(On Cable TV, May 2018) I’m still not too sure what to make of writer/director Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. I was bored for most of it, not because it’s a dull movie (it does feature a protagonist going murderously crazy) but because it seems like fifteen minutes of plot stuffed in an hour and a half movie. Once the protagonist’s slide into madness begins and the film reflects her inner reality, there aren’t that many places to go, and much of the rest of the film films both repetitive and preordained. To be fair, the film is effective, and perhaps for no better reason than star Catherine Deneuve herself: She looks like a porcelain doll at the beginning of the film, but there are incredible issues boiling behind her perfect façade—as superficial as it sounds, the film would have been a far lesser one with a less beautiful actress or one with a more aggressive kind of beauty. I’m tempted to think that movies have also moved on since 1965—the kind of subjective-perspective show of a schizophrenic breakdown has been remade so often since then that it has lost much of its shock. No matter the reason, I’m cool (but not cold) about Repulsion—it still works fine as a psychological thriller, but it probably could have been better by cleaning up the script and removing thirty minutes from it.
(On TV, July 2017) Roman Polanski’s Carnage, adapted from a theatre piece, isn’t much more than a one-set conversation between two couples that quickly turns bad. It almost acts as a prototype for Polanski’s later Venus in Fur, down to the bookends being the only escape from the limited set. In some ways, it’s depressing to see grown adult viciously turn on each other. In others, and especially toward the end, it becomes blackly amusing to see the four characters variously argue against each other, forming shifting alliances, as well as exposing secrets and resentment in an explosion of anger. It helps that in-between Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christopher Waltz, Polanski doesn’t need more help in the acting department: All four are terrific, although Waltz gets perhaps the most overly slimy role, while Reilly gets to break out of his usual nice-guy persona. This being said, none of the other characters are perfect, and Carnage is about peeling the layers that usually limit polite conversation. Once you’re caught on that this is going to be a verbal demolition derby, you can wait until the next inevitable reconfiguration of factions—including couples vs the other, men vs women, three-vs-one and so on. Also: If you’ve been waiting for seeing Kate Winslet vomiting profusely, then this is the film for you. (As for the rest of us: Ew.) Unfortunately, Carnage ends limply, almost as if it had run out of things to say—there isn’t much of a conclusion to the conversation, and whatever closure is offered by the film comes from the final bookend. Still, as a film that places so much emphasis on dialogue between limited characters, Carnage is a nice change of pace, and even a mildly entertaining piece of verbal fireworks.
(On Cable TV, July 2015) There’s a remarkable purity of intention in La Vénus à la fourrure, a psychological thriller adapted from a stage play that almost entirely takes place on a darkened theater stage, featuring only two characters that spend much of their time reciting snippets of a stage play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. You really wouldn’t expect any sustained tension out of this premise, and yet the film builds upon fairly dry foundations until it becomes an unsettling display of psychosexual combat, lead actor and lead actress locked in a duel of wills and kinks. I’m going to ignore the question of whether you really want infamous fugitive director Roman Polanski to be the one to teach you about perversion, but there is some serious directorial skills on display here as the film does the most it can achieve with very limited elements. Mathieu Amalric is good as a playwright who finds himself captured by his own creation, but Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s wife) is simply astonishing in the lead role –she seems to be playing five or six parts one after the other, simple changes in costume or posture bringing out entirely new sides to her character. It certainly helps that the script is so densely constructed, referring back and forth between actor, character and character-as-actor, with at least three levels of interpretation constantly feeding off each other. (A hint for bilingual francophones watching the film: turn on the English subtitles to catch more references.) I wouldn’t call La Vénus à la fourrure an enjoyable film, but it’s certainly a fascinating one that builds and builds until it seems unbearably intense.
(In theatres, March 2010) Roman Polanski may be a runaway convicted pedophile, but he sure knows how to direct a movie. Faithfully adapted by Robert Harris from his own unusually accessible novel, The Ghost Writer starts with an intriguing premise and then accelerates into a full-blown political thriller. As a ghostwriter asked to help a former British Prime Minister finish his memoirs after the untimely death of his predecessor, Ewan McGregor is sympathetic enough to hold our interest. Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan is convincing as the conniving politician. The fascinating aspects of ghost-writing are strong enough to allow us to settle in the film’s increasingly frantic pacing. Once our protagonist starts finding clues about his subject’s past, palace intrigue develops and modern accusations come to besiege their quiet beachfront house. Added interest can be found in The Ghost Writer’s not-so-subtle political allusions to Tony Blair’s administration. The film’s plot is nearly identical to the book, but it’s really Polanski’s deft touch with suspense that ties up the film in a neat bow. A number of showy sequences present familiar developments in refreshing fashion, and the deliberate pacing keeps things neither too slow nor too fast. Some plot kinks are best explained in the book (which is also a bit more aggressive in political themes), but overall The Ghost Writer is a well-made thriller for adults, bringing back memories of classic seventies movie paranoia. You can say what you want about Polanski, but the result up on the screen is unarguable.