a Healthy Disdain

TIFF Counts Down to Christmas with Roman Polanski: The latest Lightbox retrospective gifts Toronto cinephiles with seven of the naughty director’s best

Upping the ante on Columbia Pictures’ claim that the forthcoming remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the “feel bad movie of Christmas,” TIFF’s programmers have readied a veritable advent calendar of psychological anguish with their latest directorial retrospective. Opening this evening and running through December 25, the Grinch-approved slate features six of Roman Polanski’s bleakly brilliant early-career efforts, as well as a Christmas Day screening of 2010’s similarly sombre The Ghost Writer. As tempting as it is to construe the timing of the series as an insidious bid to deflate Torontonians’ high Holiday spirits, TIFF’s official line is that the retrospective was scheduled in anticipation of the director’s latest, Carnage, which arrives at the Lightbox on December 30.

Based on an award-winning play by Yasmina Reza, Carnage is a blackly comic battle royale of bourgeois debasement, tinged with the sort of existential claustrophobia that has long been a Polanski trademark. Indeed, it’s been an element of his cinema since his superb debut feature, 1962’s Knife in the Water (★★★★1/2), which screens tonight at 9 p.m. A lean psychological thriller that would lay the thematic groundwork for a remarkable career, Knife in the Water elegantly positions a recreational yacht cruise as a microcosm for generational conflict, simmering with sexual tension. The crew are a well-to-do couple and their impromptu guest, a handsome young hitchhiker invited aboard at the husband’s whim. Prefiguring Carnage conceptually if not in tone, the film is a fiendish chamber piece wherein a veneer of civility gives way to petty posturing and base agression, exacerbated by intimate, inescapable confines.

Screening on Wednesday, December 21 is Polanski’s first English language feature, 1965’s Repulsion (★★★1/2), also the first film in his masterfully unsettling “Apartment Trilogy.” The titular affliction refers to the psychosexual paranoia suffered by Catherine Deneuve’s virginal protagonist, which blossoms into homicidal dementia when her sister departs on holiday and leaves her alone in her London flat. Polanski immerses the audience within his lead’s increasingly fractured psyche, rendering her descent into madness via a series of hauntingly surreal hallucinations that, even 45 years later, were an evident point of reference for Darren Aronofsky in conceiving 2010’s Black Swan.

1966’s Cul-de-sac (★★★1/2), which screens on Sunday, December 18, is perhaps Polanski’s most peculiar effort, even as, thematically, it’s entirely of a piece with his previous features. (The director, for the record, cites the film as the best of his ’60s output.) Reprising the mental ménage à trois dynamic of Knife in the Water, and adding dashes of Repulsion‘s derangement and sexual dysfunction, Cul-de-sac casts Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac as an effete husband and promiscuous wife whose stately, isolated dwelling is invaded by a loutish thug (Lionel Stander) on the run. Though physically less confined than Polanski’s previous protagonists, Cul-de-sac‘s couple are bound by bonds of a more metaphysical nature, as they prove resolutely incapable of seizing their chances to escape. Ditto Stander, who’s called his boss to bail him out, but seems destined to face an interminable, Beckett-esque wait. Laced with dark humour, the director’s third feature is an absurd but compelling curiosity.

If Cul-de-sac is a slightly esoteric selection, then Rosemary’s Baby (★★★★★) remains as widely acclaimed today as when it first propelled Polanski to Hollywood stardom in 1968. Quite simply, his adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestseller is one of the best horror films ever made, expertly evoking a sustained, sinister unease, and establishing a marvelously ambiguous scenario wherein it seems equally likely that the bizarre goings-on at a Gothic Manhattan apartment building might be the product of a genuine demonic pact, or of paranoid prenatal delusions. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her actor husband (John Casavetes) are the building’s newest tenants, and are eager to start a family, particularly once he lands a starring role thanks to another’s sudden misfortune. Rosemary’s pregnancy proves a literal nightmare, however, and she becomes consumed by concern that she’ll lose the baby. Naturally, we’re not letting on one way or the other, save to assure you that Rosemary’s Baby is a certified classic. The second and most beloved of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy screens Friday, December 23—perfect for those who fancy a bit of Satanist mystery ahead of Santa’s big night.

TIFF aren’t entirely without a seasonal sense of generosity, though, hence the retrospective’s two scheduled screenings of Chinatown (★★★★★). Of these, we recommend the screening on Sunday, December 18, which will be accompanied by lecture from Toronto film critic Adam Nayman on the development of Polanski’s career and artistic personality. If you can’t make that, the film also screens on Tuesday, December 20, and, even without Nayman’s insights, Chinatown is still a fixture in the pantheon of all-time greats. Polanski’s devastatingly nihilistic neo-noir features a signature turn from Jack Nicholson as ’30s P.I. Jake Gittes, who takes on what he believes to be a routine mission of marital reconnaissance, and winds up nose-deep in a murderous scheme to divert the water reserves of an already drought-stricken L.A. Faye Dunaway is nearly as iconic as a tragic femme fatale, while John Huston’s defiantly lascivious antagonist now reads as a fascinating, stand-in for his controversial director.

Polanski, in fact, would assign himself the lead role in 1976’s The Tenant (★★★★), his last film before his flight from justice in 1977. The final, Paris-set instalment in the Apartment Trilogy is an apt exploration of displacement and persecution, and, like both Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, demonstrates a thematic concern with claustrophobia and paranoia, and trades heavily in the tenuous nature of the boundary between the authentic and the imaginary. Polanski plays Trelkowski, a French citizen of Polish origin, who, like Rosemary, moves into a new building after the apparent suicide of a young female tenant. Also like Rosemary, Trelkowski’s neighbours are an elderly, meddlesome bunch, though The Tenant is more cagey than Rosemary’s Baby in its references to the supernatural. The film ultimately emerges as a fusion of its Apartment predecessors, but inverts the deranged aggression of Repulsion‘s Deneuve into a spookily manic portrait of self-annihilation.

The Ghost Writer (★★★★), TIFF’s Christmas Day offering, postdates The Tenant by over 30 years, but is no less brooding, and no less personal. It was edited during Polanski’s recent period of house arrest, and features a central character in a similar predicament, in Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang. A former UK Prime Minister, Lang has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and must remain in the US to avoid extradition. Ewan McGregor plays the man tasked with helping Lang complete his memoirs, and who subsequently stumbles upon a Chinatown-like web of intrigue linked to the disgraced PM. He’s no Jake Gittes, of course, but Polanski supplies his customary guile, as well as plenty of his customary cynicism—an essential ingredient where political subject matter is concerned, in any era.

Images courtesy of TIFF. For tickets and a complete programme schedule, visit Tiff.net


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