Roman Polanski: Auteur or Brand Name?

Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby

Few adherents of the auteur theory would doubt Polanski’s qualifications as a director with a singular vision and complete control. Much of what constitutes a “Polanski film” are his directorial techniques, which make extensive use of subjective angles, wide-angle lenses, and occasionally heightened performances that strive for psychological truth. His style is technically precise, deliberately paced, and artistically uncompromising. Above all, however, Polanski has been stereotyped by the thematic content of his work, which focuses on paranoia, perversion, voyeurism, and sadism. At times he has been virtually “typecast” as an artist who deals exclusively with dark or even occult themes, but he himself has never written an original screenplay without major contributions from a collaborator. Gérard Brach, co-writer of Cul-De-SacRepulsionThe Tenant, and Bitter Moon, among others, is the most prominent among such collaborators, and as Polanski himself describes, “we talk and then he writes it” (Obituary: Gérard Brach). Given Polanski’s minimal involvement with most of his screenplays and the degree to which his body of work is identified based on the themes of those screenplays, Polanski makes for an interesting case study in the strengths and weaknesses of the auteur theory.

One of the reasons that Polanski’s themes of perversion, paranoia and the occult have been so closely identified with his personal vision is that they appear to be deeply rooted in the director’s actual life. Sharon Tate’s murder by the Manson family, Polanski’s experience of World War II in his native Poland, and his sexual crime and subsequent exile have made acknowledgements of his “notoriety” something of a Hollywood cliché. Polanski seems to resent being pigeonholed, but his autobiography also offers ample bait for those who wish to draw comparisons, however trite, between his life and work. He opens Roman by stating, “For as far back as I can remember, the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred” (9). It’s almost impossible to resist positing, then, that paranoia thrillers such as RepulsionRosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant, are deeply personal or even somewhat autobiographical in a sense. All of those films, after all, feature a conspiracy-theorizing protagonist whose “line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred”.

Polanski’s trademark sense of black humor and absurdism also appears to be deeply rooted in his personal experience and early work in Poland. Long before he had Brach as a writing collaborator, one of his earliest shorts from film school featured two men emerging from the sea with a wardrobe, finding no place for it, and sending it back into the sea. It was, as Polanski puts it, “absurd” (146), and it also foreshadowed his future concern with innocence “confronting corruption and losing out” (Boleslaw Sulik, 8). The themes of perversion and voyeurism also seem to stem from personal vision given that another early short film consisted of a voyeur “peering lecherously through a bathroom window at a naked girl drying herself” (Polanski, 130). Even earlier, before becoming a director, Polanski discovered acting while delivering a comic monologue at summer camp; he realized that he loved to make people laugh (Polanski, 67). Most striking, however, is Polanski’s admission that his wife’s murder reinforced his “faith in the absurd” (450). The absurdity of tragedy is one of Polanski’s signatures: the suicide at the end of The Tenant is staged almost as a kind of slapstick, the reactions of bystanders after the final tragedy of Repulsion are hilariously inappropriate (one old man repeatedly offers Carole a Brandy), and the witches’ revelation in the conclusion of Rosemary’s Baby is full of camp performances. Although Brach did most of the writing on those films (except for Rosemary, which was adapted), the overall aesthetic of absurdism, perversion, and voyeurism predates any collaboration with Brach.

Although Rosemary’s Baby was adapted exclusively by Polanski, he admits to staying very close to Ira Levin’s original, which was already well structured and cinematic (265). The Tenant was an adaptation by Brach and Polanski from the novel by Roland Topor. One of the reasons Robert Harris was eager to collaborate with Polanski on an adaptation of his novel Ghost Writer is that Polanski has a tendency to stay extremely close to the original material (Harris, Ghostwriter interview). Although Polanski’s themes seem to predate any collaboration and stem from his personal life to some degree, we might wonder if he is really an auteur given that he outsources the thematic material most responsible for his signature aesthetic. Perhaps the little-known Gérard Brach is the real auteur, or even Roland Topor, Ira Levin, or Shakespeare.

One of the reasons this claim isn’t quite convincing is that Polanski’s directorial style is more personal than some give him credit for. He describes being “bowled over” by Citizen Kane, admiring its use of wide-angle lenses which brought the viewer inside the set so that “one could see the ceilings” (126). He was similarly influenced by Buñuel’s Los Olvidados for its realism, violence, and “unambiguous appeal to the emotions” (126). On the other hand, he resolved never to be a part of the new wave crowd because he was too much of a professional and a perfectionist (189). In full Hollywood fashion, Polanski views film as an “escape” from depression (36), and despite the dark themes of his work, there’s always a combination of fantasy and skilled execution that puts his work in the league of directors such as Hitchcock. Like any true original, he has fully absorbed his influences and made them his own.

Moreover, Polanski has always opposed the idea of churning out escapist fodder; the idea of making a movie solely for profit strikes him as “obscene” (156). He made Repulsion in order to please a couple of producers and gain financing for Cul-de-Sac, but even that was not enough to justify his involvement in what might have been a classless horror flick. He felt obligated to give the film a significance that would set it “head and shoulders above the average horror movie” (216). The use of diegetic sound to give the apartment its own sonic fingerprint and the construction of moveable walls to make the space feel alive were some of the technical achievements that made Repulsion a cut above the rest.

There are also ways in which Polanski is deeply involved with the story despite not being the main writer. When Brach and Polanski’s careful pacing of the beginning of the film came under attack from producers who wanted him to reveal Carole’s insanity earlier, Polanski fought for his vision and won. His aim was to lull the audience into almost a state of boredom, so that they could be shocked by her sudden hallucinations (216). It’s unclear who was responsible for the initial idea (it was likely Brach), but Polanski clearly adopted it as part of his authorial vision. He understands how to create a satisfying narrative arc and how to keep the stakes high in his stories. Although widely regarded as sticking closely to his original texts, Polanski also makes careful changes where necessary – and to great effect. He invented the ending of Ghostwriter, for example, in which the Ewan McGregor character crosses the street and exits the frame clutching an important manuscript (Polanski, Ghostwriter interview). In the film, we hear the sound of a collision, and the camera remains motionless as pages fly into the wind, their hidden code lost forever. The ending stays true to the spirit of the novel but translates it into a visceral and visual cinematic experience. It’s also a classic Polanski ending, in keeping with his tendency to ally tragic death with a surreal kind of poetry.

The final shot of Ghostwriter

In Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski similarly made one small but profound change from the original. As a result of his own secular and rationalist leanings, he felt unable to fully invest in the story without the possibility that Rosemary’s supernatural experiences might be “figments of her imagination” (265). He thus created a loophole that doesn’t exist in the original novel; Rosemary might be paranoid, the line between fantasy and reality might be “hopelessly blurred”. This decision was a particularly distinctive and personal touch, and exactly the kind of theme audiences have come to expect from Polanski.

Perhaps most famously, Polanski disagreed on certain major points with Robert Towne, the writer of Chinatown. His initial impression was that “buried somewhere in its 180-plus pages was a marvelous movie” (346). Polanski cut out extraneous plots and characters and focused on Gittes’ story. He insisted that Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray sleep together, and changed the ending from a neat resolution to one that takes place in the film’s eponymous location and results in Mrs. Mulwray’s death and Gittes’ impotence in the face of corruption and evil. The film as envisioned by Robert Towne would have been an entirely different experience – not the kind of movie we associate with Polanski’s trademark style.

Chinatown is likely a rare exception to the general trend of Polanski carefully selecting his next project based on personal creative urges, rather than being cajoled by a producer friend and an actor. It was Polanski’s final decision to work on Chinatown, of course, but Jack Nicholson and Bob Evans had to plead with him to read the initial screenplay. In the case of The Tenant, however, Polanski himself went to Paramount upon discovering that they had bought the rights to the novel. Although Brach did most of the writing for the adaptation, the executive decision to take on the project was solely Polanski’s; The Tenant was a perfect fit. We can assume that he chooses his projects carefully, given that a director of his stature is offered numerous projects on a daily basis. After Rosemary’s Baby, for example, Polanski was inundated with screenplays which were “horror stories, exclusively concerned with madness and the occult” (283). Those stories didn’t interest him because they were all of a kind, pointing to his resistance toward being pigeonholed or “typecast”. But he also describes a need for personal involvement in the writing process in order to motivate him creatively (284). He advocates beginning production as soon as possible after the screenplay is complete in order to capture the “freshness of the concept” (335). This fervor would seem odd were we to deny Polanski’s personal involvement in the writing process.

Roman Polanski stars in his film, The Tenant

In many ways, Polanski and Brach function as a single unit; they appear to be so closely aligned in terms of thematic interests and style that to attribute authorship to one or the other is an impossible task. The pair first met at a party in Paris after a freshly-divorced Polanski had been abandoned by the man who invited him. Brach had also emerged from a divorce and had a stiletto-inflicted scar to prove it. The pair were “inseparable” after the party (186), bound by their short stature, lack of social graces, and inability to self-promote.

They discovered their screenwriting process together, feeling that there was no one correct way to write a screenplay any more so than there was one way to write music: “The two of us were steadily learning more about the art of scriptwriting…. Gradually, by trial and error, by talking our way around a scene, we would develop a thematic fragment” (190). Their first script was born from a shared experience of being let down by women, and the character of Teresa in Cul-de-Sac was the result of a “slight need for revenge” (190). The male principals were based loosely on the producers they had both been working with (224). Polanski describes the script as “an expression of our state of mind” (190), as though their states of mind were one and the same. Repulsion was similarly based on a girl who Gérard and Polanski both knew, and all of their work seem to have been born out of shared ideas, their visions fully merged.

Gerard also seems to have had some involvement in the production process and was frequently present on set. His hands were used in a hallucination scene for Repulsion (217), for example. And when Lionel Stander pretended to be sick on the set of Cul-de-Sac, Brach saved the day by spreading the story that Polanski was so impressed with his acting that he had decided to star him in his next film – provided his health was in order. The trick worked and Stander’s illnesses disappeared (239). Polanski and Brach lived and worked in an Italian commune together for four years, and Polanski always valued him deeply as a reminder of his pre-Hollywood phase, especially when his relationship with Hollywood was at its most sour.

A still from Cul-de-Sac

Of course, Polanski has worked with other screenwriters. He and Kenneth Tynan agreed on “almost ever point” (332) when adapting Macbeth to the screen. But the films made with Brach seem to have cemented Polanski’s reputation as an artist fascinated with the perverse and paranoid depths of the psyche more so than any others. Even their later collaborations such as Frantic and Bitter Moonperpetuate the “Polanski-esque” themes that the pair had established with movies like Repulsion. Janet Maslin wrote of the opening scene of Frantic, “The only tip-offs that anything may be amiss are the film’s title and the presence of Mr. Polanski at the helm”. She described Bitter Moon as a “gleefully sadomasochistic love story directed by Roman Polanski, who is nothing if not the man for the job.” Notably absent from both reviews was the possibility that Gérard Brach, the unassuming Frenchman who wrote and adapted both stories, might also have been “the man for the job”. Brach’s fame pales in comparison with Polanski’s, although he was supposedly the best known writer in France at the time Tess was released (John Brownjohn, Tess interview). This is the norm for the film industry, of course; screenwriters are never acknowledged as authors because they are not the “auteurs”.

Polanski is far from the only director to rely on material from novelists and screenwriters. But he is probably one of a handful to have formed such a close, long-lasting, and prolific partnership with a single screenwriter who was so deeply responsible for executing his vision. Because Brach’s career was centered around writing Polanski’s films, it seems misguided to deny his role as an author. Polanski has acquired a public image that seems almost designed to match the lurid intrigue of his films, so that it becomes questionable whether the auteur theory is really about authorship at all as opposed to personal branding.

Polanski is nothing if not a recognizable brand name; the audience knows what to expect from a Polanski experience. And given that the director occupies the position of final authority and veto power in most cases, we might credit his reliance on others’ talents as a virtue of executive decision-making. After all, no one person can be responsible for the production design, camerawork, lighting, performances, screenplay, and musical score, although all of these factors contribute to the success of a film that is finally attributed to the director. What eventually redeems the auteur theory somewhat is the fact that a good director knows when and where to stay out of the picture. By virtue of his power and control, then, the director is in charge of creating a brand name; authorship becomes almost irrelevant.

Works Cited:

Bergan, Ronald. “Obituary: Gérard Brach.” Guardian.co.uk. The Guardian, 19 Sept. 2006. Web. 21 May 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2006/sep/19/guardianobituaries.france&gt;.

Polanski, Roman. Roman. New York: Morrow, 1984.

Sulik, Bolesawl. Introduction to Polanski: Three Film Scripts. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Robert Harris, interview. The Ghostwriter. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan. Summit Entertainment, 2010. DVD.

Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn interviews. Tess. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Nastassja Kinski. Sony Pictures, 2004. DVD.

Maslin, Janet. “Film: ‘Frantic,’ From Polanski.” Rev. of FranticThe New York Times 26 Feb. 1988. Web. 21 May 2011.

Maslin, Janet. “Buttoned-Down People, Unbuttoned Memories.” Rev. of Bitter MoonThe New York Times 18 Mar. 1994. Web. 21 May 2011.

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~ by Daniel N. Goldberg on June 15, 2011.

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