Eternal Recurrence

Beginning at the end with Roman Polanski
by David Cairns  posted September 8, 2011
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In Roman Polanski's Macbeth, Jon Finch as the usurping King, on his return visit to the witches, sups a psychedelic broth that imparts murky visions of past, present, and future. Among these is a giddying sequence in which Polanski's camera charges at a series of mirrors, each of which shows a different character from the protagonist's life, living or dead, who in turn presents another mirror, sending us ricocheting about a seemingly endless series of reflections. "Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?" wonders the tragic anti-hero.

Polanski will literally snore in your face (as he did with Mark Cousins) if you suggest that his films are autobiographical, but this sequence seems reminiscent of the director's first acid trip as described in Roman, his actual autobiography. It also seems like a metaphor for his oeuvre itself, in which the apparently straight arrow of narrative is constantly deflected back along its own path: Polanski's films regularly loop back to their beginnings, at times metaphorically, but often quite literally.

The Checklist:

Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) begins and ends with its title characters and their wardrobe on a beach.

Mammals (1962) deals with an unresolvable class struggle between two men with a sled in a blank snowy wilderness. It ends as it begins.

Knife in the Water (1962) ends on a road seen earlier, with the narrative apparently caught in an imponderable dilemma.

Repulsion (1965) opens and closes on the dark center of its heroine's eye.

Cul-de-sac (1966) is confined to a single island. Its ending features a "regular plane" flying overhead to emphasize the recurrent, unending nature of its justly titled narrative.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) begins and ends with a sled on a snowy path (like Mammals).

Rosemary's Baby (1968) begins and ends on the exterior of the Dakota Building in New York, rather amusingly suggesting a certain everyday quality to the story.

Time for a break, or this will get exhausting. Polanski has denied accusations of pessimism, rather labeling himself a realist. It may be becoming clear, from the above, what kind of realist he is. Of course, almost nobody would admit to pessimism, which smacks of a cussed and irrational insistence on the likelihood of a negative outcome and the impossibility of improvement. What Polanski's films depict, again and again, is a solidly grounded and entirely rational insistence on the likelihood of a negative outcome and the impossibility of improvement.

Like Fritz Lang, who disavowed any real belief in the inescapability of fate, what Polanski may believe about his work doesn't necessarily match what audiences experience upon seeing it. Claiming that Chinatown needed to have a tragic ending to inspire the audience with the desire to change things in real life is all plausible enough, but the film offers no solutions. In fact, it delivers a catchy four-word mantra for fatalists: "As little as possible." Meaning, that's what you should do.

Back to the list:

Macbeth (1971), in defiance of Shakespeare who restores the natural order, culminates in Macduff on his way to see the witches and presumably mount a supernaturally inspired insurrection of his own.

What? (1972) begins and ends with its heroine hitchhiking with various types of pig.

Chinatown (1974) seems to have caused Polanski some trouble, as the narrative simply refused circularity, so instead it ends with Polanski's most wholeheartedly negative ending ever. However, it nods to the eternal return with a series of prefiguring moments that prepare the ground for its ending, adding a fateful inevitability, such as the defect in the green part of the heroine's eye, eventually removed by a bullet, and the refrain of "Chinatown" which is finally answered by that mysterious district's appearance on screen.

The Tenant (1976), like What?, manages to literally turn time back, but rather than being an escape route, this proves a deadly trap, with Polanski's character imprisoned in another's life and horrible fate.

The Tenant

Roman Polanski in The Tenant

"If I had the chance to live my life again, I just wouldn't," Polanski has said, making what seems to me a noteworthy interpretive error. For most of us, the idea of repeating our lives includes the possibility of correcting mistakes: "If I knew then what I know now...," etc. Polanski simply imagines the nightmare of being caught in the same unfolding scenario, the horrific watersheds of his life occurring one after the other with no opportunity to avert them. It's sort of what happens to Nancy in What? and Trelkovsky in The Tenant, trapped in temporal Möbius strips that send them endlessly back into trouble. Polanski himself described What? as a rondo, agreeing that it was meaningless but suggesting that its repetitive structure was justification enough for its existence.


Sydne Rome and Marcello Mastroianni in What?

Metempsychosis or just plain psychosis? The loss of identity suffered by Polanski/Trelkovsky in The Tenant is just one of its disorienting traits, and Polanski's confident diagnosis of the hero, "He's just over-sensitive," doesn't reassure. Suffering what are clearly hallucinations but what might not be just persecution mania (his neighbors do hate him, it seems), poor Trelkovsky seemingly ends not only transmuted into his neighborhood's previous victim, but transported back in time so he can helplessly watch himself falling into the deadly snare all over again. He's become a passive witness to his life's unfolding tragedy, which is just the kind of slow-motion replay Polanski has said he doesn't want.


Tess (1979) begins and ends with figures on a country road, though not (save one) the same figures nor the same road. Sunrise over Stonehenge, however, imparts a feeling of the unchanging.

Pirates (1986), after a climax that stubbornly refuses to reward its heroes, rescue its heroine, or punish its villain, deposits its battered protagonists back where they started, adrift on a raft in shark-infested waters. This both nods to the early shorts, with their duos slogging away on treadmill scenery, and reprises Chinatown as slapstick. Polanski said that swashbucklers should end with the promise of a sequel, but this one perversely offers only an unending cycle of futile struggle. Nobody commissioned a follow-up.

Frantic (1988) begins and ends in a taxi in Paris. The unusual sense that the intervening efforts might have made a difference to something is gainsaid by the director's unromantic focus on the emptying of the morning's trash cans.

Bitter Moon (1992), though it takes place entirely in one setting, actually resists overt mirroring of its opening, and even suggests a new direction for the protagonists: parenthood. This jet-black comedy of perversion, betrayal, torture and murder may be its filmmaker's most optimistic movie.

Death and the Maiden (1994) begins and ends with a concert of the title music, already played in What?

The Ninth Gate (1999), after an opening suicide, presents a title sequence in which the camera swoops through nine ancient stone gates—approached again by Johnny Depp at the conclusion, where he's re-enacting the journey of a figure in an old engraving.

The director ruefully noted of this film that a scene involving a paralyzed character was followed by one in which the actor cast turned out to have suffered a facial paralysis he hadn't told anyone about, "so it looked like we're making a film about paralytics." Maybe, in a sense, paralysis is indeed Polanski's subject. From the shattered defenestratee of The Tenant to the deathbed scenes of What? and Pirates, the chairbound victims of The Ninth Gate and Bitter Moon and The Pianist, disability seems to lurch from film to film, but beyond that, it infests the storylines, preventing them from ever getting us anywhere save back to where we started.

But this is stasis disguised by a constant, yet illusionary, flux. Just as in Rosemary's dream, places and people transform irrationally, or what you think is going on, isn't. The extra-marital affair Jack Nicholson snaps by long lens in Chinatown is nothing of the kind, and the very first sound, a strangled groan at the sight of candid camera sex snaps, turns out to be jealous rage rather than arousal (a similar auditory confusion forms the punchline for Cinéma érotique, Polanski's 2007 micro-short and his only wholly successful comedy).

Polanski delights in tricking us, so that (in The Ninth Gate) the sound of a photocopier will later attach itself to an electric wheelchair stuck in a corner, the corpse passenger's death-grip making it repeatedly slam into the walls (another metaphor for his recurring narrative, perhaps) and (in Chinatown) some strange off-screen wildlife, hiding behind a Rolls Royce, turns out to be its chauffeur giving it a polish. Our perception of what's happening has changed, but what's happening is unaffected and indifferent to our perception.

Polanski's style, favoring long takes and elegant camera movements, complements these deceptions because he never seems to be trying to conceal anything from us. Disdaining the "fruit salad" of modern fast cutting and spasticcam, he likes to lay all the cards out in plain sight, before astonishing us with revelations. He's also fascinated by the act of looking itself: you could build a house out of all the outsized keyholes and spyholes he's had built so the Panavision lens can peep through. In the 1992 documentary Visions of Light, cinematographer William A. Fraker describes Polanski's oddball framing of a POV shot in Rosemary's Baby in which the doorway obscures most of the subject. Projected at the premiere, the shot caused the whole audience to lean left in the vain hope of seeing around the obstacle.

The Pianist (2002) is bracketed by two scenes of Szpilman playing his piano for Polish radio. Again, it would be obscene to suggest that nothing has changed, and in a sense the repetition serves to show how much has changed, but at the same time a certain status quo has resumed, or else a lull in the hostilities.

Oliver Twist (2005) opens and closes with superficially similar compositions, also with a dissolve from Victorian etching to live action and back, but perhaps Polanski's submission to Dickens's rather more optimistic sense of story results in the destination feeling quite different from the point of departure. Or maybe Polanski's mellowing, God forbid.

The Ghost Writer (2010) doesn't need visual echoes, since very deliberately it both begins and ends with the death of the author.

Polanski's latest, Carnage (2011), is based on a play and deals with the intractable nature of dispute, so a similarly recursive dénouement seems almost assured. Is it a metaphor for the Middle Eastern peace process? And does Polanski's own Devil's Dictionary define "peace process" as "eternal conflict"?

End of list. Thoughts:

"Capitalism isn't the best system, but it's... the best there is." Polanski's off-the-cuff remark in an interview with critic Clive James over a plate of snails isn't his most coherent utterance: it doesn't make literal sense, and it's plain he got somewhat lost between the start and the finish, but in its garbled way it's actually an exact distillation of his philosophy of life. In a world that offers precisely zero choice in the matter, cut-throat competition offers the best, because the only, option. Hence Chinatown looks in isolation like an attack on exploitation, but is merely an acknowledgement of its omnipresence and unlimited maleficence. Having lived through Nazi and communist occupation, Polanski is willing to take what he can get from the world.

It's hard to think of another filmmaker so obsessed with hunger: few Hollywood hotshots have ever experienced it, but he has, and it haunts his work. Chaplin's starvation gags from The Gold Rush resurface in Repulsion and Pirates (where the eating of a boot is replaced, disgustingly, by the consumption of a boiled rat). The Pianist, of course, takes subsistence-level survival as its subject, but even Polanski's vampires are constantly undernourished.

"Eat. Drink. We're alive, aren't we?" says Walter Matthau at the end (or is it the beginning) of Pirates, encapsulating the ethos of the director. Once a starving child who's now thrown himself into a jet-set world of conspicuous consumption, Polanski seems driven by a desire to entertain (he's never forgotten the power of art to sustain the spirit in dire times), but this is constantly undercut by the bleakness of his vision of the world. Some untouchable passion for life drives the now 78-year-old filmmaker to keep at it, fighting, hoping, despite everything his films can say to the contrary. 


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Paramount Home Video
Roman Polanski in his film The Tenant
Photo Gallery: Eternal Recurrence


September 7–30, 2011 Roman Polanski


Roman Polanski  |  Retrospective


David Cairns is a writer, director, and blogger. His short film Cry For Bobo (2001) has won 24 awards around the world. He has written for several UK TV series including Intergalactic Kitchen and Twisted Tales. His articles have appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, and Senses of Cinema.

More articles by David Cairns
Author's Website: Shadowplay