La Ronde

Shadowplayer Alex Livingstone’s remark about the repetition of a moment in CHINATOWN — Faye Dunaway’s forehead hitting her car horn, played first as farce, then as tragedy — got me thinking about repetitions and circularity in Polanski’s work, something I’ve long been super-conscious of.

THE GHOST WRITER begins and ends with the off-screen assassination of a bothersome biographer, but this addiction to the ouroboros narrative that swallows itself is far from a new thing. Let’s attempt a list, and see if that’s boring.

The shorts — some of these are maybe two short for a circular structure to apply (2007’s CINEMA EROTIQUE unfolds entirely in a single cinema auditorium), but three of the major ones establish the pattern — TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE begins with the titular removal men emerging from the sea, and ends with them removing themselves back to it, sad aquatic angels who have visited our Earth and found it uncongenial. MAMMALS and THE FAT AND THE LEAN play like political parables, with the oppressed and the oppressor changing places through revolution, and the whole thing starting again. Since Polanski escaped Nazism only to find himself swallowed by communism, such a philosophy seems understandable, and it lurks behind many of the subsequent story-loops.

KNIFE IN THE WATER — been too long since I’ve seen this one, but doesn’t it begin and end on a road to/from the sea? What I mainly recall is the masterful filming in close quarters (a yacht so cramped, any kind of filming would seem impossible), the parallax effect illustrated by jump cuts, and the incongruity of Polanski’s voice issuing from another actor’s mouth. (He really wanted to play that role, even stripping naked in the production office when Jerzy Skolimowski told him he wasn’t handsome enough.)

REPULSION — easy. Begins and ends with closeup of Catherine Deneuve’s eye.

CUL DE SAC — almost a one-location film, but certain elements offering a looping effect, such as the “regular plane” that flies overhead at intervals. It does so during the mammoth long take on the beach, and Lionel Stander mistakes it for a rescue mission. It returns in the closing shot, mocking the possibility of rescue for anybody.

(Strong memories of a childhood holiday at Lindisfarne, Polanski’s location — driving back as the tides came over the causeway, a feeling of elation not shared by my parents who were convinced we were all going to die…)

THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS — begins and ends with the vampire killers on a snowy path, in a sleigh. Stentorious voiceover man, painted sky, moonlight.

ROSEMARY’S BABY — super-faithful version of the book, doesn’t do a loop back on itself, except for the lullaby music theme by Komeda, which has acquired new meaning by the film’s conclusion.

MACBETH — loops back, not to the opening scene, but to earlier in the plot, amounting to the same thing. In a scene not present in Shakespear, and indeed I’m sure quite far from Shakespeare’s mind, we see one of the lesser combatants of the film’s climax on the road to the witches’ lair — another Scotsman due to be corrupted. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to end with the order of the universe restored, after a period when everything’s out of balance. Polanski’s universe exists in perpetual turmoil and darkness, and so his conclusion is to show more of the same massing on the horizon…

WHAT? — the least-seen of the early films, and most despised, this slightly macabre sex comedy begins and ends on the road, with Sydne Rome’s arrival at and departure from the villa of peculiar persons, but there’s much more to it than that. Polanski himself has described the film as a rondo, and repetition plays an important part, as when the same petal falls from the same flower on the same note of the same piano piece, two mornings in a row… deja vu, or some kind of time-loop? Has Polanski been reading The Invention of Morel? Or is this just the structure of the rondo in action?

CHINATOWN has much of foreshadowing and clues and premonitions, as Alex and I discussed. It isn’t circular, but it does end up in the titular region, a place which has been discussed off and on throughout the movie. Screenwriter Robert Towne (“As much as he certainly is an annoying little prick, Polanski is also undoubtedly the best collaborator I’ve ever had.”) intended “Chinatown” just as a kind of state of being, the place where you try to keep someone from being hurt, and you end up making sure they are hurt. The world, in other words. Polanski felt, in fairness to the audience’s perhaps simpler expectations, you couldn’t have a film called CHINATOWN without a scene set IN Chinatown. So the ending literalises the metaphor.

THE TENANT — another easy one. Time and identity perform a neat swivel, causing Polansky’s character (“He’s just oversensitive,” says the director) to wind up back in time, in a woman’s body, witnessing himself making the fatal decision that will (somehow) land him in this hospital deathbed, a multiply fractured Soldier in White.


Dudley Moore: “When we go up to heaven, they’re going to play this film to us. On a loop. As we burn.”

Peter Cook: “You don’t burn in heaven.”

Dud: “We will.”

TESS — can’t recall… the character is set towards her fate in the very first scene, I remember that much. A conspiracy of fate brings about the downfall of a character who has “intelligence, beauty, and a spirited approach to life,” — the film is dedicated to Sharon Tate not just because it was her favourite book (how many starlets read Hardy?) and she gave it to her husband to read, but because it shows the same malign universal forces working that led to that night when the wrong people died, when nobody should have died at all.

PIRATES — behaves like one of the shorts, the two main characters winding up exactly where they started, adrift on a raft in shark-infested waters. That slightly over-determined ending, with its hint that a sequel might be forthcoming (not a chance, after the movie sank at the box office), is perhaps what scuppers the movie’s ending, which seems to deliberately avoid settling any of the plot points. The hero is pulled away from battle, the virgin winds up in the arms of the most evil man alive, the villain triumphs — if we have to wait for the sequel to sort it out, it’s a lousy ending. Considered as a remake of CHINATOWN, it kind of works, especially as a shocking, offensive way to treat an audience who’ve come to see a comic swashbuckler.

FRANTIC — think it begins and ends with Harrison Ford in a taxi, from airport to Paris and back again. It’s the story of a rather unconventional second honeymoon, or as Polanski said, an attempt to demonstrate that “Anxiety has no upper limit.”

BITTER MOON — whole movie framed on a boat, so it naturally returns to its starting point… another botched and bitter second honeymoon.

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN — doesn’t this begin and end with a string quartet playing the title piece (also heard in WHAT?)? This seemed like one of RP’s weaker films (I blame the play), but I might revisit it to see what happens.

THE NINTH GATE — begins as another of those New York Satanism films, winds up with Johnny Depp becoming an illustration in the book he’s been chasing, so there’s a kind of circularity there, albeit a strange one.

THE PIANIST — need to see this one again, for sure. What I mainly recall is another weird time thing — in all his films, when there’s a tenement building or stairwell, Polanski uses a distant piano playing or practicing. In this movie, the piano overheard from next door becomes a major plot point.

OLIVER TWIST — when Polanski does Victorian literature, he’s less able to make the plot turn into a loop. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

What does all this prove? Well, although Polanski denies being a pessimist, he is one — not because of the dark and dreadful things in his films, but because his films don’t, usually, hold out the possibility of change. Or not positive change, anyhow. Polanski once said that if he had the chance to live his life again, he wouldn’t. Which is, on the surface, quite a pessimistic remark, but even more so when one considers that, for most of us, the offer to live our life again would include the option of making changes, of doing things differently. Polanski doesn’t see that as part of the deal. Around and around we go…

UK links —

Roman Polanski Collection [DVD] [1968]

The Ghost [DVD] [2010]

Chinatown (Special Collector’s Edition) [1974] [DVD]

US links —

The Ghost Writer

Repulsion- (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Oliver Twist (2005)

23 Responses to “La Ronde”

  1. Spotting the circularity in Polanksi films is one of my favourite games.

    Rosemary’s Baby begins and ends with an aerial shot of Manhattan.

    Also, in Frantic, it’s not just Harrison Ford in the taxi to and from the airport – it’s Harrison Ford AND his wife (played by Betty Buckley) who’s been missing for most of the film. (Someone pointed out that if you examine the dates, they must have been honeymooning in Paris in May 1968. No mention of les événements, though.)

  2. It occurred to me afterwards that Polanski once said that Chinatown’s downbeat ending was necessary to make the audience feel that something ought to be done. So maybe he does hold out some hope of positive action.

    The plot MacGuffin of Frantic is so throwaway that it seems Polanski is going out of his way to avoid politics in that one, making it all the more surprising that he suddenly tackled world events head-on in The Ghost Writer. But that movie is simultaneously a serious political film and a quirky thriller.

  3. He denies being a pessimist because he’s managed to survive that which none of us can so much as imagine. Arguably his persecution at the hands of (now happily former) L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley is the least of it.

    Can’t imagine any serious person despising What?
    It’s a cross between Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny” cartoon series and The Exterminating Angel. Mastroianni is hilarious in it.

    Next on tap: a film version of the hit play God of Carnage with a cast that includes Jodie Foster.

  4. […] Repeating Polanski’s Repetitions […]

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Polanski considered DEATH AND THE MAIDEN one of his most personal films and I thought as such when I saw it. It deserves to be reconsidered. Post-TENANT Polanski needs to be given his fair due.

    The reason Polanski might deny being a pessimist is that while he doesn’t believe in happy endings or the like, he also doesn’t see it stemming from fate or like Kubrick project it as dramatic actions conducted by impersonal forces, dividing people into monsters or victims, Polanski sees it as humans trapped because they lack the foresight to foresee the consequences of what lies ahead, being bound by their subjectivity. Like in CHINATOWN, what’s interesting is all the people Gittes interviews along the way who are forced to compromise and look the other way. What’s curious about that film is that while Nicholson brings his charisma and charm to the character, Polanski seems at times to be scathing towards him, especially his lack of foresight and grave misjudgments. His great myopia practically ensures that he repeats the same mistakes again and again. The person who has Polanski’s complete sympathy is Faye Dunaway(apparently costumed to slightly resemble Polanski’s mother) and she’s a tragic figure in that she dies after putting up a fight which Gittes can never do.

    Shakeseare’s dramas basically had to have those phony restoration-of-order speeches(the Elizabethan version of the Hollywood happy ending) in order to avoid getting whacked like Christopher Marlowe(whose works lack these resolutions). Orson Welles in MACBETH was the first to subvert it by putting the witches on-stage during the end, in his famous Voodoo production, thereby suggesting that evil controls the crown still. In his film, which is less political, he closes the film on the witches as they look upon the castle. So Polanski was following revisionist tradition.

  6. That’s a very interesting take on the Dunaway and Nicholson characters in Chinatown, Arthur. I suspect you’re right.

  7. A.S. very enlightening on Chinatown, thanks

    Polanski as optimist reminds me of a Kafka quote that goes something like “There’s infinite hope, except for us.”

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Another Kafka gem, “The Messiah will arrive when he is no longer needed.” Which might be Polanski’s optimistic side. I suppose the ultimate reason why Polanski isn’t pessimistic is that his films are liberating despite how dark they are. They aren’t depressing because the form, the visual design is fresh and inspiring. THE GHOST WRITER offers no solutions to the current quagmire(and what solution is there in the real world, aside from WikiLeaks) but at the same time it gives a clear sense that the power players aren’t as powerful as they thought they were or led people to believe. You won’t find a more banal portrait of a Head of State in any film.

  9. Well, Lang/Blair is banality personified, but what he stands in front of is a far-reaching conspiracy. In the movie, an assassin can be produced to destroy a pesky writer within moments of his declaring himself a possible threat. That level of almost supernatural power, wielded by people as ordinary as those we’ve met, is truly scary, even if it’s exaggerated for dramatic purposes.

  10. It’s Lang’s wife (aka. Cherrie Blair) who is the REAL power –as I trust we all know. The climactic moment is when Ewan McGregor passes her the piece of paper decoding what his murdered predecessor vouchsafed in the original manuscript — and she trembles with fear and rage.

    Then she has him killed.

  11. Christopher Says:

    The Pianist ..or..How I Sat out the War.

  12. The Pianist . . .or. . .How I Slipped Through The Walls of The Krakow Ghetto and Saved My Life.

  13. Christopher Says:

    its a differen’t amazing look at survival in a relatively short span of time .

  14. “Well, although Polanski denies being a pessimist, he is one — not because of the dark and dreadful things in his films, but because his films don’t, usually, hold out the possibility of change. Or not positive change, anyhow.”

    This does fit with Death And The Maiden in which the opening audience watching the orchestra brings Kingsley to Weaver’s attention, triggering the events, and the return to the same orchestra at the end shows the three characters back where they started. There’s no catharsis to the events that occur in between for anyone involved, just impotent rage giving way to guilty silences once everyone is back in the ‘civilised’ world (something applicable to most of Polanski’s other films as well)

    I like to think of Brosnan’s character in The Ghost as similar to Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown – both have a belated awakening to some of the darker undercurrents of their lives, that they’ve semi-consciously ignored/suppressed due to trappings that their lifestyles have brought them, and both end up eliminated just at the point where they might conceivably do something about it.

  15. Polanksi is perhaps the best delineator of the schism between public and private spaces, and the way that each infiltrates the other.

  16. Arthur S. Says:

    The PM in GHOST WRITER is more a willing dupe than a tragic victim of any kind. He believes in his own fiction and he is sincere in his belief which is appalling. Remember what he tells the ghost that it was his idea to allow for the use of torture justifying it by referring to “bleeding hearts” being incapable of doing without what they claim to oppose. And then of course you have this ridiculous royal funeral and hero’s death that whitewashes his life(homage to “Shadow of a Doubt”?).

    The character of the wife though is a real mystery. Polanski in his films always sympathized with the women showing them of stronger character than the males who unfailingly disappoint them. The obvious predecessor is of course Lady MacBeth(in his Shakespeare film), updated to a time where First Ladies invariably have to play a state-appointed marriage performance(though Hillary Clinton obviously breaks a few glass ceilings), here she’s married to a daft fop.

  17. That might be what makes the twist effective — Polanski as usual is sympathetic to the woman, and Olivia Williams is very appealing in her brittle way. So the revelation of her guilt is surprising, but has been nicely prepared for.

  18. And I think we get the sense that maybe if the extra-martial affair hadn’t soured the relationship between the PM and his wife somewhat, and made him impossible to defend, that maybe Brosnan wouldn’t have had to die. I think his fate gets sealed in that scene of the telephone conversation/overheard sobbing (Rosemary’s Baby) – or is it just an act for McGregor’s benefit, or is it a symptom of McGregor’s increasing paranoia (Repulsion)?

  19. Good questions! Certainly the film’s ending powerfully associates the idea of Olivia making a distressed phone call with the idea of the object of her displeasure suddenly snuffing it…

  20. I guess the question of Polanski being optimist or pessimist lies with your interpretation of the “completing the circle” structure of his films.

    Also is it that Polanski said that he was an optimist or that his films are optimistic?

  21. He said he was a realist, I don’t recall him going so far as to claim optimism. He denies pessimism, but so would any realist…

  22. […] Cairns chronicles, to the best his memory serves, the cyclical structure of Roman Polanski’s films. In the comments, Arthur S. notes that one prominent example serves double-duty as an homage to […]

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