Roman Polanski, poet of disorientation and disjuncture
Until his arrest, Roman Polanski was never one to let the grass grow under his feet. Ahead of the release of The Ghost, John Patterson pays tribute to his restless artistry
tribute to his restless artistry
o John Patterson
o The Guardian, Saturday 10 April 2010
Shaken, and stirred: Pierce Brosnan in Roman Polanski's The Ghost.
Roman Polanski has never gone for the kind of consistency and repetition that makes auteurs of lesser directors. Far from it: whenever he has a success, he either moves to a new country (from communist Poland to swinging London to new Hollywood to old Paris), or picks a new project so violently different from the last, you wonder if it's a provocation or a private bet. Thus the sombre absurdism of The Pianist succeeded The Ninth Gate's occasionally risible Euro-horror, much as Chinatown, contender for best American picture of the 1970s, was preceded by the almost forgotten Italian sex comedy What? Nothing in Cul-de-sac foretold its successor, The Fearless Vampire Killers, just as Pirates gave no clue about Frantic.
This gets in the way of our appreciating Polanski, but also replicates things that are going on within his movies. He is the great postwar poet of disorientation and disjuncture; he wrongfoots his audiences at least a dozen times in every movie. Consider his first movie, in fact, the first shot of his career: a stationary, unedited view of some frigid Baltic beach. A minute passes, the waves roll in – then two men emerge from the waves, fully dressed and carrying a wardrobe. If you've never seen that movie or heard its title (uh, Two Men And A Wardrobe), then I'll guarantee that you had no idea how the sentence preceding this one was going to end. That is the essence of Polanski. And so Tess follows The Tenant, and The Ghost – a political thriller in which a ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) discovers the secrets of a former British PM (Pierce Brosnan) while polishing his memoirs – is the unlikely follow-up to his Oliver Twist. Wrongfooted again.
Some artists need the clean slate, while others like repetition. Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu could make the same movie a dozen times as he honed his cinema to a point of absolute distilled purity, and John Ford could saddle up one oater after another and lose no percentage of his artistry by doing so. Apparently this doesn't cut it for Polanski. He comes out of the communist Lodz Film School, and thus likely imbibed with his cinematic breast milk the central tenet of Eisensteinian montage: that each shot, for maximum effect, must obliterate its predecessor. Its not for the restless Roman to hoe the same row for longer than its season requires. Fresh fields forever await.
Which brings us back to The Ghost, in which an Irishman and a Scotsman (Brosnan, McGregor) play Englishmen, while an Englishman (Tom Wilkinson) plays an American, and the German isle of Sylt plays Martha's Vineyard – to say nothing of the fact that every character has a double in real life as well as a doppelganger within the fiction.
Are you feeling disoriented enough yet? Relax, Jake, it's just Romantown.