“What does a sailor miss when he finds himself back on dry land? The solitude and the rocking of the waves.”—Roman Polanski, 1984
Roman Polanski’s critical reputation as a world-class writer-director rests largely on the firmament of six films made between 1962 and 1976: Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Tenant. Two of these films long ago entered Hollywood’s empyrean caste system as “classics,” recognizable (at least by name) even to casual observers of cinema, who can doubtless offer a pithy summary (“Mia Farrow has Satan’s child”) or quote (“It’s Chinatown, Jake”) whether or not they realize (or care) that these movies are “directed by Roman Polanski.” In the main, scholars and historians of Polanski’s oeuvre tend to read the robust literary adaptations (Macbeth, Tess, Oliver Twist) as allegories of estrangement and dislocation that further underline his putative preoccupations with paranoia, exile, confined space, and sexual intrigue, a strain of artistic obsession there appears to be little disagreement about. Other films (including Frantic, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden), these accounts maintain, are prismatically related in terms of theme and structural conceit (a marital coupling undone or threatened by the presence of an interloper), but earn fewer plaudits in terms of performance and plot execution, not to mention (especially in the case of The Ninth Gate) taste and overall tone. Late-career excursions like the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama The Pianist and The Ghost Writer have earned Polanski back some of the prestige that he enjoyed in the mid seventies, an old-master honor he no doubt deserves even if the reward is a leaky life raft of clinical exegeses and exclusive talk-show interviews with the likes of Charlie Rose.
What’s curious is how few commentators seem engaged by or interested in Polanski’s most cheerfully unbridled comedies, or the strain of absurdist, often lurid humor that courses through all his work, from early shorts like Two Men and a Wardrobe and Mammals to The Ghost Writer. Wiped from the eyes like so much sea-wash, his 1986 disaster Pirates is considered a rude, humiliating smear on an otherwise thematically sophisticated, if uneven body of work that, yes, occasionally courts the vulgar. (Perhaps the missing link is Polanski’s seldom-seen What?, a kinky, transgressive sex romp starring Euro-perv Marcello Mastroianni and real-life innocent abroad Sydne Rome, about a chaste American nymph who alights in a porn-o-ramic French villa.) Nevertheless, comedy has a presence and a meaning in the director’s work as important as the erotic and psychosexual dynamics at play in so many of his films. In his excellent short study for the University of Illinois Press’ Contemporary Film Directors series, James Morrison suggests that the comic valences in Polanski’s work are connected to his interest in melodrama and characters whose desires and impulses do not conform to the imperatives of modern social utility (pirates, libertines, paranoiacs, occultists), producing “strange emotional juxtapositions” that blur the distinction between rationality and irrationality. It is also reasonable to assume that Polanski—whose own roles in his films have shown his capacity for self-parody (timid dimwit Alfred in The Fearless Vampire Killers, phallus-obsessed Mosquito in What?, a thug who slits open Jack Nicholson’s nostril in Chinatown, and wigged-out renter Trelkovsky in The Tenant)—enjoys cracking himself up. Read Damon Smith’s entry in Reverse Shot’s “Simply the Worst” symposium.