Collyrium – Roman Polanski’s twisted and claustrophobic cinema

In this new episode of Collyrium we will talk about Roman Polanski, surely one of the most obscure and intriguing contemporary directors.

His cinema, deeply disturbing and, in a second period, also very theatrical, has its deepest roots in the director’s extremely troubled life. Polansky’s life has been marked by various tragedies that inevitably left deep scars in his filmography.

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Roman was born in Paris in 1933 from a family of Jewish origin, who due to the ever-growing anti-Semitism decided to move to Krakow, his father’s city of origin. Unfortunately, the choice was not very fortunate as after a while the family was moved to the ghetto and both parents were deported while the little Roman managed to escape from the city ghetto to find salvation with a Catholic peasant. The mother died in Auschwitz while his father managed to survive from the Mauthausen camp.

After these first childhood adventures, the future director studies cinema in Lodz and it is during these years Roman takes his steps first as an actor to subsequently realize his first works behind the camera,starting from Rower, a 1955 autobiographical matrix short, narrating of an almost fatal aggression suffered by the director a short time earlier. From this moment on, we notice how in many of Polanski’s works this autobiographical event is repeated, almost as if trying to eradicate such most ugly and violent experience through its movie transposition.

We will see this element stand out even in much more important critical maturity and success operas such as Macbeth and in the more recent Pianist.

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After his first experiences, Polanski moves between France and Great Britain, forming more and more his aesthetic and content language, dominated by thriller and claustrophobic elements. This first identity sign can be seen in his 1962 work the knife in the water, which the same year won the best foreign film at the Oscars. Polansky then moved to the U.K. where he began a fruitful collaboration with Gèrard Brach giving birth to notably surrealist films such as Repulsion, a psychological horror starring Catherine Deneuve and Yvonne Furneaux.

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In 1968, the by now established filmmaker moved to the United States, where he made his first extraordinarily successful work Rosemary’s Baby where an unforgettable Mia Farrow was made pregnant by the Devil and forced to carry the demon’s son in her lap. Polansky’s genius manages to stage a psychological horror of extraordinary power in which almost all the scenes are filmed in an oppressive bourgeois apartment seeming itself to become a metaphor for the deepest human psychology, in which many times men remain trapped unable to distinguish what is real and what is not. Rosemary’s Baby is part of the so-called apartment trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant) in which the Franco-Polish director analyzes the relationship between the oppressive domestic reality and the human mind.

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Despite the clamor raised by this film, Polanski doesn’t have time to enjoy the glory even for a moment. In fact in 1969 his wife Sharon Tate, at that time eighth month pregnant of their infant, was killed in her home during a dinner of friends by Charles Manson’s sect followers, a famous California serial killer of those years. Quentin Tarantino’s next film Once upon a time in Hollywood to be released in 2019, will be precisely based on such crime.

It will take years for the director to return to his profession. Polansky’s movies following this terrible death will be strongly visceral in particular in Macbeth’s cinematographic transposition where some critics identified nearly nauseating similarities between the murder of Lady Macbeth and that of the deceased wife.

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We will have to wait until 1974 to see another great success for the director: Chinatown. A mystery story full of intrigues where we see a Jack Nicholson extraordinary, to say the least earning also an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

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But after the success of this last film and the imminent rise to the Hollywood Olympus, Polanski returns to his beloved Europe, more precisely to Paris, where he still lives and works. It is during these years that The Tenant sees the light, a film that closes the apartment trilogy which began several years earlier.

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His subsequent filmography is full of cinematic jewels, but the one that surely shone the most is undoubtedly The Pianist who finally consecrates him with a golden palm and an Oscar for best director. This now famous film tells the sad adventure of a Polish Jewish musician during the Second World War. Although being inspired to a true story, the director introduces us to a lot of autobiographies, managing to touch the strings of realism and crudeness only seen a few times in a work of this kind.

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Polanski’s production doesn’t obviously stop there, it gets to the present day with the recent Based on a True Story (not very positively received by critics and the box-office), preceded however by two extremely anti-conventional films, namely Carnage and Venus in fur, works all shot in a room where dialogues and interpersonal intertwining become the real protagonists.

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