Thursday, October 1, 2009

Roman Polanski survived the Holocaust to be raised by his father. His father was also a Survivor, but to become so had to endure Matthausen, a camp deadly enough that no reliable figures exist for the casualties. The Nazis destroyed most of the statistics before liberation, but it's believed that somewhere between 170,000 and 320,000 people were killed (though some historians have put the figure at 2 million). After a childhood under Stalin and Hitler, Polanski was rewarded with a young adulthood in Gomulka's Poland. As a budding Polish director, his first film had enormous success but came under official criticism at a time when official criticism often meant imprisonment and sometimes worse.

He received asylum in France in an era when defection from a Communist country was anything but easy. His first period in France was unsuccessful because the arts in France were dominated by fellow travelers like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Paul Sartre who were hostile to anyone who might contradict their view of the Soviet Union as the anti-imperialist savior of the world. One bad word from a famous cultural figure was enough to scare producers into refusing Polanski more than a few francs at a time. So Polanski had to move to London, where he found success and began his western career in earnest.

But Polanski's early movies had very little to do with politics. He was much more interested in human beings, and particularly in their humiliation. The streak of cruelty that marks his movies (and his personal life) was manifest from the very beginning. Whereas filmmakers today like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez use violence as an omnipresent force whose shock barely registers on the screen, the violence in Polanski's films slices to the cruelest possible angle. Perhaps a man who saw so much of life's terrors would see brutality as a part of the commonplace, or maybe Polanski was just a born sadist. But even with the Hitchcockian manner by which he makes his characters suffer (particularly his female characters), he seems to identify with their suffering in a way the Hitchcocks of the world never do. In a perverse, almost psychopathic way, there lurks a feminist streak to Polanski. It is hardly a streak that absolves him, but certainly one that that should make people question the standard writeoff of him as a born mysogenist.

His most famous early movie, Repulsion, is a case study of the madness that creeps in from isolation. The icily beautiful Carol (played by the icily beautiful Catherine Deneuve) comes to stay with her sister and gets into an argument with her sister's omnipresent yet married boyfriend. After the argument, Carol's sister goes on vacation with him to Italy and Carol finds herself trapped in her sister's apartment with the effects of an insanity that becomes more apparent every passing day. Unable to connect with people in either her personal life or her work, she comes completely undone over the course of a week. We helplessly watch as her hair gets messy, her clothes become tattered, and the food she refuses to eat rots on the table. Having previously confided that she is a virgin and perpetually afraid of men, she attempts to connect with a man only to end up blugeoning him with a candlestick and then cuts the throat of her sister's groping landlord with a straight razor. The sister comes home at the end of the week to find the dead bodies and Carol hiding under the bed. In the final shot, the camera pans to a family portrait in which Carol isolates herself from the rest of the family's domestic contentment.

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