: How did you become involved in making the film version of Death and the Maiden?

[Polanski]: I was going to direct the play myself in Paris, and then I decided against it, since I was also going to make the film, and I was afraid I might get sick and tired of it before I stepped onto the studio floor. I never saw any of the productions, not even on tape. I was simply sent the play by the producers [Thom Mount and Bonnie Timmermann], and then I read it. So it was all very prosaic! They were interested in me filming it.

Did you immediately have an idea of how you would adapt it for the screen?

I didn't know exactly what to do, but I had a clear idea that something was amiss with the end of the play. I felt there was no third act, and I knew that would have to be fixed.

In the play, we only hear one confession by Roberto. You have split it into two: one abortive version conducted for a video camera, and then his final and possibly true confession on the cliff edge. Why did you do it in this way?

The first on tape is phoney, as Paulina says. So it is followed by a real confession. In the play, he never gives a real confession; it just sort of stops suddenly, and then comes the epilogue, which is a very theatrical device, very déjà vu, of a mirror coming down reflecting the audience. Then we see the husband and wife and the doctor in the first row at the concert noticing each other. It just makes us aware of the fact they have to brush elbows in the future, which is an important element, but does not satisfy the viewer as far as the plot development is concerned. It doesn't give an answer to a whodunnit, which the play seems to be for its first three quarters.

The setting for that final confession on the cliff edge is very effective. There's a particularly unsettling camera move—apparently from Roberto's point of view—over the edge, at the end of the scene.

The idea for the setting came from discussions at the script stage. The final shot looking over the cliff came to me at the location. It was actually a shot to be used somewhere else, when Gerardo was holding him over the edge. In the editing, I felt it would be better at the end.

Many people I have spoken to think that this very dramatic confession makes him appear guilty.

In the play, he's definitely guilty, I think. It gives an answer, but then somehow it doesn't manage to give an answer. It's ambiguous, and it seems to me to a certain extent to be a cop-out. But I think we managed to make it more satisfying. We can accept the version that he is lying to the last moment, because a man who is fighting for his life could very easily come up with a convincing confession. When you're standing on the edge of a cliff, all kind of hidden talents may surface! We shot a number of slightly different readings, five or six.

This appears to be the first time in your career in which you've made a film with a specific political context.

It's depends what you mean by political. In my mind, “political” relates to a concrete regime, and names, of a country at least, let alone the people. In Death and the Maiden I never mention any political leader or a concrete dictatorship that's fallen. I'm talking about an unspecified country in South America. And it's more universal than that, because this sort of situation occurs all around the globe, where former victims are faced with their former oppressors or torturers. They have to live through these kind of encounters and deal with them.

You've often said that when you were at the Lodz film school, you were bored by the constant reference to politics in cinema.

In discussions, I was much more concerned with aesthetics. I understood that form is much more important than content. But I remember when Zbigniew Cybulski, who was a close friend, brought us a bunch of badly-made, out-of-focus and grainy porno movies, we were all a great audience for this despite the fact they were terrible. So after all the content is important … [laughs] But at that time, the form mattered to me more than anything, and still does even now.

On stage, Death and the Maiden takes place over a night and a day. You have reduced the time scale considerably.

I compressed it into one night. I like the three unities of action, place and time. In particular time. This type of form, the huis clos [the drama in the single enclosed room], must come from the nostalgia I continue to have for one of the first films that impressed me, Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947). It starts, I believe, in the morning with the characters plotting in the apartment, and it ends I think by night or early morning. And there's this clock constantly in shot. It's a wonderful picture, and I think I'm here today because of it, and Olivier's Hamlet.

Both these films achieve a great deal through the use of black and white cinematography. Would you ever return to using it yourself?

I think making films in black and white today is a form of stylisation. I have nothing against it, but there should be a real reason for it. I think Schindler's List was very well done in black and white, because our memories of the period are associated with black and white, in particular through newsreels.

Another two films you have often said were a great influence on you are Citizen Kane and Rashomon. Since both deal with the problem of discovering a truth through multiple viewpoints, could they be said to have influenced your interest in Death and the Maiden?

Yes, they do have some bearing on Death because they deal with the aspect that I find the most interesting in this play, which is the relativity of truth. To have the same story told, or the same event related by various people, or various parties, these different point of views which don't concord, that always fascinated me. And this is as close to it as I could get. I hope I will have another crack at it sometime, somewhere, really doing a film with the event seen through different eyes, as in Rashomon. I think it's a fantastic idea that only a movie can express; no other medium is better for this type of treatment than film.

Some of your films, such as Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, rely heavily on one protagonist's point of view. Do you feel a special identification with any of the characters in Death and the Maiden?

Death and the Maiden was not suited to a subjective narrative. There are three characters, and you have to alternate as far as your identification goes. Therefore you mustn't tell the story from the point of view of Paulina, for example. Yet most of the time we're closer to her than anyone else. But if you look at the structure of the play, it has a very funny plan, like a musical form. First Paulina solo, then three duets—Paulina with husband, husband with doctor, doctor with Paulina—and then you have them all three together, the tutti. So you need some symmetry also in the way you film it, and therefore I avoided being too much behind or over Paulina's shoulder. I had to be over everybody's shoulder.

Just after Paulina has been tripped by Roberto, there's a particularly strong camera movement as she holds the gun to his face that serves to define their relationship.

The camera starts over her shoulder on him, because I wanted this feeling of her dominating him, and ends up looking up at her. It's more expressive than what has gone before because this time I have a reason for it, as the action becomes more violent.

Before that, when she ties him up, you use some very telling close-ups of their physical intimacy.

Well, that came simply from rehearsal. I watched how she did it, and it seemed to me the most effective way to film it.

A number of people have suggested to me that when she uses her panties to gag him, the idea must have come from you, yet it's in the play! On the other hand, the storm and the blackout—which might appear to be ‘theatrical’ devices—are not.

These ideas came up at script level. We needed some intensity, and a reason for the isolation. I wanted to feel the world outside, through the changes in weather and time. We're near the sea so we have to feel that. I thought the storm was a good way to begin this type of atmosphere.

The word “atmosphere” comes up a lot in discussions of film-making.

It's the most important thing for me in cinema. Without it, it's all dialogue or movement.

The setting of the play seems almost tailor-made, for you, in that so many of your films—Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac, for example—deal with characters in an enclosed space surrounded by wide open space.

I use all these devices so that you feel this isolation. I like to use all the devices that are at my disposal in a movie to get away from the stage. Cinema gives you the chance of making a play into something that is real, and not stagy, so that it's like life. You have a fourth wall in cinema, which you don't have on stage. You have the weather around you, the night or the sun, you can step out of the door even if you don't want to “open it up” as they say.

Presumably by working mainly on a sound stage, you have had much greater control over your conception of the film than when you shoot on location.

By the time I start photography, I have worked on the script so much and for so long that I have the entire vision of the film in my head, but when I'm confronted with the reality it undergoes an immediate change. Often you have to modify it. For example, on Bitter Moon, the final scene in the script had the concept of a rising sun over Istanbul. I didn't just put “rising sun” arbitrarily in the script, and I was convinced we would have it when we reached Istanbul. But it was all misty and rainy, so I had to figure out a way of adjusting things, because it completely changed the atmosphere of the scene.

Bitter Moon had a very divided reception. Were you deliberately seeking a certain “shock” factor after the films immediately preceding it?

I wasn't making it to shock. Maybe I had a little bit of this desire when I was young. Young people are of course rebellious and they like shocking others, and they have to act through what the French call s'imposer, which means to establish themselves and force themselves upon their surroundings. I don't have any of those needs now, and even when I was beginning, the main thing for me was to tell the story, and if the story required violent images or nudity, I would use them for telling it.

Unlike the novel it was based on, Bitter Moon was particularly striking for the clash of nationalities among the characters—especially the very British young couple.

I wanted them to be very British. Originally, I thought the man would be a schoolmaster, and it was when I started discussing the role with Hugh Grant that he suggested it would be better if he was a fellow from the city, an English yuppie. I remember when I was shooting in England once, an electrician shouted to his colleague, “Hey mate, don't run, be British.” That wasn't exactly the type I was thinking of, the character was a bit higher in class, but still “British”. One who doesn't run.

Bitter Moon had as its concern power games between characters, as in a way does Death and the Maiden. Is this what makes a “Polanski” film for you?

When I make a horror picture, they say it's typical Polanski. When I make a film which shows any form of violence, they tell me it's typical Polanski. I truly don't analyse these things. I'm not even interested to do so. I make films I feel like making at a given time in the same way you feel like ordering a steak one day and spaghetti another. The reason behind it, I don't know; it's an accumulation of experience and your mood in that period of your life, and of course the other elements, such as the whole question of whether a film can be financed.

You made relatively few films in the 80s. Why?

I was so traumatised by the experience of Tess I just didn't want to make films anymore. It was such an enormous effort to make and so difficult to finish that I started asking myself whether it was worth it or not. After completing the film, there was a year of fighting to get it distributed—in England the Rank Organisation said it would be “over my dead body”, that nobody wanted to see a two-and-a-half-hour costume drama. Finally when it was clear that the film was a success, with excellent reviews, I thought, what if the film had been a total failure? So I decided to do theatre and other things, and for eight years didn't make a movie.

You came back with Pirates which was neither a commercial nor critical success. What went wrong?

Pirates was an old project that I had wanted to do ten years before, and it was a mistake to fight for the film, because I had to make too many compromises—I had to chop the script, and to cast it a way I didn't want to. And after slaving away for 25 or 28 weeks shooting Pirates in the Mediterranean and Tunisia with a multinational crew who couldn't understand one another and not enough money and all kinds of natural difficulties such as bad weather—or even good weather when I didn't need it—then of course I felt like making a simple film without complicated sets and costumes, preferably without costumes and sets at all! Anything on which I could keep a view of the entire piece and not just little moments, because Pirates was shot without any continuity, and every shot was like tearing a fish out of a shark's mouth. I didn't want to go through a similar experience, so I made Frantic.

Frantic was made for Warner Bros. Was there much studio interference—the casting for example?

As far as Harrison Ford was concerned, he was my proposition. But I did find the studios had changed since I left Hollywood and that they now interfere much more. They believe they also have creative ideas and they desperately want a commercial success and think they know how to have one. They wanted me to change the ending, and I did have to reshoot certain things. I could have dug my heels in and said no, but the film has to be released, you have to have their co-operation and enthusiasm behind it, so I had to give up on certain issues.

Did making a more obviously commercial film strengthen your position?

After Frantic I got a little more brazen and I tried to make a film that was more complex, from one of my beloved books, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I spent a lot of time writing the script, and then I realised it was difficult to finance, so I decided to have a go at something easy again, and together with the producer Alain Sarde we came upon the novel Bitter Moon. I didn't have much money so we worked hard and were under tremendous pressure, but I did what I wanted and nobody interfered with the result. Also I managed to contain it within a year and a half; when I was beginning, you could do a film in a year, now you're lucky if you make one in two years.

In your planning of a film do you use storyboards at all?

When I was at film school, and even for a short period after, I used to use storyboards. Since I'd studied art, it was easy for me to draw, and this was a simple way for me to present to others what I wanted to see, rather than explain it with words. Soon I realised this was not the right approach, like tailoring a perfect suit and looking for a person to fit it. I prefer to find a person first and then make a suit for him. So I stopped doing these storyboards, and I understood that my inspiration came from actors, letting them rehearse and seeing that instinctively they find the right places, the right attitudes, the right readings and the right body language. And when it's not right, one sees it immediately because it looks false. So I try to help so it looks more real, and only then do I start thinking of filming it, deciding when and how I'm going to place the camera.

And how do you decide upon that? Part of your style seems to be fondness for wide-angle lenses and a fluid intimate camera.

I'm trying to show on the screen what I see, it's as simple as that. I'm trying only to repeat with the camera as closely as possible what I have seen with my own eyes during the rehearsal of a set-up. Therefore I use the appropriate angle. The angle is determined by the distance from which I watch the person. The face seen from the other side of the room is not the same face which is seen across a table. Unfortunately, I've met very few people who understand this method. There is a general policy accepted in the world of cinema and photography that the angle changes the perspective, and that a wide angle distorts. A wide angle distorts only inasmuch as you put the three-dimensional world onto the two dimensional screen. Looking at you across this table, if I continue to widen the angle, I start seeing what's behind your ears. It's like a ball, and if you project it inside another ball, it would not be distorted—as with Omnimax, in which the image is projected on a concave surface. At the edges, a wide angle will cause the lines to curve, but the centre will not be distorted—or only if you come very close to a subject. At a distance of two metres, your face would not be distorted. So it's not the angle that changes the perspective, but the distance.

In a number of your films, such as Repulsion or The Tenant, you use the effect of a wide angle lens in close to convey the growing madness of the characters, with the world drawing in on them.

When you make a close-up of a person, to determine the size you have two options. Close with a wide angle, or far away with a narrow angle or a long focal length. The result is not the same. I choose to use wide angles whenever I want to be aware of the walls around, where I want it to be more three-dimensional. They give a greater sense of a location, and a greater depth of focus.

Would you ever use two cameras on a scene?

I think there is only one good angle. I only use two cameras out of necessity, such as in Death and the Maiden when the car goes over the cliff, as I only had one chance to shoot the scene! Also for the scene when Paulina drags Roberto out of the house, and those on the cliff edge, I had very little time to shoot because of the weather, so I set up three cameras in advance not to waste time between takes.

This method suggests you don't do a lot of coverage to give yourself a variety of options.

Of course I don't shoot just what you finally see in the film. I am covering myself by making the takes long, and even doing close-ups, as I can never be exactly sure of how it will work in the editing. But my former editor Sam O'Steen used to say he could easily assemble the scenes without me, because my way of shooting made it clear which shots to use.

An actor recently complained to me that too many directors today only watch their video monitor, and spend very little time directing them on the set.

I didn't use a monitor until Frantic. The monitor is useful as far as the framing is concerned, and it helps to show whether the actors are in the right position, but it's a dangerous toy, because you can't see the detail you will later see on the screen, the emotions that the actors are conveying through their eyes. Therefore I keep fighting the desire of looking after the composition rather than looking after the performance.

On set, you certainly spend a lot of time over the detail of the performances, and watch them very closely.

Well, of course you must be there for the actors. I know that from my own experience as an actor. I could feel in the theatre if there was someone with malevolent feelings towards me in the audience, and it affected my performance. On the other hand, if I knew someone sympathetic to me was sitting there, I would act for them, and my performance would be better.

Some actors have said they were surprised by how much you gave them in the way of line readings and gestures.

I think that is what a director should be doing, and it certainly always used to be the way. There are some actors to whom you can show what you want from them, and I use it very often because it's a short cut, it's faster than giving a verbal explanation. Other actors require a more delicate approach, just a suggestion of what you are after. As far as the actors on Death and the Maiden were concerned, this film was the smoothest time I've had.

Was Sigourney Weaver your first choice for Paulina?

Yes, she was the first choice, and the problem at first was working out a combination of actors according to when she was available. She was interested in the part, and I was happy that someone like her who was personally engaged in the concerns of this subject be involved. Of course she wasn't the obvious choice, she's so physically strong compared to, say, Juliet Stevenson, who played the part on stage in London. But I liked that; sometimes not choosing the obvious person works well, and of course we also had to have a name that was known.

Despite the fact that you began film-making at the time of the Nouvelle Vague, you always seemed to have worked to a very precise script.

The script is essential. Film-making is too complicated to leave things for improvisation, that's just for amateurs. How can you improvise when you need specific props for a scene, or you have to work on a specific location? When I go on the floor of the studio, I have no time to think of what's wrong or right. It has to be already down there so when I'm lost I can pick up the script, open it and look at it like a book of instructions.

But isn't it true that you did not have an ending for Chinatown until very late in the day?

I had neither the ending nor the love scene when we started shooting. Robert Towne never wanted the main characters to go to bed, and he didn't want her to die in the end. We had a hard time agreeing on that ending. Working on this script was so difficult and gruelling that we started shooting before the script was redrafted. In the first two drafts, the culprit Noah Cross was caught. In the second draft, he was even killed inside a huge fish, which was a sign! But beginning shooting in this way was only possible because Robert Evans was producer of the film and at the same time head of the studio, so he could give us the green light. Finally he said, “Come on Roman, we have to have an ending!” There were very few scenes left to shoot. It all became very dodgy. I had always worried about there being no scene in Chinatown to justify the title, and since Chinatown in Los Angeles no longer exists, I got Richard Sylbert to build this set for me. I asked Jack [Nicholson] to help come up with some lines—he's very good at that—and so we shot it with her death.

I read that when you were writing What? with Gérard Brach, you listened to Schubert's ‘Death and the Maiden’ over 30 times! Is it sheer coincidence that this music has turned up in two of your films?

No connection. Except that I regret having used it on What?. I think it would have been a better film if we'd have more joyful music. It's beautiful music, but tremendously melancholy.

It was recently suggested that your next project might be an adaptation of Les Miserables.

It's one of the projects I'm discussing right now, but the press moved faster than the people involved. Certainly after Death and the Maiden, I would like to make a bigger picture.

There was also an announcement that you might be making an animated erotic thriller, based on the work of the cult Italian comic-strip artist, Milo Manara.

I've always been interested in animation, but I've never been able to do it. So when they asked me to so to speak ‘direct’ an animation film, I was very interested. I'd be supervising the whole process from the script to the final mix, except you have no actors! Manara makes very erotic and funny comic strips. It's an adult animation. Well, as you may have noticed, I make films for adults!

Jenny Diski (essay date April 1995)

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SOURCE: Diski, Jenny. “Sitting Inside.” Sight and Sound 5, no. 4 (April 1995): 12-13.

[In the following essay, Diski argues that Rosemary's Baby presents a realistic representation of the fears and anxieties experienced by women during pregnancy.]

There was a phrase in quite general use by male critics during the 50s and 60s to describe certain women writers (though not directors—but as far as I can remember only Agnès Varda had movies released back then). They were described as “man haters”. The phrase comes back to me because something similar is cropping up these days in articles written by women about film directors (still largely men). Settle down to a piece by a woman about Peckinpah, De Palma, Altman or Tarantino and you're very likely to read that they “don't like women”. (The language is slightly changed, but then women are different. They're nicer, aren't they?) “He doesn't like women”: it's a phrase that might be fine for dismissing a piece of work without merit or interest (though “crap” would do better, taking up minimal space and leaving room to write about other things). But unless the desire is to dismiss an entire body of work, it's not a criticism that tells us very much or takes us very far.

Of all directors, Peckinpah is the least problematic: women are male accessories, pure and simple, sometimes allowing his men to feel a little sentimental (though they're better at doing that with other men), but usually no more than flesh for consumption. Tarantino might be Peckinpah's successor as regards his interest in women. De Palma and Altman come further along the line of complexity, directors whose women are at least sometimes given psychological and biological motivation and are gazed at with some thought by the camera.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not suggesting that these directors, and others, do like women, I'm writing from a feeling that most men find the idea of women alarming in some way or other—and that their films, books, the way they sell us cabbages, can't help but reflect their ambivalence. To say that this is the case is to say nothing very remarkable—if used as a criticism in itself, it merely closes down further thought. Perhaps the real problem we have is that there are only two off-the-peg genders available for depiction (even allowing for alternative sexual choice), and that the relationship between them is inevitably suffused with the generalised tension which any paired oppositions must feel for one other. As a woman, I'm neither surprised nor necessarily personally offended by this state of affairs (though there are moments). Having acknowledged the inevitability, I reserve the right to be intrigued rather than outraged. In any case, it's better for my health.

Roman Polanski's view of women is nothing if not intriguing, ranging as it does from moments of remarkable sensitivity about their lives to pure and puerile pornographic depiction of their bodies. It's probably the range of understanding most men experience internally, but Polanski lays it down on film for us all to see. It is Polanski who expresses most clearly the ambiguity of his feelings—empathy and disgust—for the other sex. For this, at least, he deserves serious attention.

And in this respect, Rosemary's Baby is his richest film, centring as it does on the Other in her most esoteric condition. His earlier and later films address aspects of her predicament—neurosis, vulnerability, strangeness—but Rosemary herself is ground zero: the reproducing woman. Pregnancy is the state in which women are most alien to men. This is not unreasonable: it's also the state in which they may be most alien to themselves. Prior to pregnancy, and prior to the understanding of its linkage with reproduction, women's ability to bleed and remain healthy has always been under interdiction; the rhetoric has claimed that they are unclean, but, more essentially, it is evidence—to men who bleed only when injured—that women are beyond the ordinary human condition. You don't have to be a man to see that menstruation and pregnancy are likely to disturb those who do not experience them. You don't have to be a man to feel that the internal incubation of a life is alien. Very likely we would all have got along a lot better if we'd evolved to reproduce by laying eggs. That way the male, like the Emperor Penguin, could sit with them on his feet and feel he was an active participant in the process. Women too could benefit from the same reassurance. In exploring Rosemary's pregnancy, Polanski is not just looking at male resentment and envy at what is going on without their participation, he is also, and more interestingly, exploring the impotence of women themselves in the process of making life. Whether as a man he is fit to do so is perhaps arguable, though not by me. (One of the great disservices of the teaching of English today—and by extension any creative activity—is that children are told they must write only out of their own experience, as if reaching out to what is not known had no part in creativity.) Personally, I'm happy for Polanski to do his best, or worst, or just middling, with a woman's experience of pregnancy, and content to assess the results.

Viewed from the perspective of all the Exorcists and Omens—parts one to infinity—Rosemary's Baby, released in 1968, looks like the mother of modern satanic movies. As such, it's a fairly ordinary popular film with a better than average sense of humour. The motivation is simple; emotionally remote, ambitious actor husband (John Cassavetes) succumbs to the temptations of good roles offered by a neighbouring coven in return for the use of his painfully naive and submissive wife's body (Mia Farrow at her most anorexic) to incubate the son of Satan. The fun is in the detail: Ruth Gordon's intrusive busybody as modern urban witch (all those interfering neighbours who can no longer be denounced and burned); Ralph Bellamy as a latterday witch-doctor (what male gynaecologist isn't?); Rosemary's proto-yuppie snobbery (“They only have three matching plates”) getting its come-uppance. But something else is going on which makes you suspect that the diabolical storyline is, after all, only a trope for something much more disturbing. The real subject of the film is child-bearing, not the devil's incarnation as Anti-Christ.

The all-pervasive use of the colour yellow (Rosemary's clothes, the flowered bedroom walls, the bed sheets, the nursery decor, the refrigerator; there's scarcely a frame without some tinge of yellow) whispers not of satanic hellfire but of Easter eggs, spring and birth. Red is saved for the outfit Rosemary wears on the night of impregnation, and if it carries overtones of the daddy incubus of them all, it also speaks of the menstrual cycle and the care with which Cassavetes, as husband Guy (good name), has ensured that the womb in question is nicely lined and receptive. It may not be the contaminated chocolate mousse that Ruth Gordon gives her to eat on baby-making night which renders Rosemary impotent in the matter of her own pregnancy, but Guy's assumption of control over the process at its earliest stages. Guy initiates the idea of making a baby and takes charge of the timing, appropriating Rosemary's menstrual cycle, marking the calendar on the kitchen wall, stabbing at it with his finger to point out to her the precise day of her peak fertility. By the following month, he, not Rosemary, knows that she is exactly two days overdue. Guys like to keep tabs on what they fear they can't control. The stiff little pre-impregnation dinner à deux inaugurates not love-making but Rosemary's paralysis and rape by her husband and/or the Prince of Darkness. The apparently doctored mousse is a sufficient but not necessary condition for Rosemary's mental absence from the act of procreation; if we chose to set aside the satanic storyline, Guy's cold controlling formality would do just as well.

Rosemary dislikes the constant attention of her elderly neighbours, but the wilting of her already etiolated spirit seems to have more to do with Guy's neglect. For all I know, the symptoms she develops in early pregnancy may be classic signs of a woman bearing the son of Satan, but they must be just as common in women who through isolation feel that pregnancy is an illness. She loses weight (a horrible thing to see when the actress is Mia Farrow), she has pains “as if a wire was being tightened inside me”, she is fearful of something she can't name. If we didn't know we were watching a satanic movie, we wouldn't hesitate to call her increasing conviction that there is a conspiracy between her husband and the neighbours paranoia. Certainly, the good gynaecologist she escapes her flat to go uptown to consult sees it that way, as she sits in his office and tells him what's been going on. Indeed, it takes an enormous effort of will to see it any other way, even within the conventions of the movie we think we're seeing, because Mia Farrow's performance in that scene is so classically psychotic. This is Polanski having it, uncomfortably for us, both ways. Read Rosemary's fears as the terror of pregnancy, and all the devil-bearing stuff falls into place as the world viewed from her disturbed mind. The neighbours are filmed less and less realistically, and in the final scene, where Rosemary breaks through into the next door flat to find the coven and the black-draped cradle, the view is so distorted that the far end of the room vanishes into near-infinite distance and the people in it are virtual statues.

From an objective point of view, a nine-month pregnancy is a mysterious and fearful thing. How do you know what is going on inside you? It's an astonishing feat of (I suppose) evolution that women mostly get through the long uncertainty believing that something perfectly ordinary is happening to them. Even so, there can be few who haven't wondered to themselves that something live, something not them is sitting inside them, taking nourishment and coming to term. Pregnancy and alien implantation are only a thin, rational line apart, and Polanski teeters along it as he tries to imagine what such an experience must be like. It's a classic case study of pre-partum psychosis, not such a rare thing, and certainly not an entirely unreasonable response to such an unreasonable situation. Guys like to be in control, after all, so what must it be like for the half of the race who for months at a time are not in control at all? Men may envy women's capacity to bear life, but they must also feel some relief hat they are not obliged to do so. Rosemary's Baby is an expression of that ambiguity.

Nick James (review date April 1995)

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SOURCE: James, Nick. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Roman Polanski. Sight and Sound 5, no. 4 (April 1995): 40.

[In the following review, James lauds Polanski's effective cinematic adaptation of Death and the Maiden, commenting that the film's direction is subtle, restrained, and thoughtful.]

[In Death and the Maiden,] Paulina Escobar prepares a meal in her beach house, in an anonymous South American country, while a storm brews. She hears on the radio that her husband Gerardo has been appointed to head a government commission of inquiry into human rights violations committed under the country's former military regime. The electricity supply cuts out. Lighting candles, Paulina takes her meal into the bedroom, having thrown away her husband's. Hearing an approaching car, she extinguishes the candles and gets an automatic pistol. She hears her husband thanking someone, and the car pulls away. Gerardo explains that he had a flat tyre and was lucky enough to be picked up by a near-neighbour. He tells her he has not yet made up his mind about the commission; she knows he is lying. It is revealed that Paulina herself was a victim of torture. They go to bed.

Shortly afterwards, Paulina hears a car again and then a knock on the door. Gerardo answers, it is the neighbour, Doctor Roberto Miranda, returning the spare tyre Gerardo left in the boot of his car. Unnoticed while the two men are getting acquainted, Paulina dresses, packs a small bag with the gun, and drives the doctor's car away. Gerardo assumes she has left him and begins to get seriously drunk, while Miranda offers sympathy.

Paulina rolls the car over the edge of a cliff and returns to the house. She finds Miranda asleep on the couch, cracks him across the head, rolls his unconscious body onto a chair, ties him up, removes her knickers and stuffs them in his mouth. She talks to him about her torture, occasionally adopting the voice of her torturer, whom she believes to be Miranda. Reminding him how he used to play Schubert to her, she plays a cassette of ‘Death and the Maiden’ she found in his car. The music wakes Gerardo, who moves to untie Miranda. But Paulina threatens him with the gun. She says she knows, by his voice and his smell, that Miranda is the same doctor who had raped and tortured her.

Gerardo argues that Paulina's behaviour is no better than that of her torturers. However Paulina intends for Miranda to have a fair trial in their house with Gerardo as his defence attorney. They ungag Miranda; he claims that at the time of Paulina's torture he was working in a Barcelona hospital. He asks Gerardo to check, but the phone line is down.

Paulina promises to let Miranda go once he confesses. She insists that Gerardo owns up to an affair he was having while she was being tortured (it was Gerardo's identity that she was protecting). She tells the full extent of her multiple rape, withheld until now, and then feeds him details for Miranda to sign. Gerardo bullies Miranda into complying, and his ‘confession’ is videotaped. Paulina reveals that she has trashed Miranda's car and intends to throw him over the cliff after it. While she marches Miranda off to the cliff-edge, Gerardo makes the call to Barcelona, and the story is verified. He tells Paulina, but she knows it's a set-up because she had told Gerardo lies that Miranda amended in his confession. On his knees at the cliff edge, Miranda confesses all. Paulina walks away.

At a concert of Schubert's ‘Death and the Maiden’, Paulina sees Miranda with his family in a balcony box. As the theme swells, they exchange looks.

That Death and the Maiden is probably Roman Polanski's most restrained film to date might not sound like much of a recommendation. After all, Polanski is admired as much for a flamboyant visual style as his occasional mastery of psychotic and suspenseful moods. Given the wilful tastelessness with which the director approached his last film, Bitter Moon, admirers of Ariel Dorfman's play—already a modern classic in terms of its international fame—could be forgiven for fearing the worst. In Polanski's hands a subtle and intricate ensemble piece, with a serious political and moral debate at its core, might be turned into high-anxiety slasher melodrama. Would not the combination of an unravelling guilt-ridden mystery and a possibly unhinged but fully-armed woman prove too tempting to the director of Repulsion and The Tenant?

Happily, the reverse is true. Polanski is almost too respectful of the play, hoarding just a few shocks for maximum effect: a sudden call from the President when the phone has been dead, a night-shattering blast of heavy metal music when the power comes back on which prompts a struggle for the gun. The problems of mobility, action and imagery associated with adapting plays are dealt with deftly. Dorfman's text has its own share of bombshells and Polanski is properly respectful of these, taking care to give Paulina's more inexplicable actions equal significance to her normal behaviour so that a sense of disquiet builds in momentum.

Dorfman's overarching theme is about whether it is possible to reintegrate not only the victims of a military regime into a new democracy but also their victimisers. His proposition is that torture is first and foremost an invasion of the body, yet he uses a familiar suburban milieu of burst tyres and talk of “my wife's margueritas” to suggest a wider invasion zone. Paulina says at one point: “I want us to live like suburban idiots,” but you sense the impossibility of such a life for her.

After the present-day concert footage under the titles and a single shot of surf pounding at the cliff bottom, we see Paulina waiting for Gerardo while a lightning storm builds. There's a neurotic edge to her preparations, as if every task is somehow an imposition. Years after her torture, she still anticipates the knock on the door in the middle of the night. Throughout this lengthy, dialogue-free sequence, her dread and hopelessness is suggested only by Sigourney Weaver's routine actions and Polanski's fluid and beautiful use of montage.

In this way, Polanski removes Death and the Maiden at once from its stagebound origins. If at times he does get stuck with a shot/reverse shot format (for example, during the couple's mutual confession scene on the terrace), it is only when the dialogue is critical enough to carry the film.

There are many significant departures from the play, most of which improve on it. The timescale is squeezed into one night, giving a tense, real-time pace to the proceedings. Paulina is more decisive, immediately trashing Miranda's car instead of hiding it, and her lines are sharper, finding a vicious wit within the politics of suffering. There's a more conclusive and plausible climax, with Miranda's admission that he had really loved what he was doing and was sorry when it was over—a more extreme admission than the play allows. Shifting the play's location (“probably Chile”) to a generalised South American one is the only change that seems a concession.

Having the couple's domestic setup become the site for re-enacting Paulina's ordeal is not just a clever conceit; it allows for multiple ironies. Thus Miranda arrives twice as an apparent Good Samaritan: in the present as the helpful motorist and in the past as the doctor whose job it was to prevent any death by torture—to clean up wounds and play soothing music—before the invitation to join in became intoxicating. The second time around reverses the roles of the powerful and the powerless, with the possibility of Miranda's innocence meant to hang in the air to the very end.

Unfortunately, from the moment that shaven-headed Ben Kingsley walks into the house, acting all weasly with wobbly eyes (and quoting Nietszche to boot), there's little doubt he will be proven guilty. But thriller mechanics are hardly at issue here. The drama comes from internal contradictions alive in each of the three characters and the unstable desires thrown up by them. Miranda craves forgiveness in the same way that Paulina craves revenge and neither can be truly satisfied. Similarly, the great liberal reconciler, Gerardo, is fighting for a future normality that it is impossible for his wife to accept.

The three actors walk a fine line between speechifying and naturalism, relishing the moral niceties of the screenplay (co-written by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias who wrote the wonderful, under-rated Peter Weir film Fearless). It is Sigourney Weaver's superb portrayal of Paulina, however, that carries the drama into movieland. She is utterly plausible as a torture victim, and she makes Paulina's mental instability thoroughly logical, eschewing the skittishness that Juliet Stevenson brought to the part on stage. Her gestures and actions command the screen as resolutely here as they did in Alien or Aliens. As for Polanski, mordant material is meat and drink to him, although in his other films it has not always been as well thought-out as it is here. Restraint becomes him.

Julie Monahan (review date April 1995)

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SOURCE: Monahan, Julie. “Rape and Death and the Maiden.Off Our Backs 25, no. 4 (April 1995): 18.

[In the following review, Monahan argues that Polanski's interpretation of Death and the Maiden confuses sexual assault with sex and demonstrates Polanski's “bumbling understanding of sexual violence.”]

What, one wonders, attracted renegade director Roman Polanski to Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman's story of torture and revenge in South America?

Visual clues abound, as we watch Polanski transmogrify an examination of human morality to the ever—titillating cinematic treatment of rape and sexual abuse.

Paulina, played by Sigourney Weaver, is a survivor of political torture during the reign of a repressive dictatorship. Her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), a former leader in the underground resistance, is now a lawyer who heads a commission charged with bringing the government death squads to justice.

The tension of the story, as written by Dorfman, lies in its balance between the raw experience of a vengeful Paulina and her methodic husband's willingness to wait for the slow wheels of justice to turn. The clash reaches its climax when an unexpected late night visitor, Dr. Roberto Miranda, wanders onto the scene. Paulina is ready to murder the doctor she suspects participated in her torture but Gerardo needs proof.

The focus of [Death and the Maiden] shifts almost immediately with the entry of Dr. Miranda to Paulina and Gerardo's claustrophobic beach house. Once Paulina comes face to face with the doctor, Polanski can't seem to see the frantic scene that follows as anything more than the sexual play of dominance and submission. Rather than leaning over the couch where the sleeping doctor lies, she lays her body across his to get a good sniff and confirm her suspicions. Once she has him tied to a chair, she strips off a pair of lacy white underwear and stuffs them in his mouth. Then she straddles him, and tapes his mouth shut. (Through the rest of the film, viewers are aware that Paulina is naked under her thin, billowy skirt.)

This scene starts to make sense, as a sign of Polanski's interpretation, when we learn that the doctor she encountered during her imprisonment also raped her repeatedly. It's clear that the director has confused sexual assault with sex, the only possible explanation for Paulina's provocative behavior.

With the accused safe within her control, she also takes the opportunity to tell her husband for the first time about this particular aspect of her torture. The reason for her silence: it would change their sex life. But the fact that Gerardo found another lover a month after Paulina disappeared, a fact she stumbles upon by finding the two of them in bed, never seemed to bother it a bit.

After Paulina's disclosure, the ineffectual voice of reason embodied in Gerardo, is seen in a new light. Instead of relating his weakness to his new role as figurehead for a democratically elected government eager to whitewash the past of a brutal dictatorship, we now see him as a cuckold and a weakling unable to protect his loved one from the taint of another man.

In fact the only time we see Gerardo lose his cool is when the good doctor, played by Ben Kingsley, describes in detail his pleasure in taking women, like Paulina, against their will. Graphic descriptions of Paulina's head in a bucket of her own excrement or shocks of electricity coursing through her vagina just didn't do it for him. But where does the difference lie? Probably in Gerardo's perception that the rape of his wife is something that directly affects him.

Polanski has shown a bumbling understanding of sexual violence before. Tess, based on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, depicts the sexual assault of the main character in the romantic light of a seduction. But Death and the Maiden outrageously crosses a line that should give all female viewers a chill. We hear in the doctor's speech at the end of the film an explanation for his criminal behavior. Rape happens, the doctor seems to say, because women drive men to it. They are so demanding, so controlling, that the only time men can have fun is when they take care of their needs and their needs alone. Throw in a dollop or two of unbridled lust, and a rapist is born.

Death and the Maiden is a glaring example of why it bears repeating, over and over again, that rape is not sex, it is humiliation. It's not about desire; it's about control.

Philip Horne (review date 12 May 1995)

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SOURCE: Horne, Philip. “Fantasy, Death, and Desire.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4806 (12 May 1995): 16.

[In the following review of Death and the Maiden, Horne asserts that Polanski's film improves upon the stage play through powerful cinematic technique, heightened realism, and a tightened narrative structure.]

In Fritz Lang's tour de force of purposeful plotting, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt of 1956, a journalist conspires with his editor to plant circumstantial evidence and have himself sentenced to death for a recent murder in order, at the last moment, to reveal his innocence and discredit the judicial process. It finally transpires that the journalist is an ingenious schemer, and not innocent of the crime; but most of the film, we realize with a chill, would be the same whether he is innocent or guilty. In fact, although the journalist's demonstration of the unsound basis of the death penalty is undertaken in the worst faith, Lang's dark liberal film puts its own triumphantly through: the suspenseful twists towards the end are grounded in a painful irony about the judicial process and the puzzling blankness of appearances. Jacques Rivette's marvelous, high-flown response to Lang's dialectical construction invoked Hegel's “pure negative”, dwelling on the dizzying effect of watching a film and knowing that it would look the same if the meaning of its action was reversed (the philosophical appeal of the whodunnit).

Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden, first performed in 1990, attracted extraordinary praise for its dramatization of the ambiguous moral predicament of a woman, Paulina, whose life has been crippled by the tortures and multiple rapes she underwent—always to a record of the Schubert quarter of the title—under a Latin American dictatorship years before. A new, uncertain, democratic government, as the play opens, has appointed Paulina's lawyer-husband head of a commission investigating human-rights violations—though not her case, only those ending in death. A stranger, Dr Roberto Miranda, who has helped her husband when his car broke down, comes back to their remote house by the sea and she recognizes, she thinks, his voice and pet phrases as those of the doctor who supervised her torture and repeatedly raped her. Before her horrified, ambivalent, law-respecting husband Gerardo, the ex-victim, gun in hand, violently initiates a private show-trial, turning prosecutor, persecutor, interrogator and—possibly—murderer. Under threat, Dr Miranda supplies a confession—only insisting, however, that Gerardo, who reluctantly acts in his defence, obtains the atrocious facts for him from Paulina, so that he can confess the violations correctly (whether he's innocent or guilty, this makes perfect sense). She thus probably can't be certain that the extorted confession is as genuine as she claims it to be. And Paulina may finally kill her persecutor/victim; but in a portentous, never-resolved cliffhanger, she freezes as the lights go down. In the coda, where she sees him again in the audience at a Schubert concert, “He could be real or he could be an illusion in Paulina's head”.

Whereas Lang's compact, realistic masterpiece observes a dry forensic distance from its characters and economically gives a plot-function to every detail—even the discussions of the death penalty—Dorfman's play, which sometimes falls into an emphatic earnest liberal clunkiness, often seems embarrassed by the whodunnit framework which is its real strength, and moves towards the showily impressive symbolic gesture (most intrusively in the lowering of a mirror at the end, “forcing the members of the audience to look at themselves”).

Such overt moments of theatrical self-consciousness are eliminated in Roman Polanski's masterly film adaptation of Death and the Maiden, with a fine cast whose performances are rich in contrasts. The heroic, risk-taking Hollywood star, Sigourney Weaver, plays Paulina against two Britons, Stuart Wilson as Gerardo and Ben Kingsley as Dr Miranda. Polanski and co-scenarist Raphael Yglesias (and, to some extent, Dorfman himself), have changed the original, including the end, a good deal: “In the film, we had to inject realism where the play stayed very artificial, not to say conventional.” One remains, seldom uncomfortably, conscious of the theatrical derivation: Polanski's tales of sexual entrapment always gravitate to the huis clos. There is just one scene—on the terrace—where Sigourney Weaver does look uncomfortable, insistent and busy when Polanski's long, attentive take requires concentration and underplaying. Otherwise she is excellent, above all when listening (recognizing Miranda's voice with a desperate sniff). Wilson, meanwhile, is quietly virtuosic, Kingsley creepily, brilliantly ambiguous.

Polanski's intent curiosity about his characters, not without its voyeuristic edge, leads him to attempt to imagine their lives not in the rather bare, stylized, Pinteresque manner of the play but with the kind of domestic and intimate detail that is powerfully visible to a camera tracking them around a fully furnished, inhabited house. The film is rich in violent, sensuous close-ups—of a plateful of food shovelled into a bin, of Paulina's heavy metallic gun, of the contents of a kitchen drawer being rummaged for interrogation aids. An actor himself, Polanski refuses the fixity of storyboards and rehearses each scene to get it right before placing the camera, so that the image moves and cuts to follow what he finds himself watching in the characters' behaviour.

Both locally and in construction, Polanski intricately readjusts and re-weights the play; more successfully a thriller, paced out with shocks and turns, the film also has a keener eye, directing our attention so closely, for the loaded details of behaviour. Gagging Miranda (with her panties—the most Polanskian thing in the original play), Paulina bites off a length of parcel tape, practically kissing him in the process, a trace of the fantasized revenge-rape which anatomy prohibits. While the Schubert tape plays and Gerardo tries to persuade Miranda to confess, Paulina prowls on the terrace. There is a fine concentrated moment where Miranda turns to look out, the music surges, and Paulina appears in the window. Miranda's terrified response may be innocent, but may imaginably reflect his guilty memory of what that musical pulse once—or fourteen times—meant sexually. Miranda's unpleasant blend of misogyny and courtliness perhaps does imply, without proving, a past as a torturer-rapist, but the cynicism unsettlingly finds an echo (“Fuck women!”) in Gerardo, beyond dispute a devoted husband, when he thinks himself abandoned by Paulina.

Polanski has said that he instantly recognized the weakness of Dorfman's third act, full of theatrical fades and dissolves and blurrings of the line between fantasy and reality; and the film's symmetrical construction, framed in flashback from the Schubert concert, gives a stronger, more logical shape. Ingenious business with the cutting-off of telephone and electricity permits beautifully-integrated surprises, and cleverly compresses the time-scheme to impose urgency on the action. The doubling of Miranda's confession suggests a progression from false to true, but permits the other reading Polanski has sketched: “One can indeed imagine that to save his skin, an innocent man should be obliged to invent a very convincing confession.” In the play, it seems indicated that Miranda is guilty.

Polanski's film is beautifully constructed. Full of strong human feeling, alert to the grotesque ironies of situations and the possibilities of humiliation, it is unsettling and involving. It cares much more than the play for the integrity of character, and embeds its action more plausibly in a web of circumstance—to the point where reflection on the situation opens up a kaleidoscope of possible perspectives and makes one curious to watch again. One must say that, in so far as in reality Miranda must be either innocent or guilty, it remains just a little unsatisfying and blurred compared with the clear double logic of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. But perhaps the film knows what he did or didn't do, and just isn't telling us—which would be like life.

Andy Pawelczak (review date July-August 1995)

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SOURCE: Pawelczak, Andy. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Roman Polanski. Films in Review 46, nos. 5-6 (July-August 1995): 54-5.

[In the following review, Pawelczak asserts that Death and the Maiden lacks the style, imagination, and emotional impact characteristic of Polanski's best films.]

Who is Roman Polanski? Besides a hack writer's dream, that is. His life seems made for the tabloids—childhood victimization by the Nazis in his native Poland, early success as a director, then the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson, and in 1977 his conviction for “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl and subsequent exile in Europe. The Manson connection in particular has made Polanski into a part of pop demonology—people have always assumed that Polanski has a secret life, that he's a habitué of an international, decadent demi-monde, perhaps something like the society of Parisian vampires portrayed in Interview with the Vampire. Polanski himself reinforced the image with his cameo role in Chinatown as the sadistic thug who slashes Jack Nicholson's nostril with a switchblade. So it's not surprising that each new Polanski movie is an occasion for the popular parlor game of spotting the raw slices of Polanski psyche displayed on the screen.

To render Caesar his due right at the beginning—yes, Death and the Maiden does obscurely resonate with the facts of Polanski's life. Guilt, misogyny, rape, fascist oppression—the themes are all there. And when Sigourney Weaver appears alone in an isolated house in a storm, I suppose many viewers will think of Sharon Tate and Manson, the latter our very own gothic monster. But the surprising thing is how becalmed the movie is, how little the material activates Polanski's filmic imagination.

It's not entirely his fault. Based on a play by the Chilean Ariel Dorfman, the screenplay (written by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias) is full of lifeless dialogue and too pat reversals. The film takes place in an unnamed South American country with a new democratic regime. The reformist president has appointed a human rights commission to investigate the atrocities of the previous regime, but Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) knows it will be a whitewash. When her husband brings home a man who helped him when his car broke down, Paulina thinks she recognizes the doctor (she was blindfolded and only heard his voice) who tortured and raped her in a fascist prison. She clubs him into submission and then ties him to a chair and tapes his mouth—she has now become the interrogator and he's the victim. The rest of the film, which takes place during a single night and is largely confined to the Escobar house, is a three-way psycho drama as Paulina tries to extract a confession from Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley) and convince her husband (Stuart Wilson) to go along with her.

Dorfman's play is theme besotted—it's the kind of writing in which the characters seem like after-thoughts designed to illustrate ideas. And every time some new narrative information or a new theme is introduced, you can hear the gears grind as the whole mechanism shudders and jerks forward. Among the themes are the banality of evil, the connection between fascism and misogyny, and the tendency of people to become what they behold. The man who tortured Paulina liked to play Schubert's “Death and the Maiden” while he raped her, and this provides both a neat emblem for the whole drama and another theme i.e., that the humanities, such as music and literature, don't humanize. (As George Steiner once pointed out, the commandants of the Nazi death camps were cultivated men who listened to Bach and read Goethe during their off-hours.) Unfortunately, Dorfman doesn't bring anything new to these ideas, so we're left with the acting and Polanski's visual treatment to provide whatever bite the film has.

Polanski both mythicizes and humanizes Sigourney Weaver's screen persona. As in the Alien movies, she's once again fighting a monster, but this time it's an all too human monster. Weaver, with her big-boned body and fierce intensity, is like an ancient Fury come back to avenge all the crimes committed against women. Her eerie monomania also has overtones of her performance as Diane Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, and in Paulina's more deranged moments she recalls the paranoid, homicidal Catherine Deneuve character from Polanski's Repulsion. In one quietly powerful scene, Paulina strips to the waist, and Polanski shoots the scene in such a way that instead of prurience it invites our compassion. Her naked body is somehow unutterably sad and vulnerable—she's really exposed—and when her husband nuzzles her breasts, Polanski focuses on her grief-haunted face. Weaver's performance doesn't have an ounce of audience ingratiation, and if it misses the high notes of classic tragedy which the role clearly implies, I think that's due to the weakness of the script.

As Dr. Miranda, Ben Kingsley doesn't have much to do—for a good deal of the film he's bound and gagged. The movie pretends to make a mystery out of Miranda's guilt or innocence, but enough clues are dropped that the alert viewer won't be very mystified. Kingsley does have one good speech at the end during which you can see reflections of the sulphurous fires within. As Paulina's husband, Stuart Wilson is convincingly confused and uncertain about everything—his feelings for his wife, the situation with Dr. Miranda, and his role as the head of the human rights commision.

Polanski overtly paid homage to Hitchcock in Frantic, but this film has Hitchcockian overtones too. Hitchcock was a master of this kind of cat and mouse game played out on a single set with a small cast of characters. He famously shot Rope in eight long takes, each shot taking us deeper into a labyrinth of twisted motives and delusional hubris. Polanski can't match that performance, and his visual style in this film never quite jells. In past films, he was able to make us feel voyeuristically complicit with his material, but his style here is too cold, too distant and analytic, to draw us in. The film is a respectable effort, perhaps too respectable—it doesn't have that knife slash to the nose.

Timothy Burrill (essay date July 1996)

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SOURCE: Burrill, Timothy. “Wessex Tales.” Sight and Sound 6, no. 7 (July 1996): 59.

[In the following essay, Burrill—one of the producers on Polanski's Tess—describes the process of bringing the film through production to release.]

Roman Polanski first approached me with the idea of producing an adaptation of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles in 1977. He got in touch while I was in New York and asked if I could work on the film. I'd helped produce his Macbeth and we'd got on very well. So I flew back to Paris and met Claude Berri who wanted to finance Tess with his company Renn Productions. Berri and I were mutually suspicious at first, sizing each other up like dogs, but once we observed each other's quality, we hit it off and have worked together non-stop since.

We felt that Tess would be an ideal Franco-British co-production, but it was clear that if Roman went back to the UK he would be extradited because of American charges against him for having sex with a minor. In France, however, he was safe (the charge was not one the French authorities considered worthy of extradition), so we accepted the fact that we would have to shoot in Northern France.

The film was started in quite a rush. We wanted to get going with enough time to get all the summer in and Polanski was keen to start on a new film at that crucial point in his career. We even paid out $50,000 for the rights of the Hardy book, which was still in the David Selznick estate (Selznick had bought it up in the 40s intending to make a film adaptation) and would come out of copyright only six months after we started filming. That hurt. It went against the grain to pay out so much.

The script was completed only a couple of weeks before shooting began. Tess of the D'Urbervilles was a difficult book to cut, but the writers (Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach and then later John Brownjohn) were very economical. I remember noticing a scene at the beginning of the book in which the Durbeyfield horse is speared by the shaft of a mailcart and thinking Roman's bound to put that in the screenplay, and it'll cost a fortune. But, to my relief, he didn't. John Brownjohn was asked to join the team when Roman, who initially co-wrote the script in French with Brach (his long-time writing partner), needed a translator. He asked me to find one, but I couldn't think of anybody who had the ability to be totally bilingual and also make a creative input. So I looked in a list of interpreters and Brownjohn was, by chance, the first name. He lived in the village of Marnhull in Dorset, which was (by some extraordinary coincidence) the village on which Hardy's Marlott was based. So I drove down, met him and liked him enormously. He spent a lot of time in Paris working directly with Polanski and Brach and it was a marriage made in heaven. He created dialogue which was effectively West Countryish.

Crucial to the film was the casting of the central character, Tess. From the start Roman was determined that Nastassia Kinski play the role, but there was a problem. British Equity rejected Kinski and said we must use an English girl and that if we didn't they would black the film. Mary Selway, the casting director, looked around and said she couldn't find any English girl who could play the part better than Kinski. We were at loggerheads. I found myself in a battle with the Department of Trade and Industry, which was responsible for formally authorising the co-production, and I went there and said, “Look this is lunacy, that this film should be stopped when there's so much work that's going to go to British actors.” And so they rejected the Equity claim. Later when the film was shown to the general secretary of Equity he had the grace to come up to me and say, “You were absolutely right.” Kinski was extraordinary, and she worked incredibly hard, coming to London to work on her accent with dialogue coach Kate Fleming at the National Theatre, and to Dorset where she worked on a farm and learned how to milk. The rest of the cast too were marvellous (Carolyn Pickles, Leigh Lawson, Peter Firth) and there was a wonderful entente cordiale between the British actors and the French crew.

The translocation of shooting from England to France was surprisingly effective. Because of the style of farming in Britain nowadays, the very small fields of Hardy's time, no longer exist in Devon and Dorset. But they do exist in France. So the countryside in Tess is infinitely more accurate than it would have been had we shot it in the British West Country. There was, however, no French replacement for Stonehenge, the site of the final scene in the book and film. We built a new Stonehenge, an absolutely accurate representation of the circle as it would have been in the nineteenth century. Designed using archival pictures, our circle was made to scale out of polystyrene. In the end, we only shot one scene in England: the train scene. That was filmed at the Bluebell line by second-unit director Hercules Bellville, with Billy Williams lighting. We couldn't find a decent station in France.

The production went well over budget. We had endless problems which were only partly caused by Roman's inability to keep to the schedule (he was enormously meticulous and would spend hours over shots). There was a strike which made us stop shooting. We'd done a deal with the Societé Française de Production (a studio just outside Paris) and were due to use it at the end of the summer. They were a publicly owned company and were often in dispute with the government. So by some bad luck, we found ourselves affected by a strike which had nothing to do with us. They wouldn't let us into the studio and there was nothing we could do. We had to shut up shop, and of course that cost a fortune. Then there was poor Geoffrey Unsworth, the cinematographer, who died half-way through filming. That was agony, but Polanski kept on shooting almost immediately. We took on Ghislain Cloquet for the rest of the film, and the marvel is that you can't tell who shot what. You would think there was only one cinematographer on the film.

Tess was hugely successful in the end, but there was a moment when we had failed to find distributors in Britain and the States and I was still owing lots of money, and someone said to me, “Just sell it to the BBC and get out.” In those days only two people were responsible for booking the films for 90 per cent of the cinemas in the US—George Pinches for the Rank circuit and Bob Webster for ABC. Both rejected Tess and it seemed we were doomed. It was Charles Champlin of the LA Times who saved us. He raved about the film and persuaded Frank Price at Columbia to see it. Price liked it very much and put it on in two cinemas in time for Oscar nominations. Thankfully it was nominated for six, and won three awards for Best Costume Design (Anthony Powell), Best Cinematography (Cloquet and Unsworth) and Best Art Direction (Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens). After that, we were made.

Gordana Crnkovic (review date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Crnkovic, Gordana. Review of Death and the Maiden, by Roman Polanski. Film Quarterly 50, no. 3 (spring 1997): 39-45.

[In the following review, Crnkovic compares Death and the Maiden to other films in Polanski's oeuvre that explore the victimization of women, arguing that Death and the Maiden effectively places the spectator in the uncomfortable position of not knowing who is the victim and who is the aggressor.]

I had already been in the United States for a few years when the war started in my homeland, the former Yugoslavia. As time passed, the images and reports of massacres, rape, shelling, and ethnic cleansing accumulated. And yet many of my American friends and acquaintances still could not see who was doing what to whom; they could not figure out their own position on this conflict. I asked them what made it so hard to see what was happening in this war, given the availability of daily reports and images. They said things like “They always talked about how complex the situation was,” and that it was “hard to make up one's mind as to who is the aggressor and who the victim.”

I would suggest that the difficulty in perception and understanding of this war stemmed from, among other factors, a mystifying verbal discourse that accompanied images which were in themselves unambiguous (i.e., the destruction of Vukovar, the daily siege of Sarajevo, the cleansing of Bosnia). This verbal discourse, a “voice over” the images, was made up not only of the Western reporter's text, but also of the speeches by both the attackers—who claimed that they were not responsible—and those who suffered the attack—and survived to accuse the others. A “balanced presentation” of aggressors and victims, giving opposing accounts of events, made my American acquaintances doubt the otherwise clear-cut images.

I realized only later that I knew better what was happening in my country simply because I had the advantage of a “reality check.” In other words, I was getting firsthand information from many people in the area, which helped delineate truth from lie. My American friends did not have this reality check and had to rely solely on the representation provided by the media; consequently, they were much more affected by the differences between the stories told by victims and perpetrators. And so they remained doubtful and suspicious, and therefore passive.

When I first saw Polanski's Death and the Maiden in 1994, the familiarity of the situation struck me. Here we are again confronted by a situation that demands a judgment, but without any reality check to help us make it: two people who present different stories, each one claiming to be victimized by the other. We—the outside viewers—are left to figure out who is telling the truth.


As Lawrence Weschler observed, “Death and the Maiden might have served as an alternative title for well over half of Roman Polanski's movies.”1 Indeed, many of Polanski's films explore the victimization of a female character which ends with death—either that of the character or of those who persecute her. In Repulsion (U.K., 1965), for example, the main character, Carol (Catherine Deneuve), an increasingly schizophrenic young Belgian woman living in London, senses with abnormal intensity all the very real abuses of the male gaze, touch, and intrusion upon her body and her private space. By the end of the movie she has stopped being the victim of a sexist society and has become a brutal murderer of the men who pursue her. In two of Polanski's American movies, Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), a woman is victimized by being used as a womb to bear the child of rape by a devil—a literal devil in the first movie and a metaphorical one (the mythically evil and powerful Noah Cross, played by John Huston) in the second.

In The Tenant (France, 1976), a Polish immigrant in Paris (played by Polanski) gradually assumes the identity of a woman victimized by her surroundings to the point of suicide; and in Tess (France/U.K., 1980) a young girl (Nastassia Kinski) kills the man who seduced her and ruined her life, and is hung for the murder. In Bitter Moon (France/U.K., 1991), the dynamics of sexuality, power, and victimization unfold in a series of astonishing metamorphoses. A 40-ish American writer in Parish and a younger Parisian girl probe the depths of sexuality and sadism as they switch, in an increasingly deadly game, the positions of victim and victimizer.

Polanski's latest film, Death and the Maiden (U.S.A./U.K./France, 1994), explores these same themes but seems to be the first one to put the spectator in the uncomfortable position of not knowing who is actually the true victim. In many of Polanski's other movies the viewer is in the position of an “omniscient camera-narrator”—able to observe and grasp more than the film's characters can. Thus, for example, in Polanski's first feature movie, Knife in the Water (Poland, 1962), a young man who is presumed to be a nonswimmer falls from a boat into the sea, and the blame for his apparent drowning rests squarely on the older man who has been dominating their interaction and who now thinks he has inadvertently killed the younger man. We, however, know that this is not the case: we see the young man hiding behind a buoy, obviously not in any danger of drowning. In Repulsion, two men successively turn their backs to Carol and thus do not see—as we do—that she is coming at them with a heavy candlestick or a razor. The tension of these films (and obviously many others) is built precisely on characters' not seeing or knowing something that the viewer sees or knows. Or else the spectator is “allowed” to know at least as much as the main characters, for instance detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown or the husband (Harrison Ford) in search of his abducted wife in Frantic (U.S.A., 1988). We are also able to go back in time and see the characters' past through flashbacks, as in Bitter Moon, where the film continuously leaves the present time of a trans-Atlantic voyage and returns to the past in Paris. And sometimes we are even able to see the world through the eyes of one of the characters, as in Repulsion or The Tenant.

In short, Polanski's films usually allow us to assume the position of an omniscient spectator or of the film's characters. As such, we are granted a very unrealistic, and privileged, position, given that in “real life” we do not see the world through other people's eyes, nor are we usually present during the course of some private action involving other people, because such actions—whether amorous or murderous—mostly do not happen in front of an outsider. But it is precisely this voyeuristic position which is given to us by film, and that we have come to expect.

Polanski's Death and the Maiden constructs a very different viewer's position: following Ariel Dorfman's play, the film restricts the spectator's knowledge. In a solitary house near the coast of an unnamed Latin-American country shortly after the fall of a dictatorship, a woman named Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) claims that her husband's chance encounter, Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), is the man who tortured her 15 years ago. Paulina beats this visitor unconscious with a gun, ties him to a chair, gags him with her panties, and wraps tape around his mouth. In front of her mortified husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), she insists that even though she was blindfolded while being interrogated she can indeed identify Dr. Miranda as her torturer because she can recognize his voice, his smell, the way he laughs and the way he talks. She wants to force a confession from Miranda that would affirm the truth of her accusations. Miranda, on the other hand, keeps trying to convince her and her husband of his innocence.

We (the viewers) were not there when Paulina's tortures took place. Polanski's film does not allow any flashbacks which would vouchsafe us some hard facts about the events Paulina is describing, even if they did not reveal the identity of the torturer. Instead of opening up Dorfman's play to other locales and times (a customary practice in transforming a play into a film, but one that in this case would load the evenly balanced scales of ambiguity), Polanski leaves the action almost entirely in a closed space (the interior of a house), and even shortens the time of the play: the original night and a day become one night. This confinement puts us in an uncomfortable state of ignorance and limitation that is not at all typical of film. It is not merely that we do not know what the characters know, but we can also see only what is happening here (one house) and now (one night). Our only way of finding out the truth about the past is through what Paulina and Miranda are saying or doing in the present. Death and the Maiden places us squarely and brutally within the limits of the “real-life” situation of an outside viewer. It is the ethical position of judge and jury, with unknown people playing out a trial in front of our eyes.

Polanski's film emphasizes the tragic dichotomy at the root of Dorfman's play: the inability of outsiders to know a truth known only to the insiders, and the inevitable pursuit of this knowledge by those same outsiders who cannot avoid the drama unfolding in front of them. The film demands that we decide and pass judgment; if Paulina is telling the truth, she was a victim of Miranda's sadistic torture and he deserves the harshest punishment; if Miranda is telling the truth, he is an innocent object of a deranged and brutal woman's vendetta.

But how can one make an ethnical judgment based on questionable knowledge? How can we know if we are facing an alleged victim falsely accusing someone of being her/his torturer, thereby justifying his/her own present violence over them, or the opposite, in which a genuine victim tells the truth but is not believed? The viewer of Death and the Maiden is invited to make a judgment and, more importantly, to recognize that s/he makes a very similar type of judgment in real life, where his/her ability to do so (or inability and ensuing passivity) determines the fate of real human lives.


The position of the outside viewer is replicated within Death and the Maiden itself, in the character of Paulina's husband. He is a high-powered lawyer just appointed as the head of a commission for human rights abuses during the days of the military regime. Stuart Wilson gives a sensitive performance as a bespectacled, clumsy, and somewhat overweight lawyer whose masculinity is softened by his attire—a robe and slippers throughout much of the film. His relation to Paulina can be taken as indicative of the ways in which legal discourse and procedures deal with victims of violence. Escobar puts on his legal persona while talking to Paulina, and spells out the reasons why he thinks she is wrong. First, she does not have proof that Miranda is indeed the man she believes he is—one needs facts, visual identification, witnesses. Secondly, even if Miranda is guilty, he should be given a chance for a fair trial and defense. Escobar tries to fight Paulina's apparent frenzy and his own rising panic with legal logic and arguments: “You don't have any proof … the only evidence you have is your own testimony … you are not a reliable witness … trust me, any court in the land would tear you to pieces.”

He questions Paulina, his voice increasingly like a trial lawyer's: “Isn't it true that five years ago in the Tabeli Café you heard the voice of a man that you recognized? … Isn't it a fact that you panicked on a bus last summer when a man touched your shoulder?” At the very beginning of this ordeal, he tells Paulina in total disbelief, “You were blindfolded!” implying that she could not possibly recognize her torturer. Paulina answers, “The voice.” He echoes her own words, making them utterly suspicious: “His voice, that's it?!” She says, “That's enough for me,” upon which her husband concludes, without a shadow of a doubt in his own pronouncement, “Pauli, you're ill.”

Just as Escobar assumes his legal persona in trying to prove to Paulina that she is deluded, Dr. Miranda also makes use of professional expertise in his own defense. Ben Kingsley fashions a brilliant portrayal of Roberto Miranda as the cultured middle-aged physician in a light summer suit, a picture of innocence, trying to suppress increasing panic while under attack. In a clear voice, attempting a rational medical discourse in the midst of this unleashed female frenzy, he tells Escobar, “Obviously, she's insane, she's not responsible for what she does, but you're a lawyer, if you don't stop this right now you're an accomplice, you're gonna have to pay the price.” A highly educated and professional man is addressing himself to one of his kind. An assumed and required male association between Miranda and Escobar is asserted by the positioning of both men in a single frame, with Paulina outside of it. We are thus reminded of the previous evening's bonding between Escobar and Miranda, and of Miranda's quoting Nietzsche's dictum (“I think it was Nietzsche,” he says) on the irreconcilable female difference: “We can never entirely possess a female soul.”

Miranda's head is in the right lower corner of the frame. His face is turned toward Escobar, who stands farther away to the left. Escobar makes some desperate gestures, signaling his own impotence and shock at what is happening. But before he has the chance to actually say anything and affirm the connection between the two rational male beings trapped by a delusional woman, a gun enters the frame from the left side. In the first few moments, we do not see Paulina's head, only the gun and the hand which holds it, a gun which comes to rest on Miranda's chin. The expression on his face changes from assertiveness and self-righteousness to fear, and he immediately stops talking. Then Paulina moves into the frame, positioning her head close to his, and we see the close-up of Paulina's head on the left and Miranda's on the right, with Escobar standing farther away and in the middle of the frame. With the two men silent, Paulina says, “You threatening? … Let me make this clear. The time for people like you making threats is over. Ha? Out there maybe you bastards are still running things behind the scenes but in here, in here, I'm in charge. Understand? Me! Is that clear?”


“Outside”—where we, the spectators, are also placed—the rules of factuality, proofs, legality, medical discourse, and rationality hold power. Paulina has no proof that Miranda is the person who tortured her. As far as the legal discourse goes, she is the unreliable witness who would be “torn to pieces by any court”; in the medical assessment, she is delusional and obviously insane. In order to believe Paulina, we need to suspend all these rules of fact, logic, and other established discourses of truth. We need to enter Paulina's space, a space where she is in charge and where different rules apply.

The night is stormy and the electricity and telephone are cut off, thereby severing all connections with the outside world. The candlelight emphasizes the difference of this female space. Electricity and its even light can be seen as attributes of logos—a term which means mind, word, light, and can also be interpreted as an attribute of “masculine cerebrality.”2 Paulina asserts a female space that is based on and oriented toward the body and its truths: the givens of rape and torture, the inability to conceive a child, the body's memory of smell, touch, and sound, the exclusion of the sense of sight privileged in a logos-centric discourse. As viewers, we need to accept the possibility of the body's truth, which turns the rational truth—of argument, facts, proofs, legality, medical science—into one big lie.

In order to fully participate in Paulina's different space, a space where “she's in charge,” we also need to be aware of how politics are aestheticized or, in other words, of the fact that torturers might seem civil, innocent, and utterly believable, whereas victims often look crazy, unreliable, and ugly. Kingsley's Roberto Miranda is genuinely likable, and could easily be the convincingly innocent victim of a deranged woman. On the other hand, Polanski's Paulina is more physical, brutal, and sensual, as well as less verbal, than Dorfman's character, and Sigourney Weaver's performance managed to bring these aspects out in being “persuasively febrile.” She is physically commanding (her performance in the Alien series resonates here): lean, muscular, and tall, with movements that are economic and precise but never (even before Dr. Miranda's arrival) graceful or beautiful. Weaver's Paulina can convincingly beat her captive into unconsciousness or push his car off the cliff—and thus look completely demented to those outside viewers who at that point in the film have no inkling of her possible motivations. She curses, beats up her captive, sniffs him, bites, and uses teeth instead of scissors. She holds Miranda's penis while he urinates with his hands tied behind his back. She is much “uglier” and less feminine (or not feminine at all) than in Dorfman's play.

By transforming Paulina's character in this way, Polanski's film sharpens the contrast between a woman who seems irrational and unreliable in her accusations, and her victim, who seems utterly innocent. There are convincing reasons for us—like Paulina's husband—to think that she is ill. Paulina can prove that she is right only if she can change our conventionally accepted parameters of what the truth is based on and what it is supposed to look like.


By holding Miranda and her husband hostage with her gun, Paulina manages to stage a situation that tricks Miranda into disclosing his intimate knowledge of the details of her torture. She succeeds in revealing his lies at the level of rational and factual discourse, and thus makes them visible even to her husband. But in order to be able to set her trap and “drag” Miranda into the open, to a space of factual proof which speaks to her husband (and to us), Paulina needs to have time and power, which she can obtain only with the help of her gun.

Throughout the night, Paulina never lets the weapon out of her hand (except for a moment of crisis when Miranda manages to take it away from her for a few seconds), and early on proves to Gerardo that she is absolutely serious about using it—firing at him when he starts to untie Miranda. When he pleads with her, “Give me the gun … listen, while you're holding the gun we have nothing to discuss,” Paulina corrects him, saying, “On the contrary, the minute I give up the gun all discussion will end.”

Polanski visually emphasizes the opposition between the legalistic, rational discourse advocated by Escobar and Paulina's method of getting the truth through the use of power. In many scenes, Escobar and Paulina occupy opposite sides of the screen, with the tied-up Miranda in the middle. We see, for instance, Escobar in the left corner, turned towards Paulina, who is standing farther away, diagonally across Escobar on the right side, and holding her gun. Miranda sits between them, like a prize for the winner. Across this space, Escobar delivers his talk and his persuasion, while Paulina points her gun at both men. Rationality flows from Escobar to Paulina, who fights back with the power residing in her pointed gun.

Another of the many striking examples of the visual accentuation of this weapon occurs when Paulina escorts Miranda to the bathroom. His hands are tied, so she unties his zipper and holds his penis above the toilet with her left hand. With her right hand, she holds the gun pressed to Miranda's neck. The frame contains a close-up of Miranda's face on the left, Paulina's on the right, the gun between them, and then, in a medium shot, Escobar farther away, positioned right behind the centered gun, with his flashlight pointing at and emphasizing it.

Polanski radically changes Dorfman's stage directions for Paulina's firing of the shot at her husband. In Dorfman's directions, it is “clear that [Paulina] does not know how to fire the weapon, because she is as surprised as both men are, recoiling from the shot.”3 Polanski's Paulina, on the contrary, is in complete control, obviously knows how to use the gun, and does so deliberately. The gun is the site of Paulina's power, and if she is to use her power efficiently, she needs to know how to use her gun well. Unlike Dorfman's character, Polanski's Paulina does not allow her husband to embrace her and render her weapon ineffectual. When Escobar approaches her with the intention of comforting her, she points the gun at him and says, “I can't trust you.” She opts for the gun and not for the husband. Sigourney Weaver portrays Paulina as a woman who, although shaken to the quick by Miranda's unexpected presence, repeatedly manages to get control over the situation—and herself—by literally drawing strength from her weapon.

In repeatedly emphasizing the crucial importance of the gun, Polanski's film underscores the necessity of power in obtaining the truth. Thus, this film leaves us puzzled and shaken. We surely do not want to relinquish the values of uncoerced investigation, rational discourse, and factual argumentation. However, as we become increasingly aware that Paulina might indeed be right, we also increasingly see “the law” (Escobar) as gullible, helplessly tied to the existing factuality, and affected by appearances (Paulina looks “ill,” whereas “Miranda looks like someone we can trust”). Although he is an official voice for Paulina, Escobar, left to his own devices, could never find the truth. She repeatedly addresses him as “my boy” or “my baby, my poor gentle baby.” Weaver infuses this line with the gentleness and cynicism of a woman who, though in love, is perfectly aware of her own superiority over her husband. As the voice of the Law, Stuart Wilson masterfully develops his role of a man who is always too slow, alternately expressing astonishment, utter disbelief, confusion, and finally understanding. When the astonished Miranda says, “He didn't do anything! He just stood there!,” referring to Escobar's failure to seize the gun which Paulina had momentarily lost, Paulina answers, “Of course ‘he just stood there.’ He's the Law!”

Escobar/the Law cannot follow or be a match for Paulina and Miranda as they do battle in the sphere of violence, darkness, Eros, and death, a sphere inaccessible to Escobar and his knowledge. Paulina has no choice but to use the illegitimate and reprehensive power of the gun in order to descend into this sphere. Only by using the gun (the “unacceptable” power) can she bring Miranda “out” into the different space of light (factuality, rationality), where his demonic side will become visible to Escobar—and also to us. Miranda's final confession—which a kneeling Ben Kingsley delivers with a face and voice so very different from his previous Good Samaritan that it creates the stunning impression of removing a mask—could not have been gotten in any other way.

The “Death and the Maiden” motif in Polanski's movies can also be seen as one of a woman holding a deadly weapon. Polanski's films obsessively rework the motif of a woman-victim seizing power, a tool of death, and then deploying it in different ways. In Repulsion, Carol turns from a victim into victimizer by appropriating and later using one man's razor to kill another man. At the end of Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray manages to escape the deadly embrace of her father, a rapist and murderer, by shooting and wounding him (only to end up being killed herself by the Los Angeles police). In Bitter Moon, a woman (played by Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife) gives a gun to her paralyzed lover, thereby returning to him the masculinity and power which she took away when she crippled him. She cannot and does not want to escape a self-destructive cycle of eroticism as death. At the end of their voyage, her paralyzed lover uses this gun to kill her and then himself.

It seems that Polanski finds a productive solution for the motive of a woman-victim who seizes power (a weapon) in Death and the Maiden. Paulina uses a gun to get a confession, and when she gets it, she does not kill Miranda, nor is she herself killed. Instead, she puts the gun away—for the first time that night; she stashes it in her skirt, turns her back to Miranda standing at the edge of the cliff, and walks away. She employs the gun to prove the truth. Power is not used for retaliation and murder, which destroy not only the object of violence but also the one who violates; nor is power used inefficiently. Paulina uses her power to open a space that changes both her husband's and the spectators' notions of truthfulness, insanity, justice, and the role of power in revealing the truth.

I began this argument by linking the war in the former Yugoslavia to Death and the Maiden, finding the position of the outside viewer similar in both—a non-omniscient viewer, one who is required to make an ethnical judgment and decide who is telling the truth and who is lying, who is the victim and who the villain. Without trying to reduce the multiple implications of this film, or forget that Paulina's struggle for the truth does not literally correspond to those that transpired with regard to the war in the former Yugoslavia, perhaps I can end by pointing out another analogy between that war and the film's assertion of the role of power in revealing the truth. In the Balkans, withholding “the gun” from the victims early on (through the arms embargo on Bosnia) prevented them not only from saving their lives, but also from representing the truth of what was being done to them. Had they not been so powerless and defenseless, their truth would have been supported by power which would have had to be listened to and considered. As it was, they were explaining, shouting, begging, urging. … But unarmed people do not have to be heeded, and their truth does not have to be accepted. Similarly, Paulina's truth would not have been accepted had she been without her gun. She would plead with Escobar, be left to his inadequacies, and watch impotently as polite Miranda takes his leave.


  1. Lawrence Weschler, “Artist in Exile,” in The New Yorker, 5 December, 1994, p. 90.

  2. I am drawing here on Luce Irigaray's equation of the Idea (Plato's Sun, perfect light, rationality) with the masculine element, in opposition to the feminine element of earth, body, or (in Plato's terms) dark cave. See section “Plato's Hystera,” in Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985). Paulina dismantles the rationality of light and the accepted logical terms, and instead establishes the “dark” zone of a different, “feminine” truth.

  3. Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden, trans. Dorfman (London: Nick Hern Books, 1991), p. 21.

Robert W. Welkos and Amy Wallace (essay date 3 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Welkos, Robert W., and Amy Wallace. “Polanski Returning? That's Turning Heads in Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times (3 October 1997): F1, F21.

[In the following essay, Welkos and Wallace discuss Polanski's career and his current status as a viable director in the Hollywood film industry.]

Roman Polanski.

The name is steeped in Hollywood lore, from the director's critically acclaimed films Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby to the stark details of his personal life: the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by followers of Charles Manson, and Polanski's flight from America in 1978 to avoid sentencing for having unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl.

No wonder, then, that Hollywood is buzzing over the news that the director might be negotiating with prosecutors and the courts to surrender and return to Los Angeles.

Does the director still retain the clout he had before he fled, or has the industry changed too dramatically in the intervening years to accommodate a man with his proven vision? And, perhaps more important, do any of today's brash young studio executives—who were toddlers when Rosemary's Baby debuted in 1968—even know who he is.

The studios' old guard would probably welcome the 63-year-old director back with open arms, but the younger crowd—no matter how much they say they lovedChinatown—would probably rather work with a hot new director like Paul Thomas Anderson, who just made Boogie Nights.

Interviews with various people throughout the film industry make one thing clear: In 1997, Polanski may not rank with directors like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis or even Stanley Kubrick, men who can make any movie they want, but he remains a widely respected director who can still attract A-list talent.

“There's certainly going to be those actors that are more adventurous in their choices [who would want to work with Polanski],” said a top talent agent. “Brad Pitt is [one]. Harrison Ford is another. I think Roman is a legend. He's the kind of director that actors will take notice of and be interested in.”

Only last year, John Travolta traveled to France to work with Polanski on The Double. While their planned collaboration dissolved into litigation (eventually settled), Polanski had shown he could still attract box-office superstars.

“Every agent in town would love to represent him,” said entertainment attorney Eric Weissmann. “He's got pizazz. … I think directors who have scored great hits and are believed to have unusual talents … the town always seems to think they can hit the home run.”

“Great name, great films, great scandal—it's got it all,” said another entertainment lawyer.

If his legal problems are resolved, producers say, Polanski would have little difficulty finding studio work despite a checkered past.

“I think he's a guy they would go with,” said producer Marvin Worth. “He's considered a good director and had a good track record.”

Mike Medavoy, a former head of TriStar Pictures who now runs his own production company, said the industry would still seek out Polanski because he's talented. “I don't think you ever lose that,” Medavoy said.

Virginia Campbell, executive editor of Movieline magazine, said that given the sorry state of directing these days, anyone with Chinatown on their resume would be a “refreshing thought” to direct again.

Chinatown was almost 25 years ago and nothing Polanski has done since he left this country would encourage people to take a risk on him,” Campbell conceded. “But as far as I'm concerned, you're taking a risk when you hire Francis Coppola.”

One studio executive, who asked not to be identified, said Polanski would still have to prove himself at the box office, “and the first picture [he made after his return] would be the ticket.”

While Polanski has worked sporadically for major Hollywood studios during his two decades abroad, he has not realized the success of his heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Rosemary's Baby grossed $30 million and Chinatown $25 million for Paramount Pictures.

Indeed, his films while a fugitive have seen rather lackluster results. Despite Harrison Ford's star power, Polanski's 1988 film Frantic grossed only $17.5 million domestically for Warner Bros. Tess, which he directed for Columbia Pictures in 1980, took in $17 million. From there, the returns become truly bleak: Death and the Maiden (1994), $3.1 million; Bitter Moon (1992), $1.8 million; Pirates (1986), $1.6 million, according to the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.

Producer Frank Price, who once headed Columbia Pictures, said the fact that Polanski has made his films outside the U.S. could have hindered the kinds of projects he undertook.

“That cuts off a lot of potential projects,” Price said. “It's not that there aren't a number of pictures shot overseas but you're limited in your creative tastes to something that has to be done there. There are limits on the choice of scripts [and] limits on the choice of actors.”

Should he ever return to America, Polanski probably wouldn't be the one to direct a $100-million computer-enhanced blockbuster like Starship Troopers or Twister, but some believe the studios would eagerly try to entice him to make genre films.

“I can't imagine Roman Polanski wouldn't be offered any major horror-occult movie,” said producer David Kirkpatrick, who once headed production at Paramount. “I think if there were any scripts out there and the studios wanted to make them, he would certainly be high on the list of offerings.”

But producer Sean Daniel said any director, even one as gifted and famous as Polanski, would have to deal with the economic realities of a Hollywood that didn't exist when Polanski was on top of the world.

“Part of what's changed is that today everybody in this business is, in some way, enmeshed in the current financing and budget problems and marketplace issues of the movie business. No one can expect to be above it. So, whoever you are, you have to negotiate these shoals …,” Daniel said. “He would find a very different planet.”

James Maxfield (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Maxfield, James. “‘The Injustice of It All’: Polanski's Revision of the Private Eye Genre in Chinatown.” In The Detective in American Fiction, Film, and Television, edited by Jerome H. Delamater and Ruth Prigozy, pp. 93-102. Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Maxfield examines how Chinatown subverts the characteristic features of the classic detective film, noting Polanski's attempts to both work within and expand upon the genre's thematic traditions.]

Aside from being filmed in color, Roman Polanski's Chinatown looks much like a classic 1940s detective film, and the protagonist Jake Gittes seems the typical hard-boiled, wisecracking private eye. But such resemblances ultimately turn out to be superficial: Chinatown echoes certain characteristic features of the classic detective film not to emulate but to subvert them. For instance, as in numerous detective films there is a confrontation scene in Chinatown in which the detective, Jake Gittes, faces the murderer, Noah Cross, one-on-one, with the evidence of his guilt. Such scenes almost invariably culminate in the villain being either arrested or killed by the detective, but in Chinatown, Gittes passively allows Cross's henchman not only to disarm him but to take away from him the only physical evidence of the murderer's presence at the scene of the crime. The film ends with the villain triumphant, the hero defeated, and the heroine dead—the expected ending of a detective film turned completely upside down.

Screenwriter Robert Towne had apparently written a more traditional ending, which director Polanski refused to accept. Polanski writes in his autobiography,

Towne wanted the evil tycoon to die and his daughter, Evelyn, to live. … I knew that if Chinatown was to be special, not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die. Its dramatic impact would be lost unless audiences left their seats with a sense of outrage and the injustice of it all.


The pessimism of the film's ending actually derives from more than Evelyn's death; however, because her demise is at the center of all that goes wrong in the final moments, it does serve as an emblem of the bleak philosophical perspective that underlies Chinatown: the notions that evil is ineradicable, events are uncontrollable and cannot be foreseen, and life can be snuffed out in an instant.

The film in an almost didactic manner teaches these “truths” to its protagonist Jake Gittes—and through him, to the audience. It is significant, though, that Gittes has been taught this lesson before; the film for him constitutes not so much a learning as a relearning experience. As a policeman in Chinatown, Gittes was taught that he couldn't “always tell what's going on” and that his attempts to produce one kind of result could very well create the opposite. When Gittes begins his investigation for the false Mrs. Mulwray, he attends a city council meeting at which a proposed dam is being discussed. Hollis Mulwray, testifying for the water and power commission, says that the new dam would be built on shale similar to that under the Van der Lip Dam, which “gave way,” causing “over five hundred lives [to be] lost.” He had approved that dam, but says, “I'm not going to make the same mistake twice.” After this statement the film cuts to a close-up of Gittes in the audience. Later, when he tells Evelyn Mulwray about his experiences in Chinatown, Gittes has the opportunity to make the same kind of statement Hollis had made at the hearing, but he does not. In truth Gittes fully deserves the comment Lieutenant Escobar (his former partner in Chinatown) makes to him shortly before the end of the film: “You never learn, do you, Jake?” (But such is the cynicism of the film that Hollis Mulwray, the man who did learn his lesson, receives as his reward only an early death at the hands of Noah Cross.)

Chinatown opens with a scene only peripherally related to its central plot: Gittes's informing a lower-class client, Curly, of his wife's infidelity. The initial images are black-and-white stills of a man and woman having sexual intercourse. On the sound track there are moans, which at first seem associated with the love-making couple but which turn out to be the anguished response of the cuckolded husband, who then flings the photos in the air, lurches (sobbing) about the detective's office, and finally winds up with his face pressed against the window blinds. The introduction to Jake Gittes occurs when he coolly tells Curly not to “eat” the Venetian blinds because he “just had 'em installed on Wednesday.” When Curly bitterly announces that his wife is “no good,” Jake placidly agrees: “What can I tell you, kid? You're right. When you're right, you're right.” He then eases Curly out of the office.

This scene immediately establishes that Jake Gittes is no idealistic private eye, like Philip Marlowe, who refuses to do divorce work. The repetition of “you're right” seems to suggest both a boundless cynicism about the morality of women (are any of them any good?) and an extremely limited empathy for Curly's feelings (as does the comment about the blinds). That Gittes ushers Curly out of the office without pressing any demand for payment seems less an act of kindness than the manifestation of a desire to be quickly rid of an annoyingly distraught client. When we later learn of Jake's experiences in Chinatown, we can retrospectively interpret his behavior in this opening scene and in much of the rest of the film as a defensive strategy: By regarding other people cynically or not caring too much about their feelings, he protects himself from disillusionment or from painful involvement with others.

In the following scene, when the false “Mrs. Mulwray” asks Gittes to find out if her husband is being unfaithful to her, he asks her, “do you love your husband?” When she replies that she does, he advises her to “go home, forget everything”—and that counsel could be interpreted as an attempt to spare the woman the suffering Curly has experienced through the certain knowledge of his mate's infidelity. But it may only be Jake's standard ploy with women wanting to have their husbands investigated—a way of warding off customer dissatisfaction when an inquiry produces dismaying results. In any case, he is willing enough to take the case when she insists, “I have to know!”

Jake treats the actual investigation more or less as a game—a game he is confident he has won when he manages to take photos of Mulwray with a girl in a boat on the lake at Echo Park and on a veranda at the El Macondo Apartments. The name of the park has symbolic resonance because Chinatown is full of echoes, the most obvious one being the echo of Gittes's earlier experience in Chinatown in the final sequence of the film. When Gittes is photographing Mulwray and the girl from a vantage point on the roof of the El Macondo, there is a reflection of the subjects in his camera's lens. The shot might remind the viewer of an earlier one in which Gittes observed Mulwray through the reflection in the circular, rearview mirror on the side of his car.

The film's emphasis on reflected images is another way of stressing the echo effect: Just as people and events are duplicated in their mirror reflections, so Evelyn Mulwray, for instance, duplicates the woman in Chinatown Jake tried “to keep … from being hurt” but only “ended up making sure that she was hurt.” But when he photographs Mulwray and the girl from high above them on the rooftop, Gittes is unaware of the echoes or reflections he will later encounter. The structure of the shot suggests his sense of himself as someone who is on top of things—who has done his job and done it well. His first fall of the film occurs in the barbershop sequence immediately thereafter.

Although he didn't expect it, Gittes at first seems perfectly content to see the result of his investigation spread across the front page of an L.A. newspaper—that is, until another man in the barbershop makes a slighting comment. Gittes erupts in response to what he regards as an imputation to his professional honor, his defense partly taking the form of a counterattack: After he finds out that his critic works in the mortgage department of a bank, he snarls, “I don't kick families out of their houses like you bums down at the bank do!” He also asserts, “I make an honest living”—a statement he then repeats in an increasingly fragmentary manner: “make an honest living, … an honest living.” The repetition, of course, only creates the impression of a man who “doth protest too much.”

His second fall occurs in the next sequence when the real Evelyn Mulwray walks into his office behind him as he is telling his associates the dirty joke about the man who screwed “like a Chinaman.” His embarrassment in telling such a story in the presence of a lady is nothing in comparison to that of discovering that he was deceived by a phony client. From this point on, he seeks to find out who had used him to discredit Mulwray—not merely for the purpose of defending himself from Mrs. Mulwray's lawsuit (which she tells him she will “drop” even before her husband's body is found), but more important to prove to himself that he is indeed “an honest man.”

In the self-motivated investigation that follows, Gittes finds that the seemingly irrelevant parts of his previous observation of Hollis Mulwray's daily activities are now the relevant parts. After Mulwray's body is found in the Oak Pass Reservoir, his activities at various water sites about the city become clues to someone's motives for murdering him. Gittes slowly comes to the conclusion that Mulwray was murdered for two main reasons: because he was opposed to the new Alto Vallejo Dam and because he had discovered that water was being diverted to the Northwest Valley, thereby increasing the severity of the water shortage in Los Angeles.

Not only is water the motive for Mulwray's murder and the means of it (he is first thought to have drowned in the reservoir, but Gittes later discovers he met his death in the tidal pool in his own yard), it also poses a threat to Jake Gittes as well. When Hollis Mulwray is still alive, Gittes watches him down on the shore from a vantage point just in front of the opening of a big drainage pipe. Suddenly Gittes hears a sound of running water and just barely manages to jump aside as a runoff hurtles by him, slightly splashing him but just missing knocking him off the cliff on to the rocky beach below. He is less lucky when he visits the Oak Pass Reservoir at night after Mulwray's death. He hears shots, jumps down into a flood-control channel to get out of the way, and is crouching there when a surge of water pours onto him, sweeping him down channel until he is slammed up against a chain-link fence, which he barely manages to climb up and over to avoid drowning. Dismayed by the loss of a new “Florsheim shoe,” he is limping along muttering to himself when he encounters Mulvihill, the corrupt former sheriff, and the small thug (played by director Polanski) who slits the detective's nose with a switchblade knife to warn him not to be “nosy.”

The loss of the shoe, even though it may seem minor in comparison to the slashed nose, is a significant event in this sequence. When the body of Hollis Mulwray was dragged up from the reservoir, one of his shoes was missing also. The fact that Gittes has almost drowned as Mulwray did and has lost a shoe as he had, indicates the detective is following in Mulwray's footsteps. Certainly the violence done to his nose makes Gittes want to take up Mulwray's causes—to block the new dam and expose the diversion of water. But his identification with Mulwray goes beyond espousal of the man's causes; he also winds up in bed with Mrs. Mulwray.

The slashed nose, though, is more directly important as a motivation. The cutting of the nose becomes a symbolic castration. Gittes's sense of his manhood must have suffered a severe blow as he knelt holding his bloody nose while Mulvihill and the diminutive knife-wielder stood over him. Certainly, it is noticeable at this point in the film that Gittes does not put up the kind of fight against his adversaries expected from Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe; he just stands there and lets Mulvihill hold him while a man much smaller than he is carves him like an unresisting hunk of meat. Even the vengeance he fantasizes against the superiors of Mulvihill and the thug (“the big boys”) is not the sort of manly action one expects from a tough private eye: He wants to “sue” them. In allowing his nose to be cut and in bearing the marks of this humiliation throughout the rest of the film, J. J. Gittes has suffered a loss that he can make up for only through virile action in his subsequent endeavors. The problem is that if he continues to try to assert himself, continues to be “nosy” as the thug put it, he runs the risk of not just partial, but total loss: As the thug warned, “Next time, you lose the whole thing”—as he in some sense does at the end of the film.

Jake manages to restore his sense of manhood for a time through two forms of behavior: violent risk-taking and sexual involvement. When he sees a “KEEP OUT NO TREPASSING” [sic] sign at the entrance to an orchard, he drives right in. Nor does he “Hold it right there” when this command follows a warning shot at his car; instead he guns it and goes roaring off down a lane between trees. When his path is blocked, he backs up and turns down another lane, finally coming to a stop only when holes have been shot in his radiator and tires—and he runs into a tree. Confronted by a group of enraged farmers, he makes little attempt to calm them down; he denounces one as a “dumb Okie” and winds up being knocked unconscious. He has put up a more vigorous resistance here than he did against Mulvihill and the thug, but the results have scarcely been better. Only the decency of the farmers, who have no wish to inflict further injury on a man who has been lying unconscious for several hours, and the arrival of Evelyn Mulwray, who has been summoned as his employer of record, get Jake out of the orchard without suffering additional damage.

But the next sequence at the Mar Vista Rest Home allows Gittes to restore his view of himself as a man who is on top of events and can dominate his adversaries when necessary. He makes a significant step in his investigation by discovering that land in the valley has been bought up in huge quantities in the names of unknowing residents of the home; and when he is confronted by Mulvihill in the lobby of the home, Gittes is able to pull the larger man's coat over his head and pound him into submission. He then avoids a further confrontation with the small thug and another henchman when Evelyn drives up just in time to whip him away from their menace. Nevertheless, his triumph over Mulvihill seems enough to restore his self-confidence and make him ready to demonstrate his manhood in another way—with Evelyn in bed.

Just as J. J. Gittes is not quite the classic hard-boiled private eye of earlier films, so Evelyn Mulwray is not quite the femme fatale of those films (nor the “good woman” who sometimes appears in order to balance her). When she first enters Gittes's office—cool, poised, beautiful—she seems to be the stock character expected in private eye films: “In almost every case, the hardboiled hero encounters a beautiful and dangerous woman in the course of his investigations and finds himself very much drawn to her, even to the point of falling in love” (Cawelti 186). In Chinatown Gittes is drawn to Evelyn—and toward the end may come to love her—but although she does prove to be extremely dangerous to him, it is not at all in the same way that the villainous women of earlier detective films were dangerous. Evelyn Mulwray is dangerous not because she is cool, hard, and ruthless but because she is neurotic, insecure, and vulnerable.

Her behavior in her first appearance in Gittes's office is misleading. Each successive time that Gittes talks to her the self-control Evelyn displayed in their first meeting breaks down a little more. Initially she speaks like a well-rehearsed actress delivering her lines in a drawing-room comedy, but when Gittes confronts her in later scenes, she becomes increasingly less fluent, groping for replies to his probing questions. (According to Polanski, this manifestation of the inner uncertainty of the character was aided by Faye Dunaway's inability to remember her lines [351].) Then her poise seems almost totally broken down when with shaking hands she lights a second cigarette—unaware she already has one going—after Gittes asks her a question about her father. And, of course, the ultimate breakdown comes when she admits in broken phrases that her sister is also her daughter. At that point the reason for her nervousness at the mention of her father's name becomes completely clear.

If one considers the film carefully, very little can actually be determined about Evelyn Cross Mulwray, her life, or her motives. First of all, did she know that her father had killed her husband? If not, why did she tell Gittes she was dropping her lawsuit against him (something that happens after Hollis is killed but before his body is discovered)? Later, after the body is found, why does she claim to the police that she had hired the detective to investigate her husband—why, if not to conceal the water plot that lies behind both the discrediting and the murder of her spouse? After Evelyn and Jake have made love, she warns him that her “father is a very dangerous man. You don't know how dangerous; you don't know how crazy.” When Jake asks if Noah Cross could have killed her husband, she replies, “It's possible.” If she does know or at least strongly suspects her father killed Hollis, did she initially try to deflect Gittes from finding that out in order to protect her father or simply because she assumed discovery of that fact would do neither Jake nor the public any good—since, as she says toward the end of the film, her father “owns the police” and therefore could never be brought to justice?

If Evelyn's knowledge of and motives in regard to the central crime of the film remain obscure, her sexual morality is also highly ambiguous. Was she really a promiscuous woman as she implied to Gittes in the restaurant scene? Did she really love her husband? Does she later love Gittes, or is she merely using sex to manipulate him into helping her defend her daughter? Even the incest with her father is presented ambiguously. When Gittes finally realizes the implications of Evelyn's insistence that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter, he places his own interpretation on that fact. He asks, obviously anticipating an affirmative answer, “He raped you?” Evelyn offers no verbal reply to the question, but she finally shakes her head briefly from side to side. Gittes wants to believe that she would not have committed incest unless brutally forced by her father, but her response offers no confirmation of this view and may even reject it.

In the screenplay for Chinatown (third draft), Evelyn explains to Gittes that her father “had a breakdown … the dam broke … my mother died … he became a little boy … I was fifteen … he'd ask me what to eat for breakfast, what clothes to wear! … it happened … then I ran away” (Towne 128). She also says she hates her father not for the incest itself but “for turning his back on [her] after it happened!” None of these lines appear in the finished film, possibly because the director deemed they went too far in mitigating Noah Cross's guilt; but neither does the movie offer any firm evidence that the incest occurred as the result of a rape rather than a seduction to which Evelyn at least half-willingly succumbed.

At any rate, Evelyn plainly feels that she was corrupted by her father, and she is willing to go nearly any lengths—even shooting him—to prevent him from having the same effect on their daughter Katherine. John Huston, as Evelyn's father Noah Cross, has been criticized for giving “an essentially, lazy unresonant performance opting for easy charm” (Simon 156), but the fact that he doesn't give an impression of obvious malignancy is one of the most chilling things about the character Noah Cross. Noah Cross is not so much immoral as utterly amoral. In regard to the incest he tells Gittes, “I don't blame myself. You see, Mr. Gits [sic], most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place, they're capable of anything.” For him the act was simply normal human behavior produced by a particular confluence of circumstances. That Evelyn does blame him is merely a sign that she is, as he told Gittes earlier, “a disturbed woman.” In Chinatown toward the end of the film, he can't understand why Evelyn won't “be reasonable” and turn Katherine over to him. After all, he is an old man and Katherine is his child as well as Evelyn's. He advised her, “Evelyn, you're a disturbed woman; you cannot hope to provide—.” Although she shoots him at that moment, leaving uncertain what he thought Evelyn couldn't “provide,” in the context of the introductory clause it seems most likely he meant that he, a sane man with a clear perspective on life, could give the girl the kind of stable existence she could never have with her neurotic mother. Evelyn's objections to him strike Noah as purely irrational.

Noah is as free of remorse for his killing of Hollis Mulwray as he is for the act of incest. Noah speaks fondly of Hollis as he stands beside the pool in which he drowned the man. He admits that Hollis's theories of water management “made this city.” Unfortunately Hollis, with his opposition to the new dam, stood in the way of making the new city: the expanded Los Angeles that will incorporate the irrigated Northwest Valley. Hollis was fascinated with tidepools: “he used to say … that's where life begins.” Hollis looked backward—to the origins of life and to the Van der Lip Dam disaster, a recurrence of which he sought to avoid in the future. Noah Cross looks to the future, willing to risk another disaster and willing to sacrifice his best friend to bring to fulfillment his vision of the new Los Angeles. As for the present, he feels as little guilt about diverting water from farmers who currently need it as he did about diverting his seed to his own daughter.

The film ends with the triumph of Noah Cross. The bullet wound he has received bothers him little more than would a bee sting as he leads his granddaughter/daughter away from the car in which her mother lies dead. The bleakness of the ending of the film is best understood by comparing it with an ending that screenwriter Robert Towne wrote but that the director chose not to use. In his autobiography, Polanski writes only of the “happy ending” Towne originally wanted (348), but the third draft of the screenplay contains a tragic ending that, nevertheless, offers possibilities of hope. Katherine is driven away by Curly (whom Gittes had earlier hired to take both women to Ensenada in his boat) as Gittes and Evelyn prevent Cross from following her. As Evelyn drives off to follow her daughter, she is shot and killed much as in the film. At the end Gittes is led away by his fellow operatives, Walsh and Duffy, while Noah Cross kneels “on the ground, holding Evelyn's body, crying.” This ending, while not cheerful, does at least indicate that the efforts of Gittes and Evelyn were not in vain; the innocent Katherine does escape from the evil influence of her conscienceless father/grandfather, who is also shown expressing grief (and possibly even remorse) over his daughter's body. At least some human values are affirmed in this ending.

In Polanski's ending, however, Katherine is left firmly within the grasp of Noah who may look upon his dead daughter with a measure of shock as he backs away from the car, but certainly does not shed any tears for her. As she is pulled away, Katherine is screaming, “No, no!”—her protest against her mother's death but also an appropriate response to the sort of future one might envisage her having with Noah. The prime source of evil in the film has gotten his way her just as he has with the water policy of Los Angeles. This scene also includes a final line from Jake Gittes that wasn't present in Towne's third draft. There, Gittes's concluding words were his last vigorous denunciation of Noah Cross: “Get him away from her [Evelyn's body]. He's responsible for everything! Get him away from her!” In the film itself, Jake only mutters the phrase, “as little as possible.” The implications of this utterance need to be considered.

When he was a police officer in Chinatown, Jake was advised by the district attorney to do “as little as possible,” but he apparently tried to do more than that, in an effort to “keep someone from being hurt”—with the result that he made “sure she was hurt.” Now his efforts to save Evelyn and Katherine have led only to Evelyn's death and Katherine's possession by Noah Cross. Seeing once again a negative outcome to his striving to do good, Gittes repeats the phrase “as little as possible” as if acknowledging the wisdom of the D.A.'s advice and proclaiming the futility of all struggle against the forces of destruction. On the other hand, if one examines Gittes's behavior in the final sequences of the film, one might reach the conclusion he has done almost “as little as possible” to aid Evelyn and Katherine. Whereas in Towne's third draft, Gittes fought vigorously with Cross and Mulvihill to make time for Katherine to escape with Curly (141), in the film the detective does little more than stand by handcuffed to a policeman while the burden of defending herself and her sister/daughter is borne almost entirely by Evelyn. She is the one who might have been better off doing as little as possible.

Although most viewers of the film probably find him attractive, J. J. Gittes in the last analysis is a hollow man—the mere semblance of the hard-boiled private eye, not the real thing. This detective is a specialist in appearances. Through the first half of the film, Gittes wears a different, immaculately pressed suit in almost every sequence—even when the new sequence would seem most likely to be taking place the same day as the previous one. Production designer Anthea Sylbert apparently conceived of Gittes as a man who modeled his wardrobe on the apparel of the Hollywood leading men of the 1930s: “his clothing, she thought, would reflect ‘an outsider's idea of how a star would dress’” (Leaming 142). When Evelyn Mulwray is leaving the morgue after identifying her husband's body, Gittes hustles her past a waiting group of reporters and cameramen, then turns in the doorway and poses himself—flashing a big star smile. The slashed nose and the unsightly bandage Gittes is forced to wear for much of the remainder of the film are not only reminders of his impotence but also signs of how vulnerable his self-created star image is.

Neither Polanski nor the audience can blame Gittes for his failure to protect Evelyn and Katherine at the end of the film. The death of Evelyn is technically an accident: A warning shot by the policeman Loach happened to hit her in the back of the head, with the exit wound through her eye. But because of the heavy symbolic foreshadowing of this event, it doesn't feel like an accident. R. Barton Palmer mentions some of the images that prepare for the final catastrophe: “Cross's glasses … found with one lens shattered, the one tail light on Mrs. Mulwray's car which Gittes breaks …, and, most importantly, the imperfection in Mrs. Mulwray's eye” (117). To these may be added the black eye of Curly's wife, a consequence of Gittes's previous investigation and a foreshadowing of a slightly different nature: Evelyn's involuntary sounding of her car's horn when she puts her head down on the steering wheel the night Gittes finds her with her “sister” presages the long wail of the horn when her dead body slumps against the wheel. With all of these portents, Evelyn Mulwray seems the victim less of chance than of an inexorable fate.

For Polanski, Evelyn's death is indeed unavoidable, for it is the echo or reflection not only of a prior disaster experienced by Jake Gittes but also of two terrible losses in the director's own life. Chinatown was released in 1974; five years earlier, Polanski's pregnant young wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was brutally slain by followers of Charles Manson. Certainly, the “sense of outrage” Polanski wanted to create with Evelyn's death in the film must have reflected his own feelings about his wife's murder; but Polanski's autobiography strongly suggests that the character of Evelyn more directly represents another woman in his life. Polanski says that he selected Faye Dunaway for the part “on the ground that her special brand of ‘retro’ beauty—the same sort of look I remembered in my mother—was essential to the film” (350). Earlier in the book he describes his mother's appearance: “I recall … her elegance, the precise way she drew the lines over her plucked eyebrows” (14-15). Those same precise lines appear over Evelyn's plucked brows in Chinatown. Polanski's mother was picked up by the Nazis during their occupation of Poland; years later he learned “that she had died in a gas chamber only days after being taken away” (58). It is not surprising that J. J. Gittes appears powerless to rescue Evelyn Mulwray when the director of the film could do nothing to save either mother or wife. Evelyn's death is an echo not only of J. J. Gittes's past but of Polanski's as well.


Cawelti, John G. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films.” In Film Genre Reader, edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Leaming, Barbara. Polanski, A Biography: The Filmmaker as Voyeur. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Palmer, R. Barton. “Chinatown and the Detective Story.” Literature/Film Quarterly 5 (1977): 112-17.

Polanski, Roman. Roman by Polanski. New York: William Morrow, 1984.

Simon, John. Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982.

Towne, Robert. Chinatown (third draft). Hollywood: Script City, n.d.

Charles L. Fierz (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Fierz, Charles L. “Polanski Misses: A Critical Essay Concerning Polanski's Reading of Hardy's Tess.Literature/Film Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1999): 103-09.

[In the following essay, Fierz argues that Tess, Polanski's cinematic adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, is based on a misreading of Tess's character and a failure to understand the influences that shaped her character.]

William Costanzo commented in Literature/Film Quarterly in 1981 on Roman Polanski and his Tess film rendition of Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles:

Tess has crossed the Atlantic as a kind of emissary from Polanski. The romantic story of a victim of society, it comes unchaperoned to a land where the director is himself a fugitive from justice. … After the brutal murder of Sharon Tate in 1969 … after his flight from the United States and a prison sentence for illegal sexual intercourse with a minor, he has chosen as his subject the seduction of a young girl by an older man.

A Plot of Tragedy should arise from the gradual closing in of a situation … by reason of the characters taking no trouble to ward off the disastrous events. …

(from Thomas Hardy's notebooks, quoted in Costanzo 72)

Was it something about women that he had known in his own life or was it Hardy's tragic Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles that Roman Polanski intended to film in Tess? According to Costanzo, Polanski wanted to return to “the universe of those authors who tell about certain things, the deepest of human sentiments … the ordinary tribulations in a rather cruel and rigid society” (74). If it was Hardy's text that Polanski sought to replicate, if he sought to give moviegoers a literary classic, the film Tess may be interpreted as a re-reading. The hypothesis of this paper is that Polanski misread Hardy's novel by underestimating Tess's strengths and by overlooking Hardy's thesis concerning the catalytic role of family alcoholism in undermining her character.

According to Barthes and Scholes, a re-reading might be expected to invoke codes, or criteria outside the text, by which the text is to be interpreted. For example, Hardy's text might be interpreted vis-à-vis the code of Victorian culture in two ways—either supportive or critical of that culture with respect to cultural repression of women. Polanski, it seems, took the critical approach, arguing that the victimized Tess would not have been repressed but for the male forces against her. Such an approach is supported neither by consideration of Hardy's ideas about women nor by sound critical consideration of the novel. It is the contention here that Tess was a doomed character in the novel because of her family background rather than solely because of her gender and that her character is best understood by the “code” of family dysfunction, which only Hardy's narrative specifically highlights.

Although Hardy apparently intended to idealize women generally,1 his narrative comments show that he was more eager to explore the psychological origins of Tess, as he had done with such characterizations as those in Jude the Obscure and other works, while Polanski seems to have been content with romanticizing her victimization at the hands of men. While both “texts” of Tess reveal exploitative conduct by males in patriarchal Victorian culture, only Hardy's version offers any plausible theory for why Tess would resort to murder: Polanski's female is too vacuous to have the strength for such an act. While both Hardy and Polanski intended, as much as possible from their male narrator positions, to be “on Tess's side,” the film's casting of the frail Natasha Kinski emphasizes Polanski's extreme pity for Tess without recognizing the constituents of her personhood. To be sure, Hardy was also enamored of Tess, but he admired her and sought to describe the tragic deterministic circumstance of her plight rather than just her pitiable girlhood. But the real question is what “circumstance?” Only Hardy's biographer, Pinion, has noted the importance of family background to Tess's character: “Tess herself is a rather unusual character; her conscience makes her readily shoulder blame and guilt which more rightly belong to her feckless parents” (126).

Hardy's narrative development of character is exacting, forced, overly “diegetic” (Scholes 144) in light of modern styles of characterization where characterization is more often “absent” (Docherty xi). Hardy's narrative tends toward the older, the mimetically duplicative, the one-dimensional type of characterization. Thus, Tess is “vulnerable,” Alec is “predator,” and Angel is “indifferent,” whereas “real,” modern characters are multi-faceted.2 Hardy's authorial craft develops the circumstances leading up to character traits that Polanski's film glosses over. Most Hardy critics focus on the impact of his narratives on character. Thus, J. Hillis Miller, called by Harold Bloom “our foremost Hardy scholar,” calls Hardy's style one of “distance and desire” (32). Miller says that Hardy's characters' minds are closed (deliberately), only dimly replicated, introspection disallowed, so that the observer can only infer longings and desires across the distance between characters (55). If Miller's reading is correct, the “gaze” scenes in the film, such as in the beginning, after Alec first meets Tess and their eyes meet when he walks off, ought to bring out viewers' feelings of desire. In fact, the film only portrays blank stares which allow the observer to infer nothing about desire. According to Miller, it is Hardy, the novelist, and not Polanski, the movie-maker, who saw life in the “manner of a movie camera, with spatial and temporal detachment, cool self-possession,” a “double vision” of author and character (50). Anderson (1990) and Kincaid (1991) likewise advert to the relative depth of Hardy's characterization that is lacking in Polanski's film. Hardy had a “feel” for the settings in Tess and for their place in history, their effect on character which Polanski did not. Although Polanski renders setting faithfully, indeed beautifully, he fails, without the help of Hardy's narrative or some cinematic innovation in lieu thereof, to tie setting to character.

Hardy's “doubly-visioned” characterization simply does not surface in the film. For instance, when young Tess is with her girl friends and her father shows up drunk, Hardy tells the reader that she feels embarrassed, defensive, and that her pride is hurt, even as her dialogue, the other half of the “double vision,” says the opposite: “Look here, I won't walk another inch with you if you say any jokes about him” (9). She doesn't like her father's behavior but sticks up for him nevertheless, an attitude that is not conveyed in the film. She suffers the typical painful contradiction of feelings of all children of alcoholics, which such expert research on the alcoholic family as Alice Miller's For Your Own Good (1983) finds is so critical to the development of alcoholics' children, but the source of those feelings, her alcoholic family, is not apparent in the film. Her mother has lost all control over her as the result of the familial distortion produced by the father's drinking, but only Hardy offers the keen insight that mother, just like father, has a “problem”:

All these young souls were passengers in the Durbeyfield ship—entirely dependent on the judgment of the two Durbeyfield adults for their pleasure, their necessities, their health, even their existence … six helpless creatures who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield.


That most of the elements important to Tess's character are absent from the film is a condition that even popular reviewers have noted. Thus, Pauline Kael, in the New Yorker (Feb. 1, 1981), found such omissions as the “unbearable domestic tension,” the narrative's “perfect fusion of the intuitive and the planned,” and the “robust country girl” replaced by the blandness of Kinski. Writing in the New York Times (Aug. 5, 1981), Vincent Canby was more personal: “Though the film is beautiful to behold, it has no more life than an exceptionally expensive, carefully made production for television's masterpiece theater … Polanski cannot be excused because … he wanted a Tess for his murdered wife, Sharon Tate, to act the part of.”

Criticizing the film, Vedemaitis (1988) specifically attacks the lack of Hardy's character development as the film's most dissatisfying feature:

Whereas Hardy's Tess is proud, stubborn, intelligent, resilient, and enduring, a person who matures into complex womanhood, Polanski's Tess is submissive, enervated, withdrawn, and childlike to the end. Gone is the Tess who feels in her heart that, in succumbing to Alec, she has done no wrong for which she should be eternally condemned; … Gone from the film is the Tess who must be driven to the limits of emotional exhaustion before submission. Hardy's Tess, in her relationship with both Alec and Angel, capitulates only after an intense and desperate struggle that also creates a matching tension in the reader. … Gone are the ominous foreshadowing, the grim D'Urberville mansion with the foreboding ancestral portraits on the wall, Angel's hazardous somnambulatory walk in which he symbolically “buries” Tess, and Tess's suicidal despair. Instead, two people sit and talk. Polanski never raises the volume … No change of tempo. Whereas Phase Five of Hardy's Tess is almost unbearable for the reader, Polanski's rendition is languid, flat, even boring.


Although Vedemaitis sounds more like a “new” critic than a character scholar, and although she does not deal directly with Tess's unique problems as a woman or with the possibility that the origin of Tess's tragedy and of her psychology lies in her dysfunctional family, recent feminist scholarship has taken up the “woman problem” regarding Tess, adding important perspective to an understanding of Tess's weakness in the film. Polanski's idea of empathy with the female gender, however, fails to measure up to feminist critical standards any better than it does to the movie critics' standards. Mary Jacobus (1978) firmly emphasizes Tess's “right to be” in the face of oppression, avoiding both Hardy's “moral purity” and Polanski's “vacuous woman” conceptions, while Pamela Jekel (1986) argues that Hardy's Tess “evolves and gives us ample insight into the character of a heroine who emerges as an individual in her own right” (164), an argument that certainly could not be made on behalf of Polanski's Tess. Three 1990 articles, by Ingham, Blake, and Higonnet, adeptly utilize gender as a critical code, but all three conclude that Tess is a woman with uniquely womanly problems and they all echo Judith Spector's 1986 statement about male attempts to sympathize with female problems—the kind of attempt that perhaps motivates Polanski's Tess undertaking, to the effect that females do a better job on works by those of their own gender:

The study of gender-related aspects of literature by critics who are of the author's same gender can … involve an exhilarating feeling of empathy with the text and an eagerness to explain one's insights to others and “opposites.”


If Higonnet, for example, finds Hardy's “repressive set of discourses … inimical to the development and expression of Tess's selfhood,” how much more inexcusable is it for Polanski to nearly erase Tess's character entirely (200)? Not only is Polanski's characterization of Tess too weak for an adequate representation of female personhood, but his inadequacy is exacerbated because he, unlike Hardy, is not a Victorian, but is a male living in the modern world and should know better. As Ingham points out, Hardy was somewhat progressive on the “woman issue” for his time, actually beginning to “reform” his conception of women by the time he wrote The Well-Beloved (20), while, on the other hand, as Veick's 1990 dissertation points out, “Polanski's reading of the novel is reductive, wanting in Tess's tragic qualities” (5).

Actually, Polanski's “vacuous victim” view of Tess seems to follow stale Freudian theory rather than either scholarly character or feminist theory. Inquiry into Tess's nature through a modern psychological analysis of her family background is what is needed to understand her character and to understand what is otherwise a rather surprising murder. Ironically and ingenuously, such psychological inquiry is explicitly provided in the text by Hardy's narrative, affording both reasons for the murder and for its thematic significance. Hardy's text carefully frames a hypothesis that it is not merely Alec's, or any other male's, oppression that is the proximate cause of Tess's criminality, but her “family system.” Jerome Bump (1991) has suggested that a modern “family systems” psychology approach may explain D. H. Lawrence's works, while Michael Steig (1968) has cast doubt on the modern utility of psychoanalytic theory, the theory which perhaps underlies Polanski's “oppressive other” film representation of Tess's oppression:

Inferences about the unconscious life of imaginary people involve a confusion of literature and life (261) … a fixation on the genital phase of infantile development, with its incestuous attachment [which] seems irrelevant to understanding [Sue Bridehead in Hardy's Jude the Obscure] for the simple reason that we cannot observe the origin of her character in childhood.


Family systems theory avoids the “unconscious life” by dealing directly, as Hardy's narrative does in his text, with overt factual manifestations of family dynamics. Polanski's film omits manifestations of family dynamics. Like Sue and Jude in Jude the Obscure, Tess is the child of an alcoholic family, an acute form of family dysfunction which Hardy, and not Polanski, highlights. Hardy, in effect, fits Bump's description of Lawrence—“a treater and diagnoser of the symptoms and causes of alcoholic dysfunction” (62), while Polanski leaves the observer to infer from a subconscious that is hidden beneath the surface of the film. Many of the adjustment problems supposedly found in adult children of alcoholics are made evident by Hardy's depiction of Tess. Hardy highlights virtually all of the behavioral attributes in Tess that are listed by such “family systems-alcohol” theorists as Bradshaw, for example:

delusion, denial, loneliness (Tess makes few friends), high level anxiety, shame (about her family), faulty communication style (she is evasive, hides true feelings, even has to write out her past), yearning for approval (as her mother taught her), compulsive/addictive (respecting Angel), narcissistically-driven, confused identity (caught between the old and new morality), inhibited trust, possible spiritual bankruptcy (Tess has not internalized her religion—only the resultant guilt).


Such attributes are normally associated with negative alcoholic family child rearing,3 the kind of child rearing that is symptomatic of the families in Hardy's novels.

Hardy's narrative distinctly shows how John Durbeyfield's alcoholism, lack of ambition, and faulty family leadership doom the family, and, in turn, his daughter Tess's prospects: “John Durbeyfield had more conceit than energy or health, and this supposition was pleasant to him” (39). Durbeyfield's domination of the mother drove her to vacuousness and set the stage for Tess's development. Hardy describes the mother as “light-minded … and [she] … had been discovering good matches for her daughter almost from the year of her birth (40). … The father was in a stupor induced this morning in honor of the occasion” (42). The father was a classic, blown-up drunk, full of hollow intentions, but amounting to nothing but a source of family instability, while the mother, according to Hardy, thought so little of the idea of female personhood that she called a woman's face her “trump card” (45). Hardy describes the workings of the failed “family system” in such detail as to leave no doubt that it is that system which determines Tess's character:

the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man … the possibility of retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess D'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly. … But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children is a mortality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature and it therefore does not mend the matter.


Polanski fails to sufficiently provide the audience with “text,” by dialogue, action or otherwise, to allow any basis for the inference that Tess's criminality results from her up-bringing, despite the fact that Hardy repeats, over and over, the family factor in her character. It is simply not enough for Polanski to imply that Tess is weak because she is a girl when it is manifestly clear, from her own words, that her family made her that way:

Oh mother, my mother! How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn't you tell me there was danger in menfolk? Ladies know what to fend hands against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance 'o living in that way, and you did not help me!


The reader, or the filmic re-reader in Polanski's case, must remember that the mother whom Tess addresses is the same mother who was too weak to decide whether Tess should leave home in the first place, who taught her how to be a female object, who delegated the mothering of the Durbeyfield children to Tess while she went to the tavern with her husband, and who taught Tess how to be a “poor me” (88-89) with so little direction and willpower that she spends her life bouncing from male to male, from job to job, from lie to lie as she descends toward the commission of her criminal act. Kinski does not “act” these phases of Tess's life in the film, because Polanski's mis-reading focuses instead on the male characters' acting upon her. Polanski misses the point that Tess is not determined by the males, but by a tragic family system that Hardy will not, despite her efforts, allow her to escape from:

She might prove it false if she could veil begones (91) … [but] only a young women of twenty, one who mentally and sentimentally had not finished growing, it was impossible that any event should have left upon her an impression that was not in time capable of transmutation.


Hardy ties Tess' character development directly to her father's character so as to make it clear to the reader, in a way that is not clear at all to the film viewer, as she stands, at 97, on the solid, rolling power, majestic English countryside “not sure of her direction … still upon the expanse of verdant flames, like a fly on a billiard table” (97), that she, like John Durbeyfield, has “no mind for laborious effect towards such a solid advancement as could alone be effected by a family so heavily handicapped as the once powerful D'Urbervilles were now” (96).

Tess knows, as the relationship with Angel deepens, that she will have to deal with her relationship to her past somehow, but Hardy inserts key passages to specifically indicate that she has irrevocably inherited her parents' indecisiveness:

Don't ask me … I told you why—partly. I am good not good enough-not worthy enough … Yes—something like that … She could only shake her head and look away from him … In reality, she was drifting into acquiescence. Every see-saw of her breath, every wave of her blood, every pulse on her ears, was a voice that joined with nature in revolt against her scrupulousness (164). I shall give way—I shall let myself marry him. I cannot help it.


“The Women Pays” is a chapter that, admittedly, shows how Hardy, like Polanski, felt sorry about Tess's unfortunate dealings with men. The chapter establishes Angel as every bit as cruel and oppressive as Alec, but it is also notable that, in both the novel and the film, in both the text and the acting, Angel is perhaps less aggressive than Alec, inviting thematic generalization about what he means to Tess in light of her background, what her relationship with him means in terms of the plot's progression (Phelan 105). Hardy emphasizes this family background theme through narrative between Tess and Angel, while Polanski leaves it out altogether:

Oh, Angel—my mother says that it sometimes happens so!
Different societies, different manners. You almost make me say you are an unapprehending peasant-women, who have never been initiated into the proportions of social things. … I cannot help associating your decline as a family with this other fact—of your want of firmness. Decrepit families imply decrepit will, decrepit conducts.


In the conclusion, when Angel goes abroad, Tess has a chance to become something on her own but, following her family's example, quickly takes the easy way out and goes back to Alec. While the film adequately portrays her limited resolve to make it in the real world, Hardy does more: Hardy specifically, once again, ties that lack of resolve to the background of her family system: “How she would be able to face her parents? … To put an end to myself” (239). Hardy makes Tess feel shame, a common alcoholic family trait according to therapists John Bradshaw and Alice Miller, in the eyes of her parents, but in the film, Kinski shows so little feeling that she is at most resigned. The shaming of Tess is crucial for Hardy, for it sets up her subsequent cave-in to Alec, which Hardy suggests is all that she can do because her family has given her no backbone, no capacity for judgment: she “yields to such vague impressions without” (283): “There was not much time for thought or elusion, and she yielded as calmly as she could to the necessity of letting him overtake her” (283). By the novel's end, Hardy has fashioned his notion of necessity—that Tess has no will to do other than what events dictate because of her weak family up-bringing, into the absolute extinguishment of her selfhood: “Adrift, like a corpse upon the current, in a direction dissociated from its living will” (352). Hardy's narrative craftsmanship, absent in any manner or form from Polanski's film, has inexorably led the reader from Tess's past, to her crime, and, finally, to her demise.

The hypothesis that Tess's psychological propensity to murder is the product of her family origins and, hence, is best viewed by a family systems or alcoholic family perspective, is amply supported by Hardy's narrative. Hardy's text reveals evidence that he sympathized with Tess as woman, to be sure, but a fair reading of Tess of the D'Urbervilles cannot rest with a sympathetic gender analysis alone. Therefore, to the extent that Polanski wished to faithfully adapt the novel, he failed by not replicating the evidence of family influence upon Tess's character. Polanski's vacuous Tess, as played by Kinski, is perhaps a relatively more sympathetic character who is clearly an object of the male character's (as well as Polanski's) “discursive control” (see Silverman, 31 ff), with virtually no subjectivity whatsoever, leaving the audience with only gender stereotyping or conjectural sub-surface analytic tools, such as psychoanalytic theory, to explain her. For Polanski, the audience must do the explaining because he has not employed film technique to harness Hardy's narrative, relying instead on audience sympathy to give rise to a general pro-Tess, pro-female, pro-feminist reception of the film. The feminist critics cited herein seem basically correct when they assert that reliance of this sort by a male to interpret femaleness is speculative. The truth about Hardy's Tess, and the only reason that she murders, need not be the subject of another male's speculation about her plight as a female or about the male characters' oppressive conduct; the truth is readily available in Hardy's descriptions of family dysfunction found within the literary text.


  1. According to Pinion—Hardy's chief biographer, and perhaps the best source of “authorial intent”—in Thomas Hardy: Art & Thought, Hardy's artistic temperament was conditioned by an “imaginative susceptibility to beautiful women” (189). (In his eighties, while married, Hardy wrote to a Mrs. Henninger about an imaginary elopement, for example.) This “susceptibility” is reflected in his writing and reached its peak in Hardy's late novel, The Well-Beloved, concerning short-term, sequential affairs with various women. In 1987, The World evaluated Hardy's novels by calling him a “sex-maniac” (Ingham 97). Such characterization of Hardy's attitude toward women might describe Polanski's “women problem” as well, but such speculation does little to really explain, and in fact, may obscure, the different ways that Hardy and Polanski, both of whom sympathized with Tess, went about developing the causes of her character and of her capacity to commit murder. For Hardy, she was a “trapped bird” caught by family circumstances, while for Polanski, she was an oppressed female, trapped by males. Hardy's poem, “The Blinded Bird,” is illustrative of his perspective;

    Who hath charity? This bird.
    Who suffereth long and is kind …
    Who hopeth, endureth all things?
    Who thinketh no evil but sings? …

    (Pinion 135)

  2. Though literary character theory has been generally out of academic fashion recently, there are exceptions. Texts that attempt “new” multi-faceted character theory as opposed to old character typologies include particularly John Knapp, Literary Character, including therein Bernard Hochman and Yuri Margolin on the “disassociated self” and Gerald Mead on how stylistics, as opposed to codes, determine, from time to time in a text, whether a character functions referentially as an agent for theme or textually for plot. Similarly, Richard Phelan. Reading People, Reading Plots, locates different facets, aspects or functions of character that occur within a text. Phelan's techniques seem useful to analysis of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

  3. Bradshaw is the popular “tip of the iceberg” among many writers on alcohol theory. The “shame” element that underlies many attributes on his list is developed into a cultural theory by Miller, For Your Own Good. The “family system” approach to therapy, according to Murray Bowen, one of its original practitioners, began in the 1950s with the discovery that schizophrenia could best be treated by dealing with the patient's relations with others in the family. This idea, in turn caused the family to be “treated” as a single organism or system. It was further found that the parents of schizophrenic children tended to be “out of balance,” one dominating the other in an “overadequate-inadequate reciprocity pattern” (Bowen 27). The alcoholic family, so frequent in Hardy's novels, and so obvious in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, may be viewed as similarly out of balance.

Works Cited

Anderson, Wayne. Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy: The Novels. New York: G. K. Hall, 1990: 86-100.

Barthes, Roland. The Semiotic Challenge. New York: Hill & Wang, 1988.

Blake, Kathleen. “Pure Tess: Hardy on Knowing a Woman.” Modern Critical Interpretations of “Tess of the D'Urbervilles.” Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 87-102.

Harold Bloom, Ed. Modern Critical Interpretations. Introd.

Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Aronson, 1978.

Bradshaw, John. Bradshaw on the Family. Deerfield Beach, Fla.: Health Comm., 1988.

Bump, Jerome. “D. H. Lawrence and Family Systems Theory.” Renascence. 44.1 (Fall 1991): 61-80.

Canby, Vincent. Review of Tess.New York Times. 5 Aug. 1981: 2, 15.

Costanzo, William. “Polanski in Wessex.” Literature/Film Quarterly. 9.2 (1981): 72-77.

Docherty, Thomas. Reading (Absent) Character. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1983.

Knapp, John. Ed. Literary Character. Lanham, Md.: Md. UP, 1993.

Higonnet, Margaret. “Fictions of Feminine Voice: Antiphony and Silence in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.Out of Bounds. Eds. Laura Claridge & Elizabeth Langland. Amherst: U of Mass. P, 1990.

Jacobus, Mary. “Tess: The Making of a Pure Woman.” Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom.

Jekel, Pamela. Thomas Hardy's Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1986.

Kael, Pauline. Review of Tess.The New Yorker. 1 Feb. 1981.

Kincaid, James. “You Did Not Come: Absence Death and Eroticism in Tess.Sex and Death in Victorian Literature. Ed. Regina Barreca. London: MacMillan, 1991: 10-25.

Miller, Alice. For Your Good. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1983.

Miller, J. Hillis. Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970.

Phelan, James. Reading People, Reading Plots. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Pinion, F. B. A Hardy Companion. New York: MacMillan, 1983.

———. Thomas Hardy: Art & Thought. London: MacMillan, 1977.

Scholes, Robert. Semiotics and Interpretation. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982.

Spector, Judith, Ed. Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism. Bowling Green: Bowling Green UP, 1986.

Vedemaitis, Alice. “Tess of the D'Urbervilles: What the Film Left Out.” English Journal (Nov. 1988): 53-77.

Veick, Cristine. “Tess of the D'Urbervilles.” Diss. DA 51, 5 (19909): 1623-A.

Paul Iorio (essay date 8 July 1999)

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SOURCE: Iorio, Paul. “Sleuthing Chinatown.Los Angeles Times (8 July 1999): 6, 8, 10, 12-13.

[In the following essay, Iorio discusses Chinatown on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the film's original release, including quotations from both Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne regarding the development of the film's script.]

Hollywood may be obsessed with youth, but some films improve with age. On the 25th anniversary of Chinatown, the film's creators have revisited the movie and are somewhat surprised to find that it holds up better than they ever could have imagined.

One evening not long ago, Chinatown director Roman Polanski happened upon the movie while channel-surfing with his wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, at their Paris home. At first, he says, he didn't even recognize his film because it was a bad print dubbed in French. It was so chopped up with commercials that Polanski dug out a laserdisc just to check out the first half hour of the movie. He and Seigner found themselves hooked and saw it through to the gruesome finale.

Polanski's reaction to the film—25 years after its June 21, 1974, release—is inexplicably modest. “I like it more now than I did then,” the 65-year-old director said in a rare, exclusive interview by phone from a resort in the Dolomite mountains in Italy.

Of course, many critics and fans have been far less restrained over the decades, hailing Chinatown as a near-perfect gem, one of the great movies of the last 30 years, a film that seems to improve with time and repeated viewing. It's also arguably the apex of Polanski's career, which includes such formidable peaks as Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Tess (1979) and Frantic (1988). The film was an Oscar winner for Robert Towne's screenplay and was nominated for 10 other Academy Awards, including best picture and director.

For anyone wanting to revisit the movie, it's widely available on video and airs regularly on cable's premium movie channels. Paramount will release Chinatown on DVD later this year, but Polanski himself won't be coming to town to prepare or promote it. The director still can't enter the U.S. without risking possible arrest for having had sex with a teenage girl in the 1970s. (He fled the country in 77 rather than face a probable prison term and now lives in Paris with Seigner and their two children.)

So the task of overseeing the transfer of the film to DVD has fallen to Towne, who famously feuded with Polanski during the making of Chinatown although they have long since patched up their differences and even worked together on Frantic. The DVD will include interviews with the filmmakers and actors.

“Roman and I wanted to interview each other for the DVD but Paramount wanted to stick to the more traditional format,” Towne says.

Chinatown is a noirish mystery that centers on private eye J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who is hired to investigate a supposed case of marital infidelity. Gittes soon stumbles on a government (and family) scandal in which the head of the Los Angeles water department and others are found to be diverting water, stealing land and committing murder, while nefariously reshaping the city's boundaries.

Besides Nicholson (who was not available to comment for this article) the film also stars Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray, the wife of a slain water department chief, and John Huston as venal tycoon Noah Cross, Evelyn's father. Polanski has a high-profile cameo in the movie as the little hood who slits Gittes' nose.

Polanski talked about what he admires about the film today. “When [Gittes] comes up to the door [of Evelyn's house] and knocks on the door [and it slams in his face] … and nothing happens. And we hold like this for a long time,” he says. “I [also] liked the scene when [Evelyn] walks out of the Brown Derby, when [Gittes] says, ‘I like my nose, I like breathing through it.’ Remember? I like that shot when it starts with the page going to fetch the car and doing it in two profiles. … [Today], maybe I would cut-two close-ups. I don't know whether I would, actually. Maybe I wouldn't.”

What would he change if he could? “Little details here and there,” he says. “The lousy reflection in the lens of [Nicholson's camera] when he's photographing Hollis and Katherine from the roof [at El Macondo]. … I wanted to [film] it upside down and [was told], ‘Oh, they will never understand it. Why is it upside down?’ When you see something reflected in the lens, it's always upside down! It should be upside down, it should be slightly concave. That could [have been] better.”


Screenwriter Towne, 64, also likes the film now more than he did when it was released.

Among his favorite scenes, Towne likes “the way in which we worked the scene with that wonderful character actress [Fritzi Burr] who was the secretary for Yelburton in the water department: [imitating her] ‘Yes, yes, they own the water department!’ [Imitating Nicholson] ‘I take a long lunch hour—all day sometimes.’ That willingness to irritate her in order to get information: Very few directors would insist on that,” Towne says.

Polanski and Towne, were truly unhappy when they saw the rough cut of Chinatown in the spring of ′74.

“I finished the film and I looked at the rough cut, and as usual the rough cut is this very depressing moment for a director,” Polanski recalls. “And a director who does not have experience [with] it is close to suicide at that stage. But even knowing that that very difficult moment would pass, I still was tremendously depressed seeing the rough cut. I showed it to a friend of mine … and was so ashamed when the lights came up. And he said, ‘What a great movie!’ I said, ‘Is something wrong with him?’ I truly didn't think that he could be right.”

Polanski says he never once thought during the making of the movie that it would become a classic. Neither did Paramount's head of production, Robert Evans, who produced the film through his own production company.

“Up until the time the reviews broke, we weren't sure whether we had a disaster on our hands or something that was just different,” says Evans, 70, adding that most Paramount executives openly predicted the film would fail.


From its birth as a sprawling first-draft script in '73, Chinatown was never considered a commercial sure-shot. At first, even Polanski passed on it (at the time, he was busy in Rome).

“I really felt happy in Rome,” he says. “I was working there, I had a great house and a bunch of friends with whom I worked. It just wasn't interesting for me to go to make a film in Los Angeles.”

Besides, Los Angeles reminded him of personal tragedy; four years earlier, his wife, Sharon Tate, pregnant with their child, was sadistically murdered by members of Charles Manson's gang.

“I had too vivid memories of all those events of '69 and I didn't feel like going to work there,” he says.

But the calls from Hollywood to Rome kept coming, first from Nicholson, who personally asked Polanski to direct, and then from Evans, who apparently made the director an offer he couldn't refuse. Polanski was soon on a plane to LAX.

What eventually followed was a pivotal eight-week writing session in which Polanski and Towne dismantled Towne's script and then painstakingly rebuilt it piece by piece. Their writing workday would begin around 9:30 or 10 in the morning and would last until around 7 or 8 in the evening—and was usually followed by a night of hard partying.

“I don't think there was a day that we worked that we didn't go out and play at night,” Towne recalls. “The mood at night was—it was the 1970s. We had a good time. Fooled around. I'll leave it at that.” Apparently, the after-hours carousing continued even during the shooting: “[Nicholson] could stay up until 6 in the morning but he would be [on the set] at 8 or 9 knowing his lines like nobody else,” Polanski says. “There was never any kind of problem with him.”

Turning the muddy draft into a filmable script proved an enormous task.

The first draft “was gigantic and could not actually be shot the way it was written,” Polanski says. “But there were terrific things in it. The second draft, I remember Robert took a long time and then it was even longer. There were many more characters and it was quite convoluted. We sat down and with discipline tried to combine some things.”

Towne concedes that if his first draft had been filmed as it was, “it would have been a mess.” Most of the rewriting consisted of re-sequencing scenes while organizing and clarifying the complicated plot.

“We took the script and broke it down into one-sentence summations of each scene,” Towne says. “Then we took a scissors and cut those little scenes … and pasted them on the door of the study at his house where we were working. And the game was to shift those things around until we got them in an order that worked.

“At an early stage in the writing of it, I remember … thinking, what should be revealed first: the real estate scandal, the water scandal or the incest? As obvious as the answer became, that was the first question I dealt with. And I did realize the water scandal had to come first, a fairly obvious choice when you stop to think about it. But beyond that, the rest of the structural changes of significance took place with Roman, shifting them around back and forth.”

Polanski says he “did more of a construction, the shaping up of the plot. … And also I worked on the dialogue in a way that people can go crazy sitting with me because I like eliminating every unnecessary word.”

He says he also put Gittes into sharper focus, partly by using a radical style of subjective point-of-view (in which he filmed much of the movie over Nicholson's shoulder). “The events that happen are really only seen by [Gittes],” he says. “You never show things that happen in his absence.”


Towne and Polanski argued frequently during their collaboration. “We fought every day,” Towne says. “We'd fight about how to get to a restaurant.”

Chinatown's success “happened through a lot of arguments, fights,” Evans agrees. “There was was warfare throughout the picture, but that's healthy.”

The most substantial disagreement was about the ending of the film, in which Towne wanted Cross to be killed by Evelyn. Polanski insisted on a more disturbing finale in which Evelyn is shot dead in front of her young daughter, Katherine.

“We were arguing about the end and could not agree. … I was adamant about it,” Polanski says. “I did not believe in a happy ending in this type of a movie.”

With the backing of Evans, Polanski eventually won the battle over the ending. “I wrote that last scene the way it is now,” Polanski says. “And I sketched the dialogue and I remember in the evening I gave Jack what I wrote down and said, ‘Fashion it into your speech.’ And Jack very quickly jotted a few things of his and then we shot it at literally five to midnight.”

Today, Towne says Polanski “was right about the end.”

Many see the tragic ending as an echo of the horror of the Manson murders on some level. That real-life tragedy also probably helped Polanski to make Gittes a credible detective. After all, the murder of Polanski's wife turned the director into a sleuth for a time; in the months before the murderers were caught, he obsessively tried to find the culprits himself.

Does Polanski think his own experience trying to track down his wife's killers informed the film?

“I can only tell you that every experience helps you with your work. This, of course, did to a certain degree,” he says. “I am unable to tell you how much better the film is because I had certain things happen to me. Whatever you do, you learn. And each next movie has one layer more to make it richer.” (The director has no dearth of personal tragedy from which to draw; he spent much of his early childhood in Poland escaping from the Nazis, who had killed his mother.)

One change they agreed upon that Towne now regrets is the opening scene in which Gittes meets with his client Curly. It was originally written with Curly saying he wanted to kill his wife, and Gittes telling him he's not rich enough to get away with murder. And in fact the cut dialogue is missed under close scrutiny; when Nicholson's character says, “I only brought it up to illustrate a point,” the audience now doesn't know what “point” he's referring to, because the previous piece of dialogue is gone.

“That exchange I miss probably as much as any in the movie,” Towne says. “Because it really foreshadows [the] ‘You've got to be rich to kill somebody and get away with it’ [theme]. He's really foreshadowing the whole movie in a kind of nice way.”

Polanski decided to cut two other sequences altogether to help the movie's flow: In one, Harry Dean Stanton, playing a seaplane pilot who flies Gittes to Noah Cross' house, hints at Evelyn's secret past. In the other, Noah talks about his love of horse manure. “Love the smell of it,” Cross says. “A lot of people do but of course they won't admit it.”

By the end of the eight-week session, Polanski and Towne had created a final working script. Unfortunately, they were also no longer speaking.

“By the beginning of the shooting [in September 1973] Roman and I had argued to the point where I did not go onto the set. At that point it was just wiser to let him shoot the movie. But that was really largely because of the end scene,” Towne says.

Polanski says that, contrary to rumor, “I never tried to bar [Towne] from the set. He just didn't come because we weren't on speaking terms anymore by the time I started the picture.” (Towne now says that Polanski is “virtually … the only director that I would willingly work for as a writer.”)


For the most part, the final screenplay was shot almost exactly as it was written. “Once Roman and I agreed on the script, he held everyone's feet to the fire,” Towne says. “Whatever disagreements we had, they ended when the script was written. Nobody said, ‘Well, let's try it another way.’ That was the way.”

During the shooting, changes were frequently suggested by Dunaway—and rejected by Polanski.

“There were a lot of problems with Faye Dunaway,” he says. “Faye always wanted to change something. Some nights I would … cross a couple words out. [She'd say]: ‘Why are you taking it out? I don't want you to.’ I'd say, ‘OK, leave it, leave it. It's not worth the fight.’ Then she would come a half an hour later: ‘You know what? I thought it over, maybe you're right, we should remove it.’ It was like this every day. Or she would try to add something. ‘Actually I don't think it's a good idea, Faye.’ She would start fighting about it. And it was like that continuously.”

Dunaway did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this article. But she did write about Polanski and Chinatown in her autobiography, Looking for Gatsby: My Life, by Dunaway and Betsy Sharkey (who is now The Times television editor). In the 1998 edition, she writes: “I thought Roman was thwarting me and not supporting me” and “Roman was an autocrat, always forcing things.” Yet she also calls him “an auteur filmmaker of the first order.”

Early on Jane Fonda was up for the role, but Polanski says she would not have made a better Evelyn Mulwray. “Absolutely not. I thought [Dunaway] was perfect. Nobody wanted Faye,” he says.

“Bob Evans didn't want her because he thought she was trouble. I knew Faye; she had a fling with a friend of mine. … I didn't expect to have any problems with her. So I fought for her. And I'm still very happy we had her because whatever problems we had on the set—who cares?

“I think she's terrific when I watch it now. It's really exactly how I saw the part; she was the right age, she had the right looks, her acting was just perfect for this type of character. I don't think anyone else would have done it better. Same with John Huston.”


Polanski says Chinatown probably could not be made in today's climate of moviemaking-by-committee.

“It would really have to be [made by] someone who has enough muscle to pull through all those things,” he says. “Studios now have an enormous amount of various executives who need to justify their existence by meddling into the creative process.

“And there's a great rift between the creative branch and the executive branch; [executives] are so envious of not being on the other side. … And they call themselves ‘creatives.’ There wouldn't be an executive then who would dare to say, ‘We are having a creative meeting’ or ‘We'll send you the creative notes.’ [Imitating a movie executive]: ‘After our creative meeting we came up with these five pages of creative notes which we would like you to read.’ … In those times, nobody would actually use this language. The fact that they use it is very meaningful.”

Polanski's apparent disillusionment with Hollywood, combined with his legal problems, means he won't be returning here to make a film any time soon. (He continues to direct movies outside the U.S. His next, The Ninth Gate, a supernatural thriller starring Johnny Depp, is due later this year.)

And Polanski says he is not close at all to settling his legal problems.

“How can I [return to the U.S.] with the actual state of the media?” he says. “I don't want to become a product. … Can you imagine what it would entail showing up suddenly in Los Angeles? It would take a long time before closure happens. And I don't think I want it enough. I have family to look after. I don't want to be in every tabloid.”

Vernon Shetley (essay date December 1999)

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SOURCE: Shetley, Vernon. “Incest and Capital in Chinatown.Modern Language Notes 114, no. 5 (December 1999): 1092-109.

[In the following essay, Shetley explores the “double-plot” of Chinatown, concerning the capitalist corruption of local government and the incest perpetrated by a lascivious patriarch. Shetley discusses the film in terms of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic interpretation of the ancient myth of Oedipus.]

“The English drama did not outlive the double plot” (Empson 27). By this remark, William Empson meant not that all the great Elizabethan and Jacobean plays necessarily employed a double plot structure, but rather that the greatness of English drama did not outlive the era in which playwrights felt comfortable making the demands of attention and connection called for by the double plot. While double plots were rare even during Hollywood's great age, one might judge that few films after Chinatown have achieved a similar distinction, and certainly that no subsequent film has shown the same faith in the audience's ability to understand a complex narrative and in the medium's power to make such a narrative clear; David Thomson refers to Chinatown as “maybe the last of the great complicated story lines that movies dared” (754). The double plot is one source of Chinatown's distinction, and part of its pleasure surely is the demand on our attention that the double plot entails.

Chinatown's double plot has resulted in a curiously bifurcated history of reception. For academic film studies, dominated as they are by psychoanalytic models, the daughter plot, with its rich Oedipal motifs, has generally been the focus of critical scrutiny. John Belton's “Language, Oedipus, and Chinatown” sees a homology between the detective's working of his case and the process of psychoanalysis, in that both arrive at an understanding of the irrational through rational means; incest, of course, is the irrational element at the source of both the psychoanalyst's investigation and the film's narrative. Deborah Linderman, in “Oedipus in Chinatown,” defines the film as “an oedipal text” (190), for her a pejorative term, that from her Foucaultian perspective points to the film's failure to embrace “transgressive sexual intensification” (202). If her view of the film ultimately endorses Foucault's anti-psychoanalytic celebrations of the body's intensities, her work nevertheless draws heavily on psychoanalytic terms in its reading of the film and dedicates its interpretive energies largely to the daughter plot. Wayne McGinnis's “Chinatown: Roman Polanski's Contemporary Oedipus Story” concentrates on the film's direct links to the Oedipus story; his humanist reading of the film sees “universal significance” in the film's exploration of “the human potential for evil and perversity” (249, 250), an evil and a perversity realized for McGinnis in the incest plot.

But the film has also generated a long-lived, if less extensive, tradition of commentary within the world of public policy debate, where the water plot holds the center of attention. The film received extended reviews in Society and Social Policy magazines, for instance, and in the works of historians and analysts of Southern California water policy (and when one is discussing Southern California few policy issues are as important as water) Chinatown almost inevitably makes an appearance at some point, if only as the occasion for a lament about the difficulties of making water policy in the climate of aroused suspicion generated by the film.1 For most critics who focus on the daughter plot, the water plot is a distraction, a kind of screen that obscures the real workings of the film, whose conformity to Freudian paradigms is taken for granted. The writers on water policy, conversely, treat the daughter plot, if they notice it at all, as a sensational distraction from the main interest of the film.2

Even the most cursory viewing of the film makes clear that the Oedipus myth was very much on the minds of screenwriter and director; there can be no question that Freud's account of the Oedipus story is an appropriate intertext. But this focus on the Oedipus myth has come to obscure an equally important intertext, the episode in Los Angeles history which the journalist Morrow Mayo, in 1933, termed “The Rape of the Owens Valley.” For if Chinatown tells a refracted version of the Oedipus story, it also presents a selective, distorted, but recognizable version of the events surrounding the appropriation by the city of Los Angeles of Owens Valley water in the early twentieth century. Indeed, Abraham Hoffman begins his 1981 history of the Owens Valley controversy with a striking if probably apocryphal story about a dinner party attended by a high-ranking official of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, some time after the release of Chinatown. The official ostensibly dismissed the film as “totally inaccurate”; pressed to be more specific, he explained “There was never any incest involved” (xiii).

Robert Towne, who wrote the Chinatown script, based the water plot on the account in Carey McWilliams's Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (Champlin 215-16). While Towne performs a good deal of condensation and displacement in the interests of simplifying the story for dramatic presentation (the Owens Valley drops out of the picture entirely, for instance), Chinatown is recognizably drawn from historical sources, and the “inaccuracies” of Towne's screenplay in fact are largely derived from the inaccuracies of McWilliams's report.3 McWilliams tends toward the sensational, and sees clear-cut villains and heroes where a more complicated moral calculus has been perceived by later commentators; he also exaggerates the extent to which the citizens of the city were deceived by the land syndicate. Nevertheless, no one disputes the fact that a group of the city's wealthiest men, privy to inside information about the plans of the Department of Water and Power, bought up land cheaply in the San Fernando Valley and realized enormous profits on their purchases when the Owens Valley Aqueduct, completed in 1913, made water available to irrigate that land (Hoffman, 126-27). Though the dates have been shifted from the early part of the century to the 1930s, the film presents with a fair degree of accuracy the fundamental structure of the San Fernando conspiracy, a conspiracy in which wealthy and powerful interests manipulated public agencies for private profit.

Waiting in the Department of Water and Power office for Russ Yelburton, Jake Gittes looks over a group of sepia-toned photographs from the early days of the partnership between Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross, expressing his surprise that “Noah Cross worked for the Water Department.” In a moment of verbal confusion that prefigures Evelyn Mulwray's inability to decide between “daughter” and “sister” as Jake confronts her at the end of the film, the irritated secretary contradicts herself as she responds to Jake's question: “Yes. No.” As it turns out, Noah Cross didn't work for the water department, he owned the water supply, together with Hollis Mulwray. The secretary explains that “Mr. Mulwray thought the public should own the water,” while Cross, she makes clear, did not agree. In the late 19th century the Los Angeles municipal water supply had in fact been privately owned, and the city carried on a six-year struggle with the Los Angeles City Water Company before finally gaining control of the water system early in 1902 (Kahrl 12-17). While subsequent battles over water took municipal control as a given, they nevertheless turned on some of the same issues involved in the fight over municipalization: whether water would be used for public projects to promote broadly-based development and prosperity, or whether water would be used for the enrichment of already wealthy and powerful private interests. On this question, Chinatown's Noah Cross and Hollis Mulwray stand on opposite sides.

Considering the narrative of Chinatown against Freud's use of the Oedipus myth shows the extent to which Towne and director Roman Polanski deploy that myth with an eye to its themes of civic health and citizenship, as opposed to Freud's focus on the psychology of the individual. Polanski and Towne, even as they recall Freud, also reach back beyond Freud to remind us that Oedipus Rex involves not merely the fate of an individual but of a civic polity. Their interest in the Oedipus myth is as much political as psychological, and accordingly the roles of the Oedipus narrative have been distributed among various characters, “socialized,” as it were. Noah Cross commits incest, but it is Evelyn and Hollis who suffer its consequences. Like Oedipus Jake investigates the sources of the city's ills, but unlike Oedipus is not their source. In the Oedipus story it is the title character, the one who commits incest, who is lame, while in Chinatown Jake and Hollis each lose a shoe in the course of being washed down a sluice. The central conflict of the film is one in which the protagonist plays only a subsidiary role. Jake is clearly the central figure in our experience of the film, but he is only a minor figure in its action. Private eye noirs generally come down to a contest between the detective and the central villain: Philip Marlowe versus Eddie Mars (and subsequently Carmen Sternwood), Mike Hammer versus Doctor Soberin, Harry Caul versus the obscure villains of The Conversation. In Chinatown, the real contest is between Evelyn Mulwray and Noah Cross, a contest of which Jake remains largely ignorant through most of the film. The decentered nature of the relationship between plot and protagonist further suggests the appropriateness of ballasting psychoanalytic inquiry with forms of analysis that mobilize considerations of community and social relations. In fact, the film itself mounts a critique of individualism, a critique articulated through its relation to generic models.

Jake's confrontation with Noah Cross at the end of Chinatown enacts a confrontation between two kinds of individualism, each associated with a particular film genre. Chinatown is a film noir, a detective film, but also, through the character Noah Cross, a western. Cross, in his appearance and his history, invokes a distinctive western myth, the crusty, determined, plain-spoken pioneer, whose gruff manner is the outward sign of the quintessentially American qualities of self-reliance, independence, and enterprise. With his broad-brimmed hat, white shirt, and suspenders, John Huston in fact bears a good deal of resemblance to the prospector figure created by his father, Walter Huston, under John's direction, in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Noah Cross is a form of the pioneer hero, who gravitates toward the west to enjoy its promise of freedom, and whose energy and fortitude tame nature, making the desert bloom. The pioneer breaks free of the boundaries of a decayed society, and at the same time brings a civilizing order to the wilderness. Chinatown performs a deviation from or critique of the private eye genre (Cawelti), but also turns its skepticism toward the “empire builder” myth associated with the western. Noah Cross himself acknowledges that it is Hollis Mulwray, the bespectacled public servant, who “made this town,” and that the city's founding had more to do with engineering than conquest. And the freedom associated with the western pioneer turns out in Cross's case to involve the crossing of the very boundary that is often taken to divide nature from culture; rather than bringing civilization to the wilderness and making the desert bloom, Cross undermines the social order and blights the landscape (as his confederates dump water and poison wells). The natural man, the American Adam, becomes in the person of Cross a nightmare regression to the state of nature.

But the appeal of these myths dies hard, and the film draws one aspect of its power from the way Towne and Polanski (and Huston, of course) make Cross an attractive figure, mobilize our sympathetic response to the pioneer archetype before they reveal to us Evelyn and Noah's past. Partly this is an effect of the wry humor and tough-minded realism of the language Towne writes for the character, as when he pleads guilty to being “respectable” by growling “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Partly this is a result of the dynamism and charisma he projects, qualities that seem in short supply among his male antagonists. Mulwray's appearance functions as a kind of a joke initially; how we wonder, can this mousy man be having an affair? And Jake seems much closer to the vulnerable, traumatized film noir heroes played by such actors as Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum than to the icons of confident and self-sufficient masculinity in the Bogart mold. Both Jake and Hollis are fearful of making “the same mistake twice,” as opposed to Noah Cross, who seems to look forward to a “future” in which he can repeat his darkest crimes. Cross's eerie optimism makes him seem almost childlike; he is at once older than anyone else in the film, someone who, his very name implies, was present at the beginnings of things, and yet younger, in his radiant confidence in the future and his indifference to the past. What is most remarkable about the character is not what he has done, but the quality of his remorselessness, which seems less vicious than cheerful. When Cross states that “I don't blame myself” for his estrangement from Evelyn, the most extraordinary thing about the statement is his absolute, untroubled conviction. Though Los Angeles borders on the ocean, the absolute boundary to the myth of the frontier, Cross is determined to have the fresh start that forms so resonant a part of the cultural mythology of California.

Noah Cross stands for a principle of unchecked individualism, against the dedication to public service represented by Hollis Mulwray. But their relationship spans both the public world of the political and economic, and the private realm of friendship and family; they are both erstwhile business partners and in-laws. In fact the film leaves open at the end one significant question, a question that heightens our awareness of the connection between the public and private sides of Cross's and Mulwray's relationship. Classic detective fictions produce their resolutions by revealing not merely the sequence of actions that took place, but also the motives behind those actions. Chinatown never reveals, however, why precisely Noah Cross murders Hollis Mulwray, whether his motive has to do with the water or with “the girl,” his daughter/granddaughter. The persistence of this unresolved enigma in the film suggests that these two elements are closely connected. At the very center of the film, the murder whose investigation generates the plot, water and daughter are interchangeable.

This refusal to distinguish between water and daughter in Noah Cross's motivation for murder is only one of several moments in the film when these two plot strands intersect in a way that blurs the distinction between the two. Lunching with Jake, Cross substitutes girl for water when asked about his argument with Hollis. We know, retrospectively, that the argument was about water; Jake's “associate” Walsh overhears the words “apple core,” a mistake for “Albacore,” the name of the club through which the land syndicate is operating. Yet Cross tells Jake instead that it involved “the girl.” Jake asks Evelyn Mulwray at one point whether the falling out that occurred between her father and her husband was over her or over the water, to which she replies, too hastily and insistently to be convincing, that it was over the water. And at the end of the film, when Jake questions him about his motives for murder and fraud, Cross's answer seems oddly to entangle the two strands of the plot. “The future, Mr. Gitts, the future!” he replies, but immediately adds “Now where's the girl?”, as if the daughter/granddaughter were an element of the “future” that has ostensibly motivated his real estate schemes.

The film suggests a relationship of substitution, and thus of similarity, between the objects of the two plots. In what way, then, are Cross's relations with his daughters like his relations with the water? In what way can incest and land fraud function as metaphors for one another? Perhaps Noah Cross's answer to Jake's question, quoted above, can help to suggest an answer to these questions as well. Both daughters and water represent the possibility of fertility, of the growth and renewal of life; and so both are significantly linked to the “future.”4 Each is a means of projecting oneself into the future, either through bloodlines, or the creation of wealth, for what is capital but wealth that has outlived its creation, even its creator? Noah Cross's incestuous acts and his land swindles turn on his desire to monopolize for himself the possibilities of life and fertility that water and daughters represent; in both cases, what ought to be exchanged is instead hoarded, what should circulate is instead entrapped and held back.

Seeing the relation between water and daughters in this way enables us to place the film's use of the Oedipus story within a larger context, one to which, in Totem and Taboo, Freud himself contributes. This context is elaborated in Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural studies of kinship systems, and usefully synthesized in Gayle Rubin's wide-ranging article, “The Traffic in Women.” These studies move away from a consideration of the incest taboo as a feature of individual psychological development, and towards an understanding of prohibitions against incest as a structuring mechanism in human societies. At its most general, the incest taboo is understood as a prohibition on endogamy, on sexual relations and marriage within a group, however that group is defined, and its goal is that of prying women loose from the hold of family or group. Lévi-Strauss remarks that “The prohibition of incest is less a rule prohibiting marriage with the mother, sister, or daughter, than a rule obliging the mother, sister, or daughter to be given to others. It is the supreme rule of the gift” (Elementary Structures 481), supreme because “women … are the most precious of gifts” (Rubin 173). Summarizing Lévi-Strauss, Rubin writes that “the taboo on incest results in a wide network of relations, a set of people whose connections with one another are a kinship structure” (173-74). The exchange of women, the giving and receiving of them as gifts through marriage, forges bonds among male members of a society; each man sacrifices the right of sexual access to his own daughters, with the promise that he will receive another man's daughter in exchange. For Lévi-Strauss, in fact, the incest taboo marks the dividing line between nature and culture, in its establishment of a principle of affiliation that goes beyond mere biology: “By casting sisters and daughters out of the consanguineal group … and by assigning them to husbands who belong to other groups, the prohibition of incest creates bonds of alliances between these biological groups, the first such bonds which one can call social” (Scope 32). The incest taboo is thus one of the fundamental structures by which society, the mutual linkage and interdependence of individuals, is produced and reproduced.

Incest, then, radically undermines the basis of social organization; incestuous relations monopolize women within a group or family, and so monopolize the power and wealth represented by women's sexual and reproductive potential. In arid Los Angeles, water too represents power and wealth (Mulwray works for the Water and Power Department), and Noah Cross's relations with his daughters parallel his relations with water—he had once owned the water supply, as private property, but had to yield to Mulwray's desire that it “belong to the public.” Just so Cross fails in his initial attempt to monopolize his daughter Evelyn, as she escapes from his control into Hollis's protection. But unlike Jake and Hollis, who attempt to avoid repeating their past mistakes, as represented by the Vanderlip dam and the mysterious woman of Jake's traumatic past in Chinatown, Noah Cross aims both to get hold of “the only daughter I have left” and, if not to regain ownership of the water supply, at least to appropriate for his personal ends the water paid for by the bond issue.

Terms of ownership and property constantly recur in Cross's language, and in the language other characters use about him. “She's mine too,” Noah pleads with Evelyn as they confront one another over their daughter at the end of the film. As Jake tells Evelyn to put down her gun and let the police handle matters, she scornfully replies “He [Noah Cross] owns the police.” Cross is again presented as possessing, in the form of private property, what should belong to the public. And in the final moments of the film, in one of its most chilling passages, Noah Cross covers her eyes, then folds his daughter/granddaughter Katherine to him; the gesture John Huston has devised for the character here brilliantly suggests Cross's desire to isolate Katherine from the world, almost to reincorporate her bodily. Chinatown, as it looks back to the tragedy of the Owens Valley, warns of the perversion of public trust that large concentrations of wealth and power are sure to entail. But Chinatown goes beyond a mere warning of the dangers of corruption, resonant as such a warning may have been in the era of Watergate. Its power arises from the way in which the institution of private property itself, the very foundation of the capitalist economic and social order, becomes identified in the course of the film with the horror of incest. In the person of Noah Cross, the desire to appropriate and possess the productive potential of natural resources such as land and water, which is the mainspring of the capitalist economy, is wedded to the desire to appropriate and possess the sexual and reproductive potential of one's own daughters. If, as Lévi-Strauss states, “The incest prohibition is … the basis of human society” (Scope 32), incest is a crime not merely against its immediate victims, but against the entire society in which it occurs. Chinatown proposes that capitalist accumulation, far from being the basis of social organization, is in fact its destroyer. Noah Cross's crimes against the public, then, go beyond a simple scheme for self-enrichment; the appropriation of public property for private ends becomes, like incest, a crime that violates the entire social contract and undermines the very possibility of organized social life.

The metaphorical, rather than logical, nature of the connection between water and daughters means that Noah Cross functions both as character and as emblem, an emblem of the nature of capitalism itself. The revelation of the plot completed, Jake asks Cross to explain why he has committed the crimes he has: “How much better can you eat, what can you buy that you can't already afford?” Cross's answer, “The future … the future!” is at once preposterously hubristic and weirdly inadequate. Clearly, for Cross, this answer functions in the same way that “because it's there” functions for the mountain-climber, as a gesture toward the impossibility of explaining a desire to those who don't share it. This response is nevertheless inadvertently revealing; he speaks as if the future were a commodity, available for purchase, suggesting the way that even the abstract and intangible becomes an object of exchange in the capitalist economy. However inadequate as motivation, Cross's response expresses a logic, the logic of perpetual accumulation, without relation to use, that characterizes capitalism. We recall that, in the world of the film, dead people are perfectly capable of owning land. And the weird dynamism of this elderly man (played by the 68-year-old John Huston, who looks a fair amount older), who seems scarcely slowed down by taking a bullet, and who seems to retain the vigor of his appetites to an unnatural degree for his age, brings to mind the belated but nevertheless vigorous state of that aged creature, late capitalism itself.

It might seem that the reading proposed here, as it tries to restore a sense of Chinatown's historical weight, threatens to reduce the film's female characters simply to objects of exchange, to eradicate any space for female agency or subjectivity. Clearly, Chinatown is a story told from a male point of view, or at least a male character's point of view; we see and hear almost nothing that is not available to Jake. But if the film confines us to Jake's point of view, it constantly reminds us of the limitations of that viewpoint. Jake overhears but cannot understand the conversation between Hollis and Katherine (the conversation with the boy on horseback has shown us that Jake cannot speak Spanish); he sees but cannot hear the exchange among Katherine, Kahn, and Evelyn after Katherine has learned of Hollis's death. A peculiar detail, that might at first seem merely an error, has the effect of powerfully underlining this sense of the fallibility of Jake's vision. As Jake is photographing Katherine and Hollis at the El Macondo, we are given an over-the-shoulder shot of Jake looking down at the couple, a reverse shot close-up of Jake taking photographs, with the couple reflected on the lens, followed by a return to the over-the-shoulder shot of the couple. But in the reverse shot, showing the reflection on the camera lens, Katherine and Hollis remain in the same positions relative to the screen. They should be reversed, because they are being seen in reflection, but are instead shown not as they would appear to someone seeing their reflection in Jake's lens, but rather as they must appear to Jake himself as he looks through the camera. This reminds us, in an extremely subtle way, of course, that the shot is a composite, a special effect, but it also cautions us against trusting what we see, and by replacing what a real observer would see with what Jake sees, it reminds us of the distortions associated with Jake's perspective.

The feminine, in Chinatown, is presented through figures of opacity or otherness, and is repeatedly likened to Chinatown itself in its unknowability and its potential for danger.5 Jake says about both Chinatown and Evelyn Mulwray that “you can't always tell what's going on.” When Noah Cross warns Jake about his daughter that “you may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me you don't,” Jake immediately makes the analogy to Chinatown: “that's what the DA used to tell me in Chinatown.” But while the association of Evelyn with mystery and danger seems at first to link Chinatown to the recognizably misogynistic strain of femme-fatale film noir, the unfolding of the plot shows that the film belongs rather to that genre of films in which, as in The Big Sleep or Pitfall, the woman under investigation turns out not to be the criminal the detective at first assumes. What differentiates Chinatown from The Big Sleep is that Bogart's Marlowe bears no moral judgment for his distrust of Bacall's Vivian Rutledge, while the whole tragedy of Chinatown turns on Jake's refusal to trust Evelyn, a refusal for which the film asks us, in the end, to hold Jake to account. If Jake is all too willing to credit the false Mrs. Mulwray, he is fatally reluctant to listen to the real Mrs. Mulwray, and that refusal to hear and understand precipitates the disaster at the film's conclusion.

That refusal is most vividly dramatized in a peculiar moment in the film, one that has gone almost entirely unremarked in the critical literature.6 It occurs when Gittes, after slapping Evelyn around, finally learns the truth about Katherine. Evelyn explains: “She's my daughter and my sister! My father and I …” Gittes, stunned, asks “He raped you?” Evelyn rolls her eyes, as if frustrated both by Gittes's stupidity and by the need for a painful explanation, and makes no response. What happened between Evelyn and her father, she implies, is complex, and mobilizes feeling as well as physical force; “rape” is inadequate as a description of what occurred, but Jake seems never to realize this.7 Most commentators on the film have shared Gittes's language about the event, a language of force and power, the assertion of Cross's masculine will upon Evelyn. Evelyn speaks a more complex language, or rather, her truth seems not to fit into language; her version of events is communicated by gesture, not by words, and Jake seems, in consequence, never to have to come to terms with her way of seeing, just as most commentators, who like Jake focus on language, seem to ignore Evelyn's “voice” in this matter. Chinatown invokes on one hand a social structure within which women function as a medium of exchange, but it also makes a space, even if it is a space defined by silence, for the articulation of a female experience that lies outside the language of its male protagonists.

Jake never quite gets it, and the film invites us, I think, to share Evelyn Mulwray's exasperation with his limited imagination. We should be careful, then, to distinguish Evelyn from the femmes fatales of film noir.8 Evelyn has a guilty secret, but the guilt it involves is not hers, just as Vivian Rutledge, in The Big Sleep, conceals much, but not to protect herself. Where Chinatown differs from its antecedents is in the judgment we are asked to deliver on Jake, and in our own implication in that judgment. We, too, have come to suspect Evelyn of foul play by the time Jake beats the truth out of her, and must suffer the scorn that Evelyn turns on the film's protagonist, whose point of view we have so intimately shared in the course of the film.

The film's revisionary energies, then, are applied both to the various forms of individualism represented by the western and private eye genres, and to the misogyny inherent in femme fatale narratives. In both cases, Chinatown demands that we rethink some fundamental premises of psychoanalytic film criticism. If we see Chinatown as a certain kind of historical film, the psychoanalytic reading is not a bedrock, not the concealed truth of the action which we must uncover beneath the screens and blinds of narrative displacement. Incest is not the true name of desire, the ground from which the action rises, but a figure. Or perhaps one might best imagine both psychoanalytic and historical readings as simultaneously figure and ground, constantly shifting their places in our understanding of the film, neither able to claim final authority. Too often, psychoanalytic reading freeze the fluidity of Freud's metaphors; placing the psychoanalytic terms back into a social and political context may help point the way toward readings that preserve the insights of psychoanalysis without sharing in the “repress[ion] of historicity” that Robert Corber identifies as a tendency of film theory in the psychoanalytic vein (4). Similarly, conceiving of Evelyn Mulwray's role solely in terms of an “inscrutable femininity” (Linderman 193) leaves out of account the deep and skeptical questioning to which masculinity is subjected by the film. That questioning forms a kind of “double plot” counterpointed to the film's twist on the femme fatale motif. As viewers, we can connect psychoanalysis to history, and place Chinatown's representation of the feminine into relation with its critique of masculinity, but we can do so only if we bring to the film the attention, and the sensitivity to metaphoric resonance, that both these “double plot” structures demand.

Chinatown illuminates both the past and its own moment; if it is not precisely a historical film, it nevertheless forcefully persuades a viewer that what it knows about the way Los Angeles was made is real knowledge. At the time of Chinatown's release, many of the more left-wing commentators voiced considerable dissatisfaction over the sour, hopeless ending Polanski devised (Walling; Sperber; Sarris; Kavanagh). James Kavanagh, for instance, complained that the film “leads to a sense of ultimate futility,” that it “cannot offer a … hopeful … revolutionary vision” (8). Kavanagh and a number of other critics would have been happier, it seems, had Jake formed a citizens' committee and waged a campaign to expose the Albacore Club's land scheme. Jake's defeat elevates the advice to “do as little as possible” into a “world view,” in Murray Sperber's account of the film (10), an injunction to passivity that reveals Polanski's art to be fundamentally “decadent.” But artworks may have other forms of political impact than that of providing positive role models of political struggle. “Chinatown” has in fact become a rallying cry for water battles throughout California in the last two decades. The climate of suspicion toward the operations of Los Angeles's Department of Water and Power produced by the film may eventually have been a factor in the mobilization, which in the 1980s achieved significant success, to save Mono Lake. And in June 1998 the state of California mandated that the City of Los Angeles return water to Owens Lake and plant vegetation to control the dust storms that blow up from the barren lake bed. An officer of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District referred to the struggle between Owens Valley residents and Los Angeles as “David and Goliath meets ‘Chinatown’” (Purdum A1).

Empson ascribes to the double plot effects of amplification and comprehensiveness. The double plot structure, in early modern English drama, usually joins narratives that occur at two social levels, as in Henry IV, where the elevated world of kingship and conspiracy is played off against the low world of the tavern. The double plot thus helps to perform the function that Fredric Jameson ascribes to the detective's working of his case: the representation of the various classes and ways of life that compose the society. Through the detective figure, Jameson remarks, “we are able to see, to know, the society as a whole” (69), a knowledge that has become difficult for the ordinary citizen to acquire because of the dispersion and segregation that increasingly characterize the modern (or postmodern) city. The double plot serves as well to amplify the resonance of the dramatic situation, in Empson's view, and to displace the interest of the audience from character to situation:

A situation is repeated for quite different characters, and this puts the main interest in the situation, not the characters. Thus the effect of having two old men with ungrateful children, of different sorts, is to make us generalise the theme of Lear and feel that whole classes of children have become unfaithful, all nature is breaking up. … The situation is made something valuable in itself; it can work on you like a myth.

No doubt Empson means here not that Lear's character plays no role in his tragedy but that Lear's situation, however much it seems the product of Lear's own distinctive modes of expression and action, also comes to be seen as an emblematic state, an effect of a larger social breakdown. Character and context come to rival one another, that is, in our understanding of the forces behind the narrative action. In Chinatown, Jake is presented as a man in the grip of a repetition compulsion, but also as simply another of Noah Cross's victims, and we are further encouraged to move our focus from character to situation as we realize that Jake is, ultimately, a minor figure in the intrigue.

Chinatown can work on you like a myth, and all the more powerfully because the similarity in situation between the two plots emerges more in the form of structural analogy than direct resemblance. In Chinatown we have, not the same action occurring at two social levels, as in the double plots of the Renaissance theater, but the same action occurring in two different spheres, public and private. And in Chinatown, the two plots, unlike the double plots Empson analyzes, involve the same significant characters. In both the water and the daughter plots Noah Cross faces off against Hollis and Evelyn, with Jake as an accessory. Chinatown's double plot is, in a sense, incestuous; where we might expect to find difference we find, as our investigation deepens, sameness. Thus arises the disagreement among the commentators about which narrative line is plot and which subplot. Personal and political are fused through the mirror-image plots, so that it is not at all clear in which direction causality runs. We might see Noah Cross's land dealings as simply the transposition onto a larger stage of his dealings with his family, but we might also see Cross's treatment of his daughters as the introjection into the family of the values that prevail in his business dealings. Looked at this way, the film suggests that we can put our personal lives right only by restoring the public sphere. Incestuous desires may be universal, but only in a world where he “owns the police” would Noah Cross imagine that he can act on them without consequence. A world that, it is implied, has applauded the crimes through which Noah Cross has made himself rich is a world that leaves the innocent defenseless against the lawless will of power. At the very least, the film rejects the idea that family can offer a haven from the heartless world of capitalism. It offers a prescient critique of a notion upon which much of American politics in the decades since Chinatown has been premised: that there exists no inconsistency between the most frenzied and amoral pursuit of wealth in the public sphere and “family values” in the private realm.

I quoted earlier David Thomson's remark that Chinatown offers “maybe the last of the great complicated story lines that movies dared” (754). Chinatown may well be the last complicated story line that Hollywood has successfully achieved, but Towne's ill-fated sequel, The Two Jakes, dares as ambitiously as its predecessor, even if it falls far short of the standard set by the first film. The Two Jakes finally appeared in 1990, directed by Jack Nicholson, after Towne's initial attempt at directing the script had to be abandoned in 1985. In it, Jake Gittes, older, slower, but apparently little wiser, follows two trails, one having to do with real-estate machinations, the other with infidelity and murder; the two converge upon Katherine Mulwray, daughter of Evelyn Mulwray and Noah Cross. The sequel goes out of its way to underscore its parallels to Chinatown, to the point that it seems almost as much a remake as a sequel, with the role played by water in Chinatown filled by oil in The Two Jakes.Chinatown first arouses our suspicions about a mother, then shows that what had aroused our suspicion was simply an attempt to protect her daughter. The Two Jakes arouses our suspicions about a husband (Harvey Keitel's Jake Berman), only to reveal to us that the motive for his behavior was his desire to protect his wife. Many factors contribute to the failure of this plot structure to work the second time around, not least Nicholson's uncertain direction, but surely among the most significant letdowns is the villain, oilman Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth), who occupies the place in the plot of The Two Jakes that Noah Cross had filled in Chinatown. Rawley is given far less screen time than Noah Cross, and Richard Farnsworth seems not even to try to match the combination of charm and chill exuded by John Huston's extraordinary performance. Watching the sequel underscores how important Noah Cross is to the success of Chinatown, how much its whole effect depends on its charismatic villain, whose bizarrely matter-of-fact monstrousness makes him at once both uncanny and familiar.

The failure to make Rawley as vivid and as horrible a character as Noah Cross may reflect, ultimately, a shift in attitudes about the crimes that lie behind great fortunes as much as particular failings on the part of the filmmakers. Already in 1987 corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) had proclaimed, in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, that “Greed is good.” Stone makes a show of punishing him for that sentiment, but the film never quite manages to convince itself that it has rejected the character's amoral dynamism. Rawley is ruthless, and a blackmailer, but in a society that had for a decade been celebrating the glory of getting rich, blackmail was beginning to seem less a crime than a lifestyle choice. Though Chinatown may have seemed defeatist to many of its left-wing viewers at the time of its release, in retrospect it burns with a powerful sense of outrage, a sense that, for whatever reason, proved impossible to summon by 1990. In the end, perhaps we get the movies we deserve.


  1. See Walling and Gans for the reviews, Hundley (161), Margaret Davis (265-66) and Walton, who remarks “Los Angeles authorities are livid on the subject of Chinatown, knowing that the perceived ‘rape of the Owen Valley’ is an albatross hung around the neck of anyone trying to ensure the city's water supply” (232). Curiously enough. Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, though one of its chapters is titled “Chinatown,” never mentions the film; the PBS television series makes up for that omission, however, by using numerous clips from Chinatown, treating it almost as if it were a documentary.

  2. Herbert Gans, writing in Social Policy, refers to the “sexual subplot” of the film (49); John Walton writes that “Incest is an important subplot” in the film (231).

  3. Mike Davis describes the history presented in Chinatown as “more syncretic than fictional” (114).

  4. Towne remarked on his connection in an interview a few months after Chinatown's release: “I wanted to tell a story about a man who raped the land and his own daughter in the name of the future. … Men like Cross believe that as long as they can keep building, keep reproducing, they'll live forever” (Kasindorf 114-15).

  5. Belton notes the verbal patterns that establish the association between Evelyn Mulwray and the “racial, cultural, and … sexual indecipherability” of Chinatown (945-46).

  6. Only Murray Sperber, in a discussion published shortly after the film's release, remarks on Gittes's failure to understand Evelyn at this point: “even when she [Evelyn] finally tells the truth, he's uncomprehending, unable to fully understand such a thing (‘he raped you,’ he asks; no, she shakes her head)” (9).

  7. The third draft of the screenplay, which is the version printed in Towne's Chinatown & The Last Detail, goes into somewhat more detail about precisely what happened between Evelyn and her father (129-30).

  8. Deborah Linderman (193) and John Belton insist on this association; Belton in fact refers to Evelyn as a femme fatale (945).

Works Cited

Belton, John. “Language, Oedipus, and Chinatown.MLN 106.5 (1991): 933-50.

Cawelti, John. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. 4th ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 498-511.

Champlin, Charles. “Chinatown Tour de Force,” Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1974: IV, 1.

Davis, Margaret. Rivers in the Desert. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. London: Verso, 1990.

Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, n.d. [1951].

Engel, Joel. Screenwriters on Screenwriting. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1950.

Gans, Herbert. “Chinatown: An Anticapitalist Murder Mystery.” Social Policy 5.4 (1974): 48-49.

Hoffman, Abraham. Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy. College Station, Tex.: Texas A & M University Press, 1981.

Hundley, Norris. The Great Thirst: Californians and Water, 1770s-1990s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Jameson, Fredric. “On Raymond Chandler.” 1970. The Critical Response to Raymond Chandler. Ed. J. K. Van Dover. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. 65-87.

Kahrl, William. Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles' Water Supply in the Owens Valley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Kasindorf, Martin. “Hot Writer.” Newsweek, 14 October 1974: 114-15.

Kavanagh, James. “Chinatown: Other Places, Other Times.” Jump Cut 3 (1974): 1, 8.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Scope of Anthropology. Trans. Sherry Ortner Paul and Robert Paul. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.

Linderman, Deborah. “Oedipus in Chinatown.enclitic 5-6 (1981-82): 190-203.

Mayo, Morrow. Los Angeles. New York, Knopf: 1933.

McGinnis, Wayne D. “Chinatown: Roman Polanski's Contemporary Oedipus Story.” Literature/Film Quarterly 3.3 (1975): 249-51.

McWilliams, Carey. Southern California Country: An Island on the Land. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce: 1946.

Purdum, Todd S. “This Time, Los Angeles May Lose Water War.” New York Times, 15 June 1998: A1, A14.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975: 157-210.

Sarris, Andrew. “Chinatown and Polanski-Towne: Tilting toward Tragedy.” Village Voice, 7 November 1974: 85.

Sperber, Murray. “‘Do as Little as Possible’: Polanski's Message and Manipulation.” Jump Cut 3 (1974): 9-10.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film, 3rd ed. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Towne, Robert. Chinatown & The Last Detail. New York: Grove Press, 1997.

Towne, Robert. Interview. Screenwriters on Screenwriting. Ed. Joel Engel. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Walling, William. “Chinatown.Society 12.1 (1974): 73-77.

Walton, John. Western Times and Water Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Kenneth Turan (review date 10 March 2000)

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SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “Ninth Gate Is Languorous Dance with the Devil.” Los Angeles Times (10 March 2000): F27.

[In the following review, Turan observes that The Ninth Gate creates a stylish and intelligent atmosphere, but ultimately lacks dramatic momentum and fails to hold the viewer's attention.]

Better than Harrison Ford, John Travolta or even Leonardo DiCaprio, getting the devil involved in your picture is a sure way of getting it made. Not necessarily as a producer or financial backer (though that probably wouldn't hurt) but merely as a subject. From 1899's “Chorus Girls and the Devil” (little more than the title survives, unfortunately) to the current The Ninth Gate, Satan has always been the movie business' go-to guy.

Adapted (quite loosely, apparently) from El Club Dumas, a literary thriller by Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Ninth Gate is at least the second encounter with the evil one for Roman Polanski. The director of the classic Rosemary's Baby still has a liking for the outre and the bizarre, but that's as far as the parallels between the two films go.

For though The Ninth Gate is well-crafted with a genteel and moody air, it's best understood as a kind of anti-thriller. Lacking noticeable energy or drive, its almost visceral distaste for dramatic momentum is puzzling, especially in a film about the black arts. It's got an old-fashioned European sensibility—most of it is set on that continent—all well mannered style and very little involving passion.

It's hard to tell whether star Johnny Depp was a contributing factor to this lethargy or merely found it to his liking. Wearing glasses and a small goatee, with his hair graying at the temples, Depp quietly disappears inside the chain-smoking character of Dean Corso, a protagonist so buttoned-down he's always difficult to read.

Which is ironic in a way, because Corso plays a book detective, a specialist in finding and procuring very old and rare volumes for collectors willing to pay extravagantly for them. An elegant, soulless weasel who finds a reputation for unscrupulousness to be a professional asset, Corso is proud to say he believes only in “my percentage.” That's just fine with client Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), who himself believes “no one is more reliable than a man whose loyalty can be bought for hard cash.”

Balkan is a fabulously wealthy collector with a twist. “All my rare editions have the same protagonist,” he tells Corso with an appropriately icy smile. “The devil.” The pride of his collection, just bought from recently deceased rival Andrew Telfer, is a 17th century item called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows.

Published in 1666, The Nine Gates is no ordinary antiquarian volume. Its author, Aristide Torchia, took the trouble to adapt it from a book supposedly written by the devil himself (who knew he had the time?) and was burned at the stake for his pains. Only three copies are known to exist, Balkan says, and he believes only one of them is genuine. Authenticity is important because the real book is said to have the power to summon the devil himself from the terrifying nether world.

Devotees of this book are understandably rabid about getting their hands on it, so when Corso accepts Balkan's commission to go to Europe and examine the other two copies, it's a given that: a) sinister forces will be unleashed in his path and b) because it's a movie after all, beautiful women will factor into the equation.

First to reveal herself is Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), the coolly seductive widow of previous owner Andrew Telfer. Then there is a character known only as the Girl, an enigmatic blond wearing a parka, jeans, running shoes and mismatched socks. Played by Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's wife), the Girl knows a heck of a lot about the book and appears and disappears almost at will. You figure it out, because Corso is in no hurry to.

Those similarly in the mood for something languorous and atmospheric will not be angry with The Ninth Gate. Working with dark side cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven,The City of Lost Children) and veteran composer Wojciech Kilar, Polanski has concentrated on the subdued and the spooky. And he's thrown in some bizarre acting touches, like having veteran production manager Jose Lopez Rodero play both Pablo and Pedro Ceniza, identical twin book dealers.

Because its several libraries were created by expert production designer Dean Tavoularis and his team, book collectors will be pleased by the film's visual tribute to old and beautiful volumes, its habit of bathing them in the kind of warm and flattering light usually reserved for actresses like Madonna.

Finally, however, The Ninth Gate is too laid-back and unconcerned about the pacing of its story to be satisfying. Polanski and his co-writers Enrique Urbiz and John Brownjohn seem supremely indifferent about bringing things to any kind of dramatic conclusion, and while a thriller that's not high-powered is an intriguing concept, in reality it can hold our attention for only so long.

Philip Strick (review date September 2000)

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SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of The Ninth Gate, by Roman Polanski. Sight and Sound 10, no. 9 (September 2000): 45-6.

[In the following review, Strick comments that The Ninth Gate is a technically well-made film, but feels that it fails as an adaptation of the novel El Club Dumas, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.]

[In The Ninth Gate,] Dean Corso, a rare books specialist, is hired by demonologist Boris Balkan to authenticate his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, a book which reputedly reveals a means of entry to the Underworld. Corso intends to compare the two existing copies with Balkan's volume, whose previous owner, Andrew Telfer, committed suicide. Corso discovers that Telfer's widow, Liana, is determined to recover the book. His apartment is ransacked, and a colleague temporarily looking after the book is murdered.

In Spain Corso learns from the antiquarians the Ceniza brothers that some of the book's nine engravings are signed ‘LCF’, perhaps meaning ‘Lucifer’. Comparing the book with the copy owned by Victor Fargas, Corso notes a number of variations in the engravings. Fargas is murdered and the engravings are removed from his copy. Rescued from attack by a mysterious girl, Corso inspects the third surviving edition, held by Baroness Kessler in Paris. He notices discrepancies before the Baroness is killed. Corso realises that the secret of The Nine Gates is to be found in a combination of all three copies.

Liana Telfer obtains Balkan's copy. Corso follows Liana to the mansion where she is to officiate at a Satanist ceremony. Balkan bursts in, strangles Liana, seizes the engravings and the book and prepares to enter Satan's domain. But the invocation is faulty and he dies in a welter of flames. Urged on by the girl, Corso receives the final authentic engraving from the Cenizas and advances through the ninth portal in a blaze of light.

In co-adapting Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel The Dumas Club into his latest film The Ninth Gate, director Roman Polanski has settled, not unreasonably, for only half the story, an ingenious ‘spot-the-difference’ murder mystery tricked out with fancy artwork and obscure Latin tags. As its title suggests, the rest of the novel concerns itself with the genesis and popularity of The Three Musketeers. In deleting all mention of Alexandre Dumas while filching bits from his share of the narrative, Polanski has created problems for himself. The serious literary gathering of Dumas admirers, for example, has been translated into a curiously anaemic coven of devil-worshippers, while the urbane Balkan, who employs antiquarian Corso to authenticate a book reputed to reveal an entrance to the Underworld, is an uneasy composite of two characters in the novel.

One of the novel's most teasing ambiguities is the suggestion that the mysterious girl, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, who follows Corso has a supernatural origin. Polanski cheerfully substantiates this with close-ups of her peculiar eyes and startling glimpses of the woman in flight, but then seems at a loss what to make of a demon who bleeds like everybody else and reads How to Make Friends and Influence People. Passionately embracing Corso outside a burning castle, presumably to seduce his recruitment to the armies of damned, Satan's envoy then has nothing more useful to offer than a note on Corso's windscreen sending him back to Toledo. The clumsy accident, again a Polanski invention, that puts the final engraving in his hands, completing the mysteries of the three books, brings Corso scurrying back to the castle, where a Satanist ceremony is taking place, on an inexplicably Faustian mission under a repellently lurid sky. Making no obvious sense—how would he gain access to the Ninth Gate if the guidebooks have all been burned?—this ugly image leaves the story in an anticlimactic limbo.

It's no worse, of course, than the dustcart ending of Polanski's 1988 Paris-set thriller Frantic, of which, putting aside the sorcery, The Ninth Gate is something of a re-run. Not only is its journey more interesting than its arrival, but also, like Frantic,The Ninth Gate uses Emmanuelle Seigner as an unfathomable distraction, an undeclared agent for some malevolent conspiracy. Her verbal contests with Corso even echo the abrasive exchanges of another Polanski couple, the duellists of Chinatown (1974), with Johnny Depp in Jack Nicholson's role—although, it's Lena Olin, as Satanist Liana, who first updates Faye Dunaway with the iconic shot of an open cigarette case.

Polanski clearly enjoys such references and diversions, and The Ninth Gate is generously spiced with humorous detail, from a Tex Avery call-sign to the Arab disguise assumed by the girl. The entry code to Balkan's apartment incorporates the number 666, while the picture of a mansion in flames, glimpsed inside, is—like the opening pan around the New York skyline—an image from Rosemary's Baby (1968). A disarmingly frivolous moment briefly gives Corso four eyes when a bottle is smashed over his head, while some effects trickery create two Ceniza brothers (both played by José López Rodero) out of one. It's a nice touch that, living up to their name (Spanish for ash), the Cenizas scatter fag-ends over the priceless pages they examine.

Sternly rejecting any link between his private predicaments and his films, Polanski remains a supreme technician and, perhaps unknowingly, a champion of the dispossessed, his stories told in transit. A Polanski scene is typically in the back of a car, in a hotel foyer, or on the uneasy threshold of someone else's territory. He loves corridors, doorways and sprawling apartments, his cast advancing to camera across the gulf from distant entry-points, and in this sense the massive doors featured on every engraving in The Ninth Gate would seem to offer a special fascination. Not particularly liked at first outing—partly because Johnny Depp, in fake grey temples, personifies the odious Corso of the book a little too accurately—the film is intricately well-made, deserves a second chance despite its disintegrations, and in time will undoubtedly acquire its own coven of heretical fans.

Justin Huggler (essay date 10 May 2001)

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SOURCE: Huggler, Justin. “The Story of My Life.” Independent (10 May 2001): 1.

[In the following essay, Huggler discusses the production of The Pianist and comments on the parallels between the experiences of Polanski and Wladyslaw Szpilman in Nazi-occupied Poland.]

An old man is thrown to his death from a fifth-floor balcony, because he is too crippled to stand up respectfully when soldiers burst in and interrupt his family meal. A young man, held back by police, watches as his family are loaded into the train that will take them to the gas chambers. The bodies of children lie in the streets.

These are all real events that took place in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland—but they are also scenes from The Pianist, a new film currently being shot in Warsaw by Roman Polanski. The Pianist is a major event in all sorts of ways. It is the first film the legendary Polish director has made in his native land for 40 years, since leaving to escape the scissors of the communist censors. It is also the first time that Polanski has confronted the darkest ghosts of his own life: his childhood during the Holocaust.

Polanski, of course, has long been a controversial figure. The murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Charles Manson gang provided one of the most lurid stories of the Sixties. Then there are the outstanding charges in the US, dating from 1979, of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl against him. The fear of extradition also prevents him visiting Britain, the country he once considered his adoptive home.

But there was tragedy in Polanski's life almost from the start. He was just six years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. As Jews, he and his family were forced to live in terrible conditions in the ghetto of Krakow, his home town. His mother eventually died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and his father, too, was taken to a concentration camp. Polanski himself escaped from the ghetto but lived out the rest of the war in fear and utter loneliness, pretending to be a Polish gentile, dependent on the goodwill of families who took him in.

The director's traumatic wartime adventures naturally had a profound effect on his life and his work. But until now, Polanski has always insisted that he would not make a film of his experiences. Indeed, when Steven Spielberg offered him the apparently golden opportunity to direct Schindler's List, Polanski turned it down, saying the events were too close to his own life.

But now Polanski is back in Poland, and making a movie the parallels of which will be clear for all to see. The Pianist is the film version of the bestselling memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish pianist who famously played Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor as the German shells fell around the studio in 1939—the last live performance on Polish radio. He played it again at the end of the war—after six years during which he had lived in the ghetto and seen all of his family taken to the death camps. Szpilman himself escaped and survived among the ruins of Warsaw against all the odds.

“It's the story I've been looking for for years,” Polanski says of the project. “For many years I have been encouraged to find a subject that relates to my personal history, but until The Pianist I have never read a piece so moving that I felt I had to bring it to the screen, and, in doing so, face again that nightmarish period.”

For Polanski, it is like coming full circle, says his friend and collaborator Gene Gutowksi, producer of the director's early successes Repulsion,Cul-de-Sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers. Gutowksi, like Polanski, is a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. Now he has rejoined his old friend to co-produce The Pianist. “Sometimes, he gets it so right, he reproduces what it was like here so accurately, that it is frightening,” says Gutowski, with obvious feeling. “We've both said to each other that it's frightening. But it's rewarding. It's like putting the ghost to sleep. It's cathartic.”

There is nothing left of the Warsaw ghetto these days. Now you can walk through leafy, modern streets—but they are the same streets in which half a million Jews were crammed into an area large enough to accommodate only 100,000. Back then, walls were built around the ghetto to keep the Jews out of “Aryan” areas of town. Food was desperately short and Jews starved to death. Others, homeless, froze in the extreme cold. Disease was rampant. The bodies could not be buried quickly enough and lay rotting in the open.

It was here that Wladyslaw Szpilman saw with his own eyes children picked up by the feet and swung against walls so their skulls smashed. In his book, a classic of wartime reportage, he tells how he could not tear his eyes away as an old man was thrown from his fifth-floor balcony. He even describes the distinct sounds of first the chair, then the body, hitting the ground.

Another writer, Antoni Marianowicz, who also escaped the ghetto and survived the Holocaust, remembers Szpilman well. “He was really good, an international pianist,” he says. “And he was famous in the ghetto.” Marianowicz tells of how he used to go to cafes to listen to Szpilman playing in order to escape the horrors of the ghetto. “We looked for somewhere where we could be in a different atmosphere and forget where we were.” Szpilman's book, Marianowicz says, provides an accurate record of how bad life in the ghetto was.

Szpilman, who died last year at the age of 89, is also remembered by Marek Edelman, the last survivor of the legendary ghetto uprising—when, in 1943, as more and more Jews were deported to the death camps, those left in the ghetto decided to resist. In a now famous gesture of defiance, they refused to surrender a single building without a fight. “We never hoped to win,” Edelman told me. He remembers Szpilman playing in the cafe where the Polish underground gathered to arrange smuggling in weapons. Though Szpilman had escaped the ghetto by the time the uprising took place, he did help smuggle weapons in at the bottom of sacks of potatoes in early 1943, when he was detailed to work outside the restricted area.

When Szpilman was living in the Warsaw ghetto, earning a crust playing the piano in ghetto cafes, the young Polanski was himself struggling to survive, 150 miles south, in the ghetto of Krakow. There are other uncomfortable parallels between their lives: Polanski's mother died at Auschwitz; Szpilman's entire family died at the Treblinka death camp. Szpilman's book begins with the story of how he tried to save a child smuggler slipping back into the ghetto through a hole in the wall—just as the child Polanski survived by escaping the Krakow ghetto through a hole his father cut in the barbed wire. Only in Szpilman's story the child is not so fortunate. A German policeman spots him from the other side and attacks him. “When I finally managed to pull the child through, he died,” Szpilman writes. “His spine had been shattered.”

Both men could tell of devastating farewells with their fathers. After his own escape, Polanski saw his father being marched away, and tried to get his attention. Desperate to protect his son, Polanski senior told the boy to “Shove off!' Szpilman, meanwhile, was waiting to board the train that took his family to Treblinka—they didn't know where they were going at the time—when somebody recognised the famous pianist and dragged him out of the waiting crowd and behind the police lines. He was forced to watch as his family boarded the train. In his book, he writes how his father “tried to smile, helplessly, painfully raised his arm and waved goodbye”. Polanski, as the director relates in his autobiography, met up with his father again at the end of the war—but for Szpilman, there was to be no such reunion.

This week, actors in period costume are milling around the Hotel Sasky, one of the few buildings to survive the Nazi destruction of Warsaw at the end of the war. Around the shabby old structure rise the glass towers of modern Warsaw. They are filming an early scene, in which Szpilman is playing the piano in a ghetto cafe and a customer sends the waiter to ask the pianist to stop because he cannot hear himself “test” his money. The customer knocks his newly acquired gold coins on the table and holds them to his ear to hear the ring.

The actor playing the man with the gold coins is not a professional actor, but a well-known Warsaw lawyer and a friend of Polanski's. Polanski wanted to cast a non-actor as Szpilman, too, and advertised for casting sessions in London—but couldn't find the right man, and in the end the part went to a professional—Adrien Brody, currently to be seen in Ken Loach's Bread and Roses.

Most of the actors on the set are wearing white armbands with a blue Star of David on them—and Polanski recalls an occasion as a child when he had trouble drawing the symbol, with its intricate overlapping triangles. A short while later he was forced to wear it—when the Germans ordered that all Jews wear the armbands. Szpilman, too, writes that he avoided leaving the house for days to escape the shame of wearing one.

Szpilman's book provides a raw, honest account of the war, and it spares no detail of wrongdoing by Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Jews, too—many of whom, like the man with the gold coins, grew rich on the lucrative trade in smuggling goods into the starving ghetto.

“We're filming it all,” agrees Gene Gutowski. That could cause some serious controversy, if it includes Szpilman's account of those Jews who joined the Germans' “Jewish police” and helped round up the victims for the death camps. “Off they go for meltdown,” one of them says when the train carrying Szpilman's parents, brothers and sisters sets off for Treblinka. “So be it,” says Gutowski of any impending controversy. “Szpilman lived through it. I lived through it.”

So, of course, did Polanski. When the great director was in hiding pretending to be a Polish child in a village outside Warsaw, a passing German soldier took a pot shot at him for fun. Mercifully, he missed. One last striking parallel between Szpilman and Polanski is that they both survived, thanks not only to the courage of the friends who protected them, but also thanks to a good deal of pure luck. And what the director is confronting in The Pianist is not only the Holocaust, but what it means to be a survivor.

Mick LaSalle (review date 3 January 2003)

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SOURCE: LaSalle, Mick. Review of The Pianist, by Roman Polanski. San Francisco Chronicle (3 January 2003): D1.

[In the following review, LaSalle observes that the strength of The Pianist lies partly in Polanski's decision to limit the film's perspective to that of one individual, asserting that the film is one of the “great” movies about the Holocaust.]

People have a tendency to adapt, make do and look on the bright side. One of the many terrible, unforgettable things about The Pianist, the harrowing new drama from Roman Polanski, is that it shows how that normally healthy impulse worked to seal the doom for hundreds of thousands of innocent people during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

The Holocaust has been the subject of many films. The Pianist is one of the great ones. Polanski eschews the big canvas of Spielberg's Schindler's List and follows the true story of a single individual and his family from the day the Germans invade Warsaw to the day the Allies liberate it.

We never see more than he sees or know more than he knows (except what we know from history). Polanski's subjective approach takes us gradually into the horror, and the effect is terrifying and also psychologically revealing. We get an idea—just an idea, but an idea—of what it must have been like.

Adrien Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, a classical pianist for Warsaw radio, whose broadcast is interrupted one day in 1939 by an explosion. He goes home to find his siblings and elderly parents contemplating evacuation, now that the Germans are at the gates. But a radio broadcast consoles them. England and France are joining the war. The family decides to tough it out.

In a lesser movie, we'd see the Germans arriving, and in the next scene we'd see desolation, bodies in the streets and people being crammed into boxcars. But The Pianist shows how this was a two-year process. At first Jews weren't allowed in public parks. Then they weren't allowed to keep more than a small sum of money in their homes. In one scene, Szpilman's father reads incredulously that all Jews will be required to wear star-of-David armbands—their exact color and dimension are described with typical German meticulousness. What we know to be the beginning of the end, the characters regard as a mind-boggling absurdity.

It's a dehumanizing process, and we see the effect on Szpilman, who, as played by Brody, starts the film with the bearing and confidence of a young man whose talent has paved the way to a golden future. Gradually, doubt creeps into his eyes, and then terror, and then blind animal panic. His performance is so true that we don't even notice it as a performance. It's as if he were a character in a documentary.

There are scenes in The Pianist, some based on Szpilman's wartime experience and others from Polanski's own recollections, that will make audiences despair of humanity. With a jovial sadism, a German soldier makes old Jews dance by the ghetto gate. In another scene the Szpilman family watches as their neighbor across the street, an old man in a wheelchair, is thrown out of a window. Unlike Spielberg, Polanski doesn't press for emotion in these scenes but presents all with cool detachment. It's a different artistic road that leads to the same moving effect.

In the meantime, the audience can keep its head. We watch the atrocities mount and marvel at how, despite the horrors, life keeps defaulting into stasis, routine, the illusion of normality. There are work permits to be obtained, meals to be made. So that even when the dead bodies of children are in the street, and people are being stripped of everything and carted off to death camps, a Polish Jew can say, “The Germans will never squander such a large workforce”—and we understand how he'd believe it.

The Pianist is the product of an extremely knowing cinematic mind. As Szpilman goes from one hiding place to another, much of the action is seen from his perspective, as he looks out a window. Polanski resists the temptation ever to move in for a close-up of what Szpilman is looking at. In one scene, a bomb explodes nearby, and on the soundtrack we hear a high-pitched whistling that simulates what Szpilman is hearing. Polanski puts us into Szpilman's room, then puts us into his head. It's a nerve-shattering experience.

The Pianist contains moments of irony, of ambiguity and of strange beauty, as when we finally get a look at Warsaw and see a panorama of destruction, a world of color bombed into black-and-white devastation. We encounter good Poles and bad Poles, brave Jews and opportunistic Jews, and easily the film's most arrestingly enigmatic performance is that of Thomas Kretschmann, who plays a German captain.

In the course of showing us a struggle for survival, in all its animal simplicity, Polanski also gives us humanity, in all its complexity.

Arthur Spiegelman (review date 3 January 2003)

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SOURCE: Spiegelman, Arthur. Review of The Pianist, by Roman Polanski. Los Angeles Times (3 January 2003): E14.

[In the following review, Spiegelman—author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus—discusses how Polanski's experiences as a Holocaust survivor informed the making of The Pianist.]

The man escaping a roundup of Jews has his life saved with a warning: “Walk, don't run.” A woman shot by Nazis collapses in a strange, contorted way. The windows of a house where a Polish Jew hides are draped totally in black paper to keep in every ray of light.

Director Roman Polanski, 69, doesn't like to talk publicly or even much privately about his experiences surviving the Holocaust as a boy in Poland. But his memory speaks volumes about it in the new movie, The Pianist, a film ostensibly based on another man's life, the Polish Jewish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman.

It is Polanski who falls to show an extra how her body should twist as it hits the ground after being shot—drawing on the memory he had of a dead woman in the snow long ago. “Walk, don't run” are his father's own words to him when as a scrawny, undersized kid he escapes a ghetto roundup to Auschwitz. It is Polanski who has his set designers cover the windows in black paper because that is what covered the windows of his childhood.

The film, which just began a limited release in the United States, is a powerful portrayal of one man's chance survival of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and of the random murders, daily demeaning brutality, and unspeakable deprivation that took place. Some critics think it could widen an already unpredictable Oscar race.

The film, made in Poland and Germany, has already won the grand prize at Cannes and could make a star of its suffering hero, American actor Adrien Brody in the role of a lifetime. And it could revive Polanski's career as a major world filmmaker—a career derailed by a sex scandal that ended with his fleeing the United States for Paris in 1977 rather than go to jail for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Already, there are some in Hollywood wondering what the scene would be like if the movie won an Oscar and its maker, who is still barred from the United States, could not show up for fear he would be jailed.

The Pianist is the story of Warsaw radio pianist Szpilman, who was one of only 20 Jews to have survived the war in Warsaw. It is also the story of the indeterminate nature of survival and is based on Szpilman's 1946 memoir. The book was suppressed in Communist Poland because of its blunt portrayal of good and evil.

Key to the film's success is Brody, a 29-year-old American actor, who literally starved himself to perform the role.

“I felt a huge responsibility because of the nature of this film. Roman made me go through hunger. He insisted I lose a tremendous amount of weight so that we could film the hunger scenes first. I had six weeks to lose 30 pounds,” said Brody, adding that was not all that he had given up—to do the film he lost his Manhattan apartment, car and had a relationship crack up because never had he devoted himself so intensely to a role.

The hunger “provided a clear understanding of Szpilman's level of deprivation. Although mine was optional, it allowed me a way to connect with this man. It is amazing how much hunger affects you, how your mind starts operating beyond the craving for food,” he said. “I felt an emptiness inside and saw the emptiness in the world. There are some people who say the character of Szpilman is too passive in the film, but in truth there was only so much he was able to do. He found a way to survive, he was not a fighter, not a soldier.”

Besides Brody's performance, there is also a star turn by young German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who plays Wilm Hosenfeld, a German army captain who saved Szpilman's life in a chance encounter that becomes one of the key scenes in the film.

Like Brody, Kretschmann says that Polanski helped him immensely. “Polanski was a witness. … He stands for the victims. … He saw his mother taken away when he was age 8. We would sit and watch the rushes of the film and he would say, ‘This happened to me,’ like the scene when Szpilman avoids the roundup of Jews and is told ‘Walk, don't run’ to get away. That was told to him by his father. This film is his childhood memories.”

Kretschmann added: “But if you ask Roman Polanski what the film is about, he will say, ‘It is a film about hope.’ Roman Polanski is a complex man.”

James Verniere (review date 3 January 2003)

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SOURCE: Verniere, James. “Touching all the Right Keys.” Boston Herald (3 January 2003): 9.

[In the following review, Verniere asserts that few Holocaust films have achieved the “power, restraint, and precision” of Polanski's The Pianist.]

Its maker probably would disagree, but the English-language drama The Pianist is autobiography by proxy, perhaps the only way Roman Polanski would tell the story of his experiences as a child in Nazi-occupied Poland, and it's easily the best, most personal film of the year. Eligible for the 2002 Academy Awards, this impressively spiritual work of art marks a major comeback for the exiled 69-year-old director of some of the greatest films of the 20th century, including Chinatown, a 1974 film noir on my short list of the best movies ever made.

Based on the memoir Death of a City, by Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, the film allows Polanski to return to his roots in his native Poland. In his 1984 autobiography, Roman, the author describes his childhood escape from the Krakow ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Dresser) waste no time establishing a link between film and music and between filmmaker and musician in opening scenes featuring musical accompaniment over old, silent footage of pre-war Warsaw. Szpilman (American actor Adrien Brody) is a young, snazzily attired, cosmopolitan adult from a prosperous assimilated Jewish family. An acclaimed pianist, he's playing Chopin in a booth at a Warsaw radio station when Nazi bombs begin to land closer and closer and finally shatter the glass wall separating him from the station's engineers.

Two things are perfectly clear in The Pianist. Evil is a natural part of human nature, and deliverance from evil is not a matter of God or the devil (with whom Polanski, director of Rosemary's Baby, may be on familiar terms), but often of blind chance (Polanski shares this theme with his late countryman Krzysztof Kieslowski). Polanski, who also escaped being killed by Charles Manson's followers because he was at work abroad on a film, knows what he's talking about.

After being forcibly removed from their home and literally walled into the ghetto along with other Jews, Szpilman's parents—distraught mother (Maureen Lipman) and numbed father (Frank Finlay)—continue to cling to the foolish hope that all this, too, shall pass. But reality continues to intrude.

Polanski depicts the horrors, including a scene in which a desperate, starving man sucks spilled soup off the pavement. But he depicts them at an emotional remove as if they are too horrible and personal to exploit for the vicarious consumption.

Unlike Steven Spielberg, who used numerous, undeniably wrenching close-ups in Schindler's List, Polanski, perhaps because Szpilman's “vision” is so tightly restrained (as Polanski's was as a child), keeps his and our distance.

In one scene, Szpilman and his family watch from their windows as a truckload of Nazis pull up at night in front of the building across the street and break into the dwelling of a Jewish family that might be a photocopy of the Szpilmans, push a feeble old man in a wheelchair out to the balcony and tumble him over the railing to his death in the street below.

In yet another example of existential perversity, a brutal Jewish ghetto policeman (Roy Smiles) saves Szpilman's life by separating him from his family just as they are about to board a cattle car for the Nazi camps and almost certain death. “Don't run,” he says, the same advice a Polish militiaman gave the child Polanski as he escaped.

Szpilman's universe continues to contract. From another window, he witnesses the 1944 Warsaw Uprising (the subject of Polish master Andrzej Wajda's 1956 classic Kanal). Shuttled from vacant flat to vacant flat, he is left alone with little food for weeks on end by a “protector.” Slowly robbed of his vitality (the already lanky Brody lost 30 pounds for these scenes), he clings to the music in his head and hands.

In a final absurdist scene, Szpilman leaves a burning hospital where he has been foraging and passes almost magically into a ruined world. Block after block of bombed-out buildings stretch before him like sculptural depictions of human folly. In a luxurious home that is more or less intact, he finds a treasure: a tin can of pickles. But an almost Chaplinesque struggle ensues between man and intractable inanimate object.

By this stage, everything has been taken away from Szpilman, his home, family, friends, freedom, physical strength (the Nazis began by banning Polish Jews from beaches and parks and ended by banning them from existence). All that remains is his life and his languishing talent, and in a final absurd twist, salvation comes in the form of a Chopin ballad played with exquisite flawlessness and beauty on a grand piano (in this scene, Szpilman is bathed in what can only be called heavenly light).

Later, he is almost shot by Russian soldiers because he is wearing a Nazi officer's coat, a gift from a music lover. Asked why he would do such a thing, he responds simply, “I'm cold.”

Holocaust films come in many forms: documentary, coming-of-age film, war movie, personal memoir. But few have attained such power, restraint and precision. Polanski's goal was to make himself invisible, but his film speaks for itself, especially when such films have been virtually banished by corporate-owned studios. The Pianist seems like both a throwback to the Golden Age and an alien artifact (credit also goes to cinematographer Pawel Edelman and production designer Allan Starski). It should be noted that Polanski's hero and soulmate Wladyslaw Szpilman died in 2000 at age 88 after becoming one of Poland's best-known, most popular recording artists.

Philip Kerr (review date 27 January 2003)

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SOURCE: Kerr, Philip. “A Life Less Ordinary.” New Statesman 132, no. 4622 (27 January 2003): 46.

[In the following review, Kerr praises Polanski's brutally realistic depiction of the Holocaust in The Pianist.]

All stories about the Holocaust told from the Jewish perspective share a common fault: they are all remarkable. This is a fault because, for the vast majority of Jews, the experience of the Holocaust was very different. Millions of Jews found only a squalid, anonymous death on Germany's automated mass-destruction line. Movies dealing with the Jewish experience of the Holocaust never deal with these typical stories, only with the anomalies—the survivors. What kind of story is it when the hero dies?

These movies encourage audiences in a rather unfortunate delusion, for we like to imagine—do we not?—just what we would have done in order to survive such an ordeal, when the truth is that survival was almost always improbable, entirely accidental and not a matter of some personal act of eclecticism such as that exercised by Meryl Streep in the 1982 film Sophie's Choice. I always think the best movie to make about the Holocaust would be one in which no one survives at all, because that would be the film that comes closest to reflecting the reality.

The Pianist is a true story about a survivor and hence an anomalous one, but it is possibly one of the best movies ever made about the Holocaust, and certainly the best movie Roman Polanski has made since Chinatown, almost 30 years ago. Indeed, while watching this sometimes unwatchable picture, one has a strong sense that this is the film that Polanski—himself a survivor of the Krakow ghetto—was born to make.

It's the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a gifted Jewish pianist who is forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto with his mother, father, brother and two sisters until their deportation to the Treblinka death camp in 1942—a fate that Szpilman manages, arbitrarily, to escape. With the help of a few sympathetic Poles, Szpilman takes refuge in a series of safe houses in the city, while the war rages on. From his window, he sees the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and its brutal suppression, and feels the reproach of his fellow Jews that he is not with them. Finally, a tank shooting at Polish resistance fighters forces Szpilman to leave the safe house, and he is soon reduced to searching abandoned buildings for food, and playing dead on the street while the Germans try, in vain, to hold back the Red Army.

It is a remarkable story, handled with an expert lack of sentimentality by Polanski. There is a scene in which an SS officer selects eight Jewish forced labourers for execution and manages to shoot seven before his pistol runs out of ammunition. Spielberg, you feel, could hardly have resisted the temptation to play God and would have had the SS man stamping off, angry at the surviving Jew for having cheated death. But Polanski, always less sparing of his audience, has the SS man produce another magazine for the Luger pistol, which he reloads impatiently. Surely, the gun will jam, you tell yourself. It doesn't. That stuff only ever happens in Hollywood, says Polanski. This film was made in Europe, which suits Polanski's harder-edged sensibility.

But if the movie sets out to tell the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, played to perfection by Adrien Brody, it is Allan Starski who steals the whole picture with his superb production design. Already an Oscar winner for his work on Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), Starski's meticulous re-creation of the Warsaw ghetto—ironically enough, this was done on the back lot at the Babelsberg studios in Berlin, where the man in charge was once Josef Goebbels—is nothing short of miraculous. The scenes of degraded everyday life in the ghetto—the building of the wall around it (are the Israelis oblivious to the irony of building a huge wall surrounding the Neve Dekalim settlement next to Khan Yunis refugee camp?), the cadaverous-looking people, the dead bodies, the ratlike children, the capricious cruelty of the Germans—are such that I am persuaded that this may be the definitive movie about the Holocaust.

The Pianist won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2002. While being without question worth an Oscar, it remains to be seen if, in this current climate of hysteria about paedophilia, Hollywood will feel equal to the task of recognising the work of a man who put himself beyond the pale in 1979, when he fled America while awaiting sentencing on a charge of unlawful intercourse with a minor. Like me, you might think Polanski has suffered enough.

Karin Badt (review date May-June 2003)

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SOURCE: Badt, Karin. “Art after Auschwitz?” Tikkun 18, no. 3 (May-June 2003): 93-4.

[In the following review, Badt argues that The Pianist embodies one of Polanski's recurring themes in his films—the triumph of art over adversity.]

Roman Polanski's forte is evil; he has treated this theme for the last fifty years. His latest film, The Pianist (winner of the Palme d'Or and three Academy Awards) gives the context to his vision: the Holocaust. Using the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist who survived the Warsaw ghetto, Polanski tells his own story. His parents deported, his mother murdered, Polanski emerged from the war a twelve-year-old boy on his own, determined to make it in cinema. Like Szpilman, he became a world-renowned artist.

Szpilman's and Polanski's stories coincide, it seems, to give the same message of the triumph of art. The film begins with Szpilman playing Chopin in 1939 and ends in 1945 with him finishing his piece—a victory of survival. We are elevated by the chords of Chopin, the celebration of the human spirit, the power of Polanski's film. And yet Polanski's own art, this film, does not really offer this redemption. Instead, it offers us a cruel mirror to ourselves, our own curious relationship to art, our own complicity in evil.

Polanski forces us to watch, just as he did, the painful, progressive, build-up of evil. We are slotted into the same position of passivity and impotence. He tells his story in a cold way, choosing as his lead Adrien Brody, a none-too-charismatic non-hero. With the pianist, we watch the walls of the ghetto go up, in five close-up shots of bricks. Images of massacre are cropped so that the victims' heads are close to ours. Off-camera sounds of trains, coughs, and dogs barking put us in the action, now.

Polanski's film gives witness, yet it also calls into question the witness. To scenes that in Szpilman's autobiography took place with two characters, Polanski adds an onlooking crowd. When a man licks up soup from the street, a darkened face in a window watches—and we too are forced to watch. In the second half of the movie, even our stand-in—the pianist—is reduced to watching the Holocaust happen through the window of his hiding place, as if evil itself were a movie.

Szpilman empties into a shell, disconnected from the events he watches. Once a man who carried ammunition for the uprising, he ends a pessimist, saying “What difference did it make?” As in most of Polanski's films, the world is so dauntingly evil the protagonist grows incapable of imagining an alternative future. Rosemary cannot escape the witches, so she accepts the devil's son. Death and the Maiden concludes with torturer and victim in a concert hall, listening together to the very music that accompanied the torture. It's a gesture of resignation. “Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.”

Polanski wants us to feel the reality of Chinatown. He does not want to lure us into the complacency of believing in heroes—or the redemption of art. A conspicuous change from Szpilman's autobiography shows this decision. In the autobiography, we learn that the Nazi who saved Szpilman was a schoolteacher motivated by religious and humanitarian beliefs. He saved six Jews. As Szpilman describes him, Holzerlein asks the pianist to play for him not as a test of musical prowess, but, to give the pianist a chance to express his humanity. The pianist plays so badly—his hands ruined—that the men bond in shame for what the war has done.

Polanski's Hosenfeld is a German who appreciates art, period. As Szpilman plays in the bombed-out basement, a blue halo glows. The two men nod in a stoic appreciation of the finer arts. This is hardly the moving moment of Szilpman's testimony. Rather, Polanski draws attention to the ethical limitations of bourgeois art appreciation, its hypocrisy. The piano playing maintains the hierarchy of the German voyeur over his pianist. His chest predominates. His Nazi badge, cap and ring shine in the blue light. He calls his pianist, “Jew.”

The film ends with clapping. The hands of the pianist fly over the keyboard in mastery; the audience in the concert hail applauds.

Again the victory of art.

Or so we may think at first. As in at least six of Polanski's other films, including Macbeth and The Tenant, we cannot shake the notion that the spectators here are also applauding the violence they have just enjoyed. As the credits roll, the backs of the audience rise—and become our own. That audience facing the pianist is us, watching, applauding this film of horrors. We are the crowd who watches an alienated figure return to an alienating world, nothing changed. For Polanski, the audience is always suspect: ready to accept totalitarian regimes, ready to accept that Chopin and a good film are enough. How different are we from the Japanese tourist who reaches out to shoot a picture of Rosemary with her devil? When the movie began, a watch was prominent on the pianist's wrist. The last shot reverses this image. Now the pianist faces right, with no watch, no history. The movie has circled back, creating a cul-de-sac of dead time. The pianist is now a set of disembodied hands, all his connections to emotions and humanity lie in his art. Is this an unmitigated triumph? Is the only hope to be alone with one's craft and earn the awe of others? The alienating universe continues.

Or, is there one final twist? As we rise from our seats, are we not provoked to resist identification with the alienating gaze? Challenged by our complicity in passive spectatorship, we may end by refuting the film's claims, by insisting on our necessary interactions with this world. If so, the film has succeeded and shows the real power of art.


Polanski, Roman (Vol. 16)