Roman Polanski

Elzbieta Ostrowska

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:
Roman Polanski


Roman Polanski’s persona is as contradictory as his films. A Holocaust survivor, he started his cinematic career in Poland. The hostile reception to his film debut, Knife in the Water (1962), and the stifling atmosphere of the Communist regime pushed him to emigrate to the West. The critical recognition of his films made in Britain paved the way to Hollywood, where he made two films, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), that solidified his artistic position. His happy and successful life was destroyed in 1969, when his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was killed by the Manson Family. Eight years later, in 1977, Polanski fled the United States after being accused of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Since then he has lived in France. In 2009, he was arrested in Switzerland at the request of US authorities, who demanded his extradition. He was finally released by the Swiss authorities in 2010, though the US charges remain on file. Polanski’s tangled artistic biography is paralleled by the fluctuating field of meanings in his films. In his work he uses, but also transgresses, the forms both of popular and art cinema. His films display a stylistic transparency typical of the classical model of cinema, yet his self-conscious control of the mise-en-scène produces an aesthetic surplus usually associated with art cinema. Moreover, the absurdist narratives and surreal imagery permeating his work situate it within the realm of modernist cinema. Working within generic frameworks, Polanski shows his mastery of them. However, in often deconstructing their attendant formulas he gravitates toward a less prescriptive model of auteur cinema. His brief, yet highly productive, encounter with Hollywood cinema marks a significant reconsideration of the genres of horror and film noir. Likewise, in his adaptations he undertakes a critical dialogue with the literary canon (Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickens), which he always rereads from a historically determined authorial position. Recurrent motifs of violence and voyeurism shape Polanski’s gender discourse. This ranges from representations complicit with dominant ideologies to those that effectively subvert them. Thus, the identity of Polanski’s characters is also presented as constantly fluctuating and shifting in spectatorial positions problematizing emotional affinities. In his films, Polanski perpetually redefines his own position within the global cinematic discourse. Migrating across various political structures, film production systems, and cultural milieus, he approaches every cinematic tradition from outside with an ironic distance and aesthetic distrust. None of his films can be located within a singular aesthetic framework. With its methodological diversity, critical writing on Polanski reflects the hybridity of his work. In addition, his turbulent private life punctures the possibility of a solid and overconfident critical discourse around his films. Thus, the notion of his position within auteur cinema is constantly evolving.

Article.  10312 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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