Having excited my ire not so long ago, Criterion has gone a long way to redeeming themselves by announcing the release of Rosemary’s Baby on Halloween this year. Now if they’d just got on Polanski’s entire catalogue, I’d be more than happy. Because I love Roman Polanski’s films. Yes, he’s controversial; and yes, there are times when I feel a little uncomfortable that I adore his work so very much. But I do. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that the guy makes some fucking good movies.
10. THE NINTH GATE
For all its problems with tone, I actually really like The Ninth Gate. The entire film is distinctly tongue in cheek. Polanski takes all the elements that he’s known for – satanic cults, unlikable protagonists, cynical endings, claustrophobic spaces – and teases them out into something big, dark and ridiculous. Depp is a great anti-hero – he’s obnoxious, self-centered, and totally venal – and Frank Langella gnaws on the scenery as only Dracula can. The film might have difficulty hanging together in spots, but the humor and the somewhat extreme conspiracy drive it along.
9. OLIVER TWIST
Roman Polanski makes Dickens’s moral tale of an orphan boy into a … well, a remarkably warm and fuzzy, fairly straightforward little drama. There’s an interesting undercurrent in the interpretation of Fagin. He’s the evil, offensive Jewish caricature that Dickens created transformed into a well-rounded and ultimately pathetic figure – due, in no small measure, to a fabulous performance by Ben Kingsley. I’ve only seen it once, but I was amazed at the lack of cynicism running. Perhaps the last time we will ever see an un-encumbered happy ending in a Polanski film.
Short, taut and hilariously vicious. Or viciously hilarious. Based on a play, and dealing with just four characters whose sons get into a fight at school, Carnage seems tailor-made for Polanski’s style. The roving camera starts out stable and then slowly begins to rock and twist as the film progresses, mirroring the advancing drunkenness of the four leads and their inherent instability. Polanski pulls no punches: these are horrible people, and their clean, respectable, upper middle class veneers only serve to heighten the nastiness as they’re slowly stripped down. The absurdity of the situation, the seriousness with which the four characters take it, the surrealist aspects (they can’t seem to leave the apartment, no matter how many times they try), not to mention Kate Winslet vomiting on everyone, makes for the most entertaining, uncomfortable 79 minutes I’ve ever sat through. It certainly shows that the old man has one or two good features in him yet.
7. THE GHOST WRITER
If Carnage is a return to the apartment thrillers that Polanski was originally known for, The Ghost Writer treats broader political implications. It’s a political thriller, a murder mystery, a conspiracy theory, and a rumination on shifting moral codes. It’s difficult to sympathize with anyone except for Ewan MacGregor’s unnamed ghost writer – even the supposed parallels between Pierce Brosnan’s prime minister and Polanski’s own situation don’t play out to any kind of safe, satisfying conclusion. Which, I think, is exactly the point. There aren’t any good guys or bad guys and the ultimate reveal of the conspiracy does not uplift. There’s no clarification, just another murky, ugly mystery beneath. Also, Eli Wallach has a cameo. What is NOT good about that?
6. THE TENANT
I think of this as Polanski’s Kafka film. The first feature of his ‘European exile’ – and again we have that absurdity that runs through so much of his work. The Tenant takes a plot similar to Repulsion and twists it. A young man, played by Polanski himself, moves into an apartment where a young woman has committed suicide. He slowly becomes obsessed with discovering the reasons why, and begins to believe that she has been persecuted to her death. Polanski casts himself in the feminized role and takes it to extremes. If anything, it’s a funnier yet more paranoid version of Repulsion.In Repulsion, we know that Catherine Deneuve has no external reason to be paranoid; it’s a fear inside of her that she projects onto the rest of the world. In The Tenant, no such comfort exists. It might be a massive conspiracy; it might be the product of a confused, increasingly diseased mind. Plus, just when you think it can’t get any stranger … it does.
Honestly, it was between this and Repulsion and I only chose Cul-de-Sac because I cannot stand watching Repulsion a second time. While not his most cohesive work, Cul-de-Sac establishes the themes of gender exchange that are pulled into later on in films like The Tenant and even Rosemary’s Baby, creating a bridge between Knife in the Water and his later Hollywood films. Cul-de-Sac shifts tone a lot – from domestic drama, to crime thriller, to bizarre absurdist comedy – and some of the performances feel all over the place, especially Donald Pleasance, who cannot seem to reign himself in. The sense of claustrophobia and isolation, used so effectively in Knife in the Water, expands now to an entire house seething with sex, violence and comic situations.
4. KNIFE IN THE WATER
How many directors have a debut feature like this? Other than the short pieces Polanski did in film school, Knife in the Water is his first proper film, and the only one in his native language. The plot is absurdly simple: a couple take a vacation on a boat, joined by a young drifter. The film turns into a vicious love triangle. There’s the macho older husband, the more effeminate (but decidedly more attractive) younger man, and the young wife, who stands between as both manipulator and manipulated. The knife in question only makes a few appearances, but the threat of violence – emotional and physical – hangs over the boat. Polanski uses the open lake to exacerbate the isolation of his main characters as they cram together beneath the deck of the boat. They’re in the midst of a wide-open space, and it’s extremely claustrophobic
3. ROSEMARY’S BABY
From the opening shot of the gothic Dakota Building to the closing image of Rosemary turning to her spawn of Satan, there is honestly nothing wrong with this film. The humor that permeates it – Ruth Gordon’s inspired Upper West Side devil worshipper, the strange (naked) practices of the cult, even the absurdity of a husband selling his wife’s body and soul for a better acting career – offsets and heightens the terror as Rosemary falls apart. There is something oddly triumphant in the final scene. Rosemary has been beaten and bullied, controlled and manipulated, but at the end she spits in her husband’s face. Suddenly she’s in control; she’s the mother of the Antichrist and she’s going to take care of her child. She breaks free of them all. The film demands to be taken seriously, yet doesn’t quite take itself seriously. Fuck The Omen: this is THE Satan’s child movie.
A sun-satured neo-noir starring Jack Nicolson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and Polanski himself, written by Robert Towne, produced by Robert Evans. Seriously. Who the fuck DOESN’T love Chinatown?
1. THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS
100% my favorite Polanski film, and one of my favorite films of all time. A horror comedy by way of Hammer Studios, with bright red blood, gay vampires, buxom barmaids, a bumbling academic and an ineffectual hero. The physical comedy of Polanski, Jack McGowran and Alfie Bass alone makes for a good time. What gets me about this film, though, is the sense of innocence under siege. Innocence and optimism permeate the film, even if it does all seem ephemeral and ultimately useless in the face of overarching evil. This is in no small part related to the presence of Sharon Tate, at her doe-eyed best, and Polanski himself as an impish (and weirdly adorable) young apprentice out to save her from the vamps. While there’s an undercurrent of melancholy, particularly if you know of Tate’s tragedy in real life, there’s something exquisitely hopeful about the on-screen relationship. It’s a sweet film, a tender film, a funny film; a horror comedy with a serious edge. I’ve seen it a hundred times and still love it.
Remember, we here at Man, I Love Films don’t do definitive lists. We do our favorites and we want to hear yours. So, make sure and tell us about them in the comments section below.