BEFORE THE PIANIST: POLANSKI'S CINEMA OF CRUELTY at Cinematheque Ontario, Friday (March 26) to April 24. Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West). For schedule, see Rep Cinemas, page 90, call 416-968-3456 or check www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/cinematheque/home.asp. Rating: NNNN
Roman Polanski was the first director to make the transition from the Eastern European film industry to the West. After some dazzling shorts and his debut feature, Knife In The Water (Friday, March 26, 6:30 pm; Sunday, March 28, 1 pm), Polanski moved to London to make Repulsion (Saturday, March 27, 6:30 pm) and never looked back. Watching a bunch of his films last week, it struck me that while Polanski, with his fondness for tight structures and melodrama, was almost the ideal filmmaker for that transition, he's also strangely slow. Without being ostentatious about it, a remarkable number of scenes in his films play out in one shot.
He's also willing to let things not happen, in a way almost anathema to classical Hollywood cinema.
Chinatown (April 20, 9 pm) screenwriter Robert Towne says one of the things he most admires about Polanski's treatment of that script is how slowly Polanski directs some of the scenes. Looking back at Repulsion, Polanski himself finds it too slow, but he also notes, "I don't think I ever changed my style. I just perfected it."
That's a little arrogant, simply because of the two assumptions the statement contains, but it isn't far off. The peculiarity of Polanski's Oscar win for The Pianist is that while that film's subject has been popular with Oscar voters for the last 40 years, Polanski's treatment of the material isn't uplifting or heartwarming. It's not a story about the nobility of human survival, but a close-up, cold-eyed examination of what survival costs the survivor.
That coldness, the sense of distance in Polanski, is essential to understanding his work. An eternal outsider - Polish in America, exiled American in France - Polanski's direction stands at a remove from his characters, his camera an observer rather than a participant.
In genre pieces like Rosemary's Baby (April 9, 8:15 pm), Chinatown or Ninth Gate, audience expectations fill in the blanks, but his non-genre films often play in unexpected ways, the romantic melodrama of Bitter Moon (April 24, 8:30 pm) as comedy, and Tess (April 11, 1 pm) more as a study of pathological behaviour than as tragedy.
Cinematheque's semi-complete retrospective of Polanski's films offers a number of relative rarities for North American audiences. Criterion has brought the short films to DVD, but the North American videos of Repulsion and Cul-de-sac (Saturday, March 27, 8:30 pm) are not good at all, and there's no video at all for his strange Italian film What? (April 6, 6:30 pm).
The only thing wrong with the series is that Cinematheque skipped over Polanski's underrated adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's Death And The Maiden, wherein a torture survivor (Sigourney Weaver) confronts her torturer (Ben Kingsley). Coldly observed, of course.