I was fifteen the year Roman Polanski’s Chinatown came to the screen. My grandmother had been a dancer
in the Hollywood of the twenties, as well as a huge Raymond Chandler
fan, and as she and I sat in the theater I can’t help but think
she had a different impression of what kind of a film Chinatown was going to be. Her angst must have turned to horror as she realized
what she was exposing her granddaughter to; but for me, it was an
epiphany. Seamless storylines weaved a path into a maze I had never
before encountered. I found a brilliantly meshed storytelling subverted
at every corner by the actions of its characters.
Twenty years later, Roman Polanski has re-etched his
name in the crystal ball of cinematic glory. While few fifteen-year-olds
enjoy the naivete of life in 1974, Polanski’s latest film, Bitter
Moon, nonetheless exposes a lustful side of human greed every
bit as powerful and illuminating as that portrayed in Chinatown. Bitter Moon plays much smaller than Chinatown—it
is a love story of much more intimate proportions – but that narrative
trickster, Polanski, stays true to his sly deconstructionist storytelling.
In an odd twist of its own, after the creation of
the Polanski cult was firmly established with Repulsion in
1966, and closely followed by his American debut, Rosemary’s
Baby, Polanski was stripped of his genre-busting rawness and
forced overseas by the very same characteristics his audiences had
applauded on screen. Polanski has tried before to regain the footing
lost after his rift with America, but his not-so-delicate balancing
of the comedic and the surreal had not yet found a champion until Bitter Moon. With characters as oddly bent as they come,
Polanski has created a tableau destined to sit well with the rest
of his classics.
Although Polanski himself has steadfastly refused
to draw parallels between his own life and his films, the temptation
to do so is hard to resist. While it may be an oversimplification
to believe Polanski’s subject matter choices are auto-biographical,
it seems only log-ical that the man as provocateur must find influence
and inspiration from the pages of his life. Polanski downplays any
linkage, in particular, with his 1971 Macbeth, regardless of the
fact that it is a brutally realistic adaptation made following the
violent death of his wife, Sharon Tate (by the Manson "family").
He denies associations with his characters, and in fact laughs off
any suggestion he should have black magic in common with Rosemary’s
Baby, or sadomasochistic tendencies as in Bitter Moon.
Still, Bitter Moon‘s Oscar malfunctions as an artist much
the same way Polanski has faltered and stumbled as he has struggled
to regain his misplaced creative sensibilities.
Born in Paris after WWII, Polanski returned to war-ravaged
Poland, were his mother had died in a Nazi concentration camp. As
a boy, Polanski found his solace in trips to the cinema, and began
acting for radio, on stage and in film. His acting credits included
work with the famed Polish director, Andrzei Wajada, but it was
Polanski’s 1958 student film, Two Men & A Wardrobe, which
brought him the most recognition and garnered him five international
awards. Repulsion and Cul De Sac were both made during his
stay in England, and were followed by the parody Dance of the
Vampires / The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon
Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (also known as one of the
best titles in film history).
The unmistakable arrival of Polanski in Hollywood
with Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, followed by the extremity of Chinatown established Polanski as one of the cinema’s greatest
new forces. His enforced exile sent him from a well-endowed Hollywood
to the arms of, what many believed to be at the time, the tired
cinematic bed of the European film industry. The vision of a Polanski
genre seemed to fray and fade at the edges.
Is it fair to compare art to life, and Polanski’s
life to his art? Polanski, at last, seems less in exile now than
he did in 1979 when he left America rather than. face further proceedings
on charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old.
Still, his recurring themes of violence, victimization,
isolation, alienation and what has to be the most profound sense
of the absurd, play out in Bitter Moon with more than a nod
to the sexual adventurism which caused Polanski’s exile in the first
place. And if he felt his career cut loose and cast adrift from
the Hollywood source at the apex of its brilliance, his re-awakening
of the slumbering avant garde giant in Europe should serve notice
that Polanksi’s brilliance shines anywhere. MM