Roman Polanski – Critical notes
What remains of humanity when reason, feeling, hope and dignity all fall short? Looking at it as a whole, Roman Polanski’s filmography is an inexorable narrative of the external struggle between Man and the loneliness that grips his existential condition. This reflects a state of mind that permeates all his works, which stands out against the intense, surreal, bleak, even playful scenes of his films. It starts from the tension floating in the void of his debut film Knife in the Water and reaches all the way to the timeless burlesque of The Palace, his latest comedy.
Roman Polanski’s cinema is a repeated offensive (often sarcastic, at other times bitter to the point of despair) towards the misconception of a historical Enlightenment regarding the magnificent and progressive fortunes of a world governed by reason and a humanity devoted to goodness. Unfortunately, since childhood, his personal history has taught him the fundamental cruelty of mankind (transfigured in the sorrowful Oliver Twist). Yet ultimately, his stance goes beyond biographical background and arises from a personal awareness that has matured over the years at the ?ód? Film School. The contact with the anxieties of a third generation of Polish cinema’s realization of socialism (Zanussi, Wajda) has solidified such awareness through direct comparison with the social and existential models of the West, where he had chosen to live. It was like a double test that, in his eyes, definitely confirmed the fallacy and unreliability of human civilization.
The emotional formula of his films is a sense of oppression produced in each one (even the lighter ones); it highlights the isolation into which his characters plummet, forced into confined places or separate realms in confrontation with the spectres of the unconscious or fears induced by the real world. It reflects a highly lucid analysis of historical and social reality that Polanski has made his own with an annihilated sense of reality that borders on cynicism. It is a deafening internally bent torment, rooted in obsessive and concentrated twists, noted in his earlier works such as Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac and The Tenant. And it also runs throughout his cinema of the multiple genre formulas he adopted, ranging from the comedy of What? to the horror turned comedy of The Fearless Vampire Killers, from the adventure of Pirates to the hard-boiled noir of Chinatown and from the historical melodrama of Tess to the thriller of Frantic. It finally emerges with sensational prominence in his more mature years, in such works as Death and the Maiden, The Pianist and An Officer and a Spy.
Polanski’s characters are often the result of their own obsessions, victims of plots that they perhaps generate in their subconscious or have simply removed in order to survive. Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Bitter Moon, The Ghost Writer and Venus in Fur are all films that stir something deep within the relationship between objective truth and subjective perception, pushing the substance of the drama at work into the fluidity of a merely intimate cognition of events. The revelation of truth does not allow for redemption in Polanski’s cinema, just as persistence in deception is neither to be condemned. His ability to trigger merciless confrontations in the constituted order of events (as seen in the magnificent Carnage) makes him a restless auteur who establishes an ambiguous relationship with his viewers, demanding from them an increasingly arduous effort to rethink their most fundamental certainties.
Roman Polanski’s work, even within the variety of genres adopted, remains as one of the most coherent and solid expressions of a critical vision of human existence. It underlines how the freedom of the human spirit runs into an overwhelming oppression imposed by social relationships and how the identity of the individual must come to terms with the original sin of his or her belonging to the human race.