Identity

I’m going to see a documentary on Roman Polanski next weekend (“Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir”). It’s supposed to be a look at a life punctuated by horrific experiences and yet full of artistic achievement.

It seems to me that Polanski’s more recent films are a more controlled version of his personal and artistic preoccupations. Identity and displacement, confinement, amorality and power are underlying themes in Polanski’s films. There is often a feeling of discomfort and a sort of mordant humour to his stories.

Three films from Polanski’s earlier period illustrate these themes. “Knife in the Water” (1962) was Polanski’s “Polish” (and first feature-length) film and gave him international recognition. Its action takes place on a yacht and focuses on the sexual rivalry between two men for the affections of the seemingly detached Krystyna. The performances are spot on. The viewer is left with a feeling of trepidation.

“Chinatown” (1974) is Polanski’s Hollywood masterpiece. Not much more can be said about it, since so much has been already said and written about its perfection as an exploration of the cinema noir/private eye genre. It’s a great film, enjoyable, disturbing and funny. A penetrating commentary on power and corruption.

In “The Tenant” (1976), Polanski takes the lead role, that of a meek Polish immigrant renting a cursed apartment in Paris. Again, isolation and the possibility of a mental breakdown make for uneasy viewing of the film. It does capture a certain stranger in a strange land quality of being lost outside of one’s own frame of cultural reference.

The script for “Knife in the Water” was co-written by Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski. Skolimowski is a director/actor who worked outside of Poland for many years and then returned in 2008 to Poland to make “Four Nights with Anna”. In a bleak, primitive rural setting, Skolimowki unveils the devotion of a simple crematorium worker for a nurse he furtively observes and admires. Again, not an easy film to watch, but one that leaves an imprint.

The Lodz Film School produced great Polish directors: Wajda, Polanski, Skolimowski and Krzysztof Kieslowski. “White” (1994) is my favorite film in Kieslowki’s Three Color Trilogy. Post communist Poland has never been as accurately portrayed as in “White”. When the diminutive Karol Karol return to the old country in a suitcase and regains his potency, sexual and financial, through wheeling and dealing, we’re rooting for his resurgence.

You can leave your country behind, but will your country ever leave you?

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