Roman Polanski Polanski, Roman (Vol. 178) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tod Lindberg (essay date January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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William Galperin (essay date December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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”...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 28 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom O'Brien (review date 8 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Belton (essay date December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)...

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David Gritten (essay date 15 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julian Graffy (review date October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Billson (review date 2 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Nicholas Lezard (review date 9 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Thompson (review date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Randal Robinson (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Peter Rainer (review date 18 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brian D. Johnson (review date 21 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 4 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon (review date 27 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Romney (review date 21 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Rainer (review date 23 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Sterritt (review date 27 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roman Polanski and David Thompson (interview date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jenny Diski (essay date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nick James (review date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julie Monahan (review date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Philip Horne (review date 12 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andy Pawelczak (review date July-August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Timothy Burrill (essay date July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gordana Crnkovic (review date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Maxfield (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles L. Fierz (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4602 words.)

Paul Iorio (essay date 8 July 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3067 words.)

Vernon Shetley (essay date December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7409 words.)

Kenneth Turan (review date 10 March 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 836 words.)

Philip Strick (review date September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Justin Huggler (essay date 10 May 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 1812 words.)

Mick LaSalle (review date 3 January 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 823 words.)

Arthur Spiegelman (review date 3 January 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

James Verniere (review date 3 January 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 934 words.)

Philip Kerr (review date 27 January 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Karin Badt (review date May-June 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 972 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 244 words.)