Filmmaking is a collaborative process typically involving hundreds of people, and often it shows in the finished product. Most films seem to be made-by-committee products, rather than personal statements. Perhaps that's why truly visionary directors receive so much praise, because their talents can transcend the din of collaboration and create something personal and unique. Of such directors, Roman Polanski is near the top. Regardless of your feelings about his films, it's obvious that the man puts himself onscreen, warts and all. His films pulse with a nervous and psychotic energy. Most Polanski films start off slow, and then unravel into a psychological or sociological madness. As much as any director in history, Polanski's films reflect the inner mental and sexual turmoil of the man himself. I do not consider myself a fan of Polanski or his films. Of the ones I have seen, my favorite is CHINATOWN (although that had a perfect script), followed by ROSEMARY'S BABY (thanks to a mesmerizing Mia Farrow performance). Polanski's post-scandal films have been largely a mess; TESS and PIRATES are ridiculously over-praised, and THE NINTH GATE is a joke. I thought THE PIANIST was his finest film since CHINATOWN. Generally, though, I do not like Polanski's films ... they're difficult films to enjoy on an emotional level. REPULSION (Criterion Collection, 1965) is somewhere in the middle of my list of favorite Polanski films, possibly my third favorite of those I've seen. The film involves a dour young woman named Carol (Catherine Deneuve), who finds herself trapped in an apartment with horrible hallucinations that drive her to murder and insanity. One of my chief complaints about the film is the lack of a central character. Carol is a difficult character with whom to sympathize, and she is only redeemed through the stunning beauty of a very young Deneuve. Just 22 years old, Deneuve does what she can with the poorly written role. However, even beauty cannot infuse this blank character with much life or empathy. The screenplay by Polanski and Gerard Brach seems more interested in the supporting characters around Carol, giving them supple, interesting personalities. Particularly good is Yvonne Furneaux as Carol's sister Helene, who has an engaging mix of world-weariness and sexuality. The world around Carol seems to outshine her - which may have been Polanski's point, but it manages to diffuse an audience's connection to her character as she descends into madness. While the screenplay disappoints, the direction and cinematography stuns. Polanski pulls off long and intricate shots within the apartment, perfectly orchestrating the character interaction onscreen. One of my favorite scenes in the film occurs fairly early, as Helene and her married boyfriend discuss travel plans; Polanski keeps his camera low, panning with the characters as they talk and flirt with each other, revealing a wealth of information. Seemingly simple moments like these cement Polanski's reputation as one of the great directors of all time. It's a shame he never had the strong material that someone like Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed throughout his career. Above all else, the cinematography by Gilbert Taylor is some of the best work ever put to film. Black and white films tend to impress in general, but Taylor went for an extremely contrasty look that still startles today. Added to that work is the fantastic transfer in this new Criterion release, which manages to capture Gilbert's deep contrast to breathtaking effect. The blacks are incredibly rich, blending into creamy, textured grays. This is a masterpiece of film preservation and presentation. After all of these years, it's difficult to revisit Polanski's early work without his personal life tainting the experience. Watching Polanski's camera stalk and covet young women like Deneuve only reminds us of his troubled relationships with women of all ages. In some ways, it's analogous to watching a music video of Michael Jackson dancing with kids; the subconscious mind will always link the artist's personal life with their art. It's not a fair aspect of the viewing experience, but it's truthful nonetheless. However, in an age of impersonal blockbuster entertainment, I'd rather have a personal film from a criminal pervert like Polanski any day of the week.
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