Roman Polanski has lived 100 lifetimes. As a child in Poland, his parents were taken away to concentration camps. His father survived; his mother perished. Polanski himself survived under an assumed name, living with Roman Catholic families. At age 36, fresh off of directing an Oscar winning film one year earlier, his pregnant wife- Sharon Tate- was brutally murdered by the Manson family. In 1977, he was arrested for sexually abusing a 13 year old and ultimately fled the country to avoid sentencing. He’s been living in exile from the United States ever since. However, this hasn’t stopped him from making movies. Both before and after his legal troubles, Polanski has directed some incredible films. Here are five that any fan of cinema should see:
This is the first in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”, a trio of films in which people are driven insane by their living conditions. Repulsion stars the impossibly beautiful Catherine Deneuve, who plays Carole Ledoux. Carole is a Belgian living in London with her sister. When her sister leaves on holiday, Carole is charged with taking care of the apartment. However, the flaws in the apartment- some external, some internal hallucinations, some of her own creation- gradually drive her insane. The film is genius in two ways. First and foremost is the use of seemingly banal activity within the apartment to build tension. This includes leaky faucets, cracked walls, rotting rabbit carcasses on kitchen counters, and (the not so banal) male hands protruding from the walls pawing at her. It succeeds in combining isolation and paranoia to create hysteria with murderous results. Secondly, it’s genius in the use of sexuality to “prime the pump”, so to speak. The very heart of the movie is Carole’s fear of men, her fear of sexual interaction.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
This is the second film in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”. Much like Deneuve/Ledoux in Repulsion, this film features a young woman (Mia Farrow) in an apartment, with her paranoia combining with external elements to create hysteria. Just as sexuality was the engine in the previous film, pregnancy and the mother instinct are what drive Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski builds a tremendous air of uncertainty throughout the film- is Rosemary hallucinating? is she really carrying a demon spawn?- and it crescendoes into something very special in the horror genre.
The Tenant (1976)
The final installment in the “Apartment Trilogy” stars Polanski himself as the protagonist, Trelkovsky. He takes up residence in an apartment that became available when the previous tenant- a woman named Simone- threw herself out of the window in an apparent suicide attempt. Despite his best attempts and perfectly reasonable behavior, he is branded by his neighbors as a troublemaker. Eventually, his living arrangement drives him to insanity, gradually taking on the personality of Simone. It ultimately spirals out of control into a mad surrealist mess. A clip:
With all due respect to anything else that Polanski ever made, this is his masterpiece. The screenplay is pitch-perfect, and what Polanski created was a uniquely American neo-noir that impacted the future of American cinema. Along the way, John Huston delivers a legendary performance as Noah Cross, a land developer who will do anything and everything to acquire water rights. Nicholson matches him move for move as Jake Gittes, the unscrupulous private eye assigned to solve Evelyn Cross’ (Faye Dunaway) case. Chinatown relentlessly hammers away at greed while simultaneously recreating 1930’s Los Angeles, filtered through a noir lens, in a stunning way. Additionally, it holds a special place in Hollywood’s post-code rebirth in the early 1970’s when a rash of young directors severed the ties of censorship and hokey moralism to create magic. Of the films on this list, this is the best and most important.
The Pianist (2002)
The best of Polanski’s more recent films is also his most personal. It’s the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jewish musician whose family was destroyed first in the Warsaw ghetto and then later in concentration camps (just like Polanski’s own family). Szpilman escaped and went into hiding, narrowly defeating death, and surviving thanks to the kindness of non-Jewish acquaintances. It’s one of the more moving stories you’ll find, either from Polanski or anyone else.