Roman Polanski has problems. He’s suffered some pretty awful things, and he’s done some pretty awful things. The man should be neither vilified nor justified, and those who do either are looking for an easy way out of a very complicated human being.
You may not know who I’m talking about, and that’s alright. But if you have any meaningful interest in film, this man merits serious consideration. Suffice it to say his most recent, The Ghost Writer, got released a couple weeks ago and I saw it, which motivated me to get a few thoughts down about the man and his films.
You’re most likely to have heard about The Pianist (2002). It won a few Oscars (including Best Actor for Adrien Brody) and immediately stood out as one of the finest Holocaust films ever made. I didn’t end up seeing this one until last year, but when I did it bowled me over. I’m not much of a crier, and at most a really good film might get a tear or two out of me. But ten minutes into this film, I was crying and I didn’t quite stop until a good while after the credits had stopped rolling. It was just one of those experiences.
Shortly thereafter I learned that it shared the same director as another powerful film I had seen a couple of years prior – Oliver Twist (2005). I should note here that Charles Dickens is (predictably) my favorite author. I don’t think anyone has ever come as close to transferring the deep brilliance of Dickens’ work to film as Polanski did with his adaptation of Twist.
Two weeks ago, I got my first taste of one of his much earlier films, from 1965, Repulsion. It is about sexual abuse, and it is one of the only films that has ever truly, deeply, lastingly frightened me. When that film was over… How can I say this? I wanted to be held.
And so it was with somewhat high expectations that I entered the theater to watch his latest. Polanski, it should be noted, is a critic’s filmmaker, which is evidenced by Ghost’s score of 77% on Rotten Tomatoes. With a score like that, and this director’s track record, I looked forward to a well-made film. Perhaps political, perhaps slow, but of a high filmic caliber.
As expected, it was cinematically superb. The composition of every shot was beautiful, the excellent cast delivered excellent performances all, and the dialogue was tight and clever. It was also, however, a bit of a mess, and here’s why. It meant to be an R-rated film, and “language” was going to get it there. But then the distributors, or whoever, probably realized that they had a deliberately slow-moving thriller on their hands (it moves sort of like real life, which can be revelatory but fails pretty roundly to be very thrilling). So they went ahead and dubbed over all the instances of the almighty F-word with vaguely less offensive words. The result was essentially an edited movie, which was weird, but very PG-13. And still very slow.
In all, I wouldn’t recommend using this as your entry into Roman Polanski’s films. It’ll probably bore you. I wasn’t bored, but I certainly wasn’t deeply affected either. But I think people should get into his films–at least one or two. The things he’s done (and you can read all about it elsewhere) are condemnable. But some of his films are so supremely worthy of our attention that to dismiss them would be irresponsible.
This becomes less of a review of The Ghost Writer, which turns out to be a mediocre film, than it is a brief contemplation of what an artist is to his art. What have we to do with a man who may very well be lost? What have we to do with his work? Are the two separable or not? And if we can receive the man’s work without also accepting the man, should we?
These are honest questions for which I do not have satisfying answers. I’m interested, for those of you who have made it to the end of this article, to hear what you have to say, especially if you are at all familiar with Polanski and his films.
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