Roman Polanski, the Polish director, is no stranger to me. Certainly his work, no. My first brush with it was at one of the editions of the International Film Festival of India in Kolkata during the early 1990s. The film was Bitter Moon. Starring stars such as Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner and Peter Coyote, it was an extremely provocative work that had the classic Polanski’s psychological touch, thrilling to the core and disturbing to its depth. Set on the high seas, the movie traces the lives of two couples as they sail towards Istanbul on their way to India. Polanski explores bondage, sadomasochism and voyeurism to narrate the bitter story of death and destruction, passion and possessiveness.
I still remember that the film was introduced by the dashing Bengali actor, Victor Banerjee, whose parting line was, “Yes, there is a lot of masala in it”. But there has been even more masala in Polanski’s life, often tragic I would think.
Now under house arrest in Switzerland, waiting for his deportation to the USA, where he could be tried for having sex with a 13-year-old girl (who incidentally has long pardoned him), Polanski has completed his latest movie, The Ghost Writer. It will compete at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival to roll on February 11.
Based on the International Thriller Writers’ Award-winning novel, The Ghost by Robert Harris (who also penned the screenplay), Polanski’s movie was shot at Studio Babelsberg, outside Berlin, and was finished by him while he was in Swiss prison.
The film stars Ewan McGregor as a professional ghostwriter hired to pen the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister, essayed by Pierce Brosnan (the man we knew best as James Bond). The writer finds himself in political and sexual intrigues (without which, I guess, no Polanski work will be complete) that involve the ex-Prime Minister’s wife and his aide. It soon transpires that the Brosnan character has a terrible secret that may well upset international ties. Tony Blair is reportedly the inspiration for this character.
Often considered a master of crime and conspiracy, Polanski himself fell a victim to these when his beautiful, young and pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was savagely murdered by a cult in LA in 1969. A shattered Polanski, who was then in Britain, returned to Europe saying that there was nothing to hold him back in Hollywood. He later wrote in his autobiography that his “absence on the night of the murder is the greatest regret of my life…Sharon's death is the only watershed in my life that really matters… her murder changed my personality from a boundless, untroubled sea of expectations and optimism to one of ingrained pessimism ... eternal dissatisfaction with life".
And his work since then has reflected these.
He came out of his self-imposed seclusion in 1971 with The Tragedy of Macbeth. His later movies continued to have this tinge of the dark and the forbidding. Tess, Chinatown and Death and the Maiden, for example, have all had their share of the mysterious. Dedicating Tess (based on Thomas Hardy’s famed 1891 novel), to Sharon, Polanski said that his wife had given him a copy of the book on the last occasion he saw her alive. She had said that it would make a great film. It did.
Polanski continued to make movies such as The Pianist (2002, Palm d’Or for Best Picture at Cannes and Academy Award for Best Director) that in some ways were an echo of his own life. The Pianist is set during the dark days of World War II and was adapted from Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography. Like Szpilman, Jewish Polanski escaped death in Nazi hands, while his mother was killed at Auschwitz. Polanski and his father survived German tyranny. The father lived through the horrors of a concentration camp, while Polanski escaped from the Krakow ghetto. He changed his name, behaved like a Catholic and saw the end of the war.
This was the fighter I met at Marrakech a couple of years ago, and his agility and verve amazed me. As the head of the jury at the film festival there, he was a 75-year-old bundle of unimaginable energy. In a way, he epitomises all that one sees in his cinema: sensitivity, intelligence and a lot more.
As he now bides his time incarcerated in a Swiss chalet, there is a wave of sympathy for him. Letters pleading for the dismissal of the American legal case against him have been coming in. Probably justice must prevail, but if his imprisonment, if that happens, can well be a sad loss for cinema. For at 77, Polanski may not have many more years of helming.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been writing on international cinema for over two decades, covering major film festivals at home and abroad, including Cannes, Venice and Berlin.)