Archive for the 'Roman Polański' Category

Teethful Smile

Uśmiech zębiczny
1957, black and white, 2 mins

  • Director: Roman Polański
  • Photography: Henryk Kucharski
  • Production Company: Łódź Film School (PWSF)

Half a minute longer than his first completed film Murder (Morderstwo, also 1957), Teethful Smile (also known as Teeth Smile and Toothy Smile) is a more complex piece of work, though it’s based on a similar concept of exploring voyeuristic impulses. Here, though, there’s a voyeur onscreen as well as in the audience: we see a man (well-dressed, seemingly on his way out for the evening) being distracted as he passes a window. He looks through it and sees a young woman, naked to the waist, drying her face. A man’s appearance at the door of the flat forces him to pretend to be doing something else, then, when the coast is clear, he returns to the window, only to see the same man - the woman’s lover/husband? - brushing his teeth and grinning.

In straightforward narrative terms, it would appear to be a neat little sketch about thwarted expectations. Or are they especially thwarted? After all, Polański does in fact deliver on the promise of female nudity (not unknown in 1950s Polish cinema - there’s some in Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski’s Sopot 57, released the same year - but certainly rare enough to be noteworthy), so the voyeur’s central disappointment is that the glimpse was so brief, not that he didn’t manage to see anything at all. The far more fundamental disappointment for him is that the film has also shifted its power relationships - in the first half, the voyeur dominated the woman (through being both clothed and - to her, anyway - invisible), only to be trumped by the man at the end, who is presumably about to avail himself of rather more direct erotic pleasures being denied the voyeur and the film’s spectator alike.

Other peculiarly Polańskian touches pepper the film. When the woman wraps the towel around her face, the effect recalls the disturbing qualities of Magritte’s 1928 painting ‘Les Amants’, as well as accentuating her vulnerability - at one point she appears to look directly at the voyeur, but the towel prevents her from seeing him. The smile of the title could refer to the toothpaste-enhanced one at the end, or equally to the voyeur’s momentary baring of his own teeth in a distinctly predatory fashion before he’s interrupted by the other man at the door. The second voyeuristic interlude also sees the bathroom’s occupant looking straight at at the voyeur - only now the gaze is unbroken, the triumph complete, and the utterly defeated voyeur can do no more than dejectedly turn and leave.

DVD Distribution: Teethful Smile is included in the four-disc box set The Roman Polanski Collection (UK, Anchor Bay, Region 2 PAL) and Roman Polanski: Sept Courts-Métrages (France, Wild Side, Region 2 PAL) and as an extra on Knife in the Water (US, Criterion, Region 1 NTSC). This review is of the Anchor Bay version.

Picture: The print is in very good condition, lacking even the minor blemishes of the earlier Murder. A tiny number of white dust spots can certainly be excused.

Sound: The film is totally silent.

Subtitles: None supplied, none necessary (there is no dialogue, and the only onscreen text consists of the title and rudimentary production credits).

Posted on 2nd February 2009
Under: Reviews, Poland, Roman Polański | No Comments »


1957, black and white, 1 min

  • Director: Roman Polański
  • Photography: Nikola Todorow
  • Production Company: Łódź Film School (PWSF)

Some artists find their characteristic themes and approaches some distance into their career, while others emerge seemingly fully formed. Roman Polański so unambiguously falls into the latter group that the authorship of his first batch of Łódź Film School shorts (literally the first films he ever made, aside from an abandoned project called Bicycle/Rower from 1955) could be guessed almost without prompting.

Murder (also known as The Crime) was the first, the shortest and the simplest. It consists of three shots: a man enters a room and walks across to a bed where another man lies sleeping, his chest bared; the first man takes a small penknife out of his pocket and stabs the sleeper; as blood trickles down the now dead sleeper’s arm, the murderer leaves the room. There is no context, no motivation, and while the film’s unnerving silence was presumably dictated by budget/logistical reasons, the absence of a soundtrack has the effect of heightening the sense of voyeurism: we’re watching from a distance, too far away to hear, and quite unable to help.

Polański rarely tackled his wartime experiences directly on film - the short Where Angels Fall (Gdy spadają anioły, 1959) and, much later, the feature The Pianist (2002) being the only exceptions. But Murder powerfully conveys a situation that Polański must have been in many times in real life: both a helpless and appallingly fascinated witness to innumerable atrocities, where intervention would have meant the same thing happening to him (a certainty, given that Polański was a Jew in hiding for much of the war). The mere fact that the stabbing itself is so matter-of-fact (instead of the usual theatrical flourish, the murderer simply flips open a penknife, places it over the victim’s breast and uses both hands to push it down) heightens the horror: shouldn’t something so terminal be more demonstrative? Especially since this act is the entire focus of the film?

Three years before Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell explored the notion of sudden, violent death coming out of the blue in Psycho and Peeping Tom (both 1960), Polański was tackling similar material, but with none of the elaborate psychological framework constructed by the others to explain/justify their murderers’ actions. It’s presumably not an accident that we get a good look at the murderer’s face as he leaves: a chubby but otherwise nondescript man, he doesn’t remotely resemble the lean and hungry psychopath of the conventional image. Is he a hitman, “only obeying orders”? A spurned lover seeking revenge? There’s no way of knowing - Polański certainly isn’t telling, as he devotes just one sentence to the film in his autobiography, dismissing it as a technical exercise. Maybe so, but it’s a highly revealing one.

DVD Distribution: Murder is included in the four-disc box set The Roman Polanski Collection (UK, Anchor Bay, Region 2 PAL) and Roman Polanski: Sept Courts-Métrages (France, Wild Side, Region 2 PAL). This review is of the Anchor Bay version.

Picture: Given its student-film origins, the print is in surprisingly good condition - there’s a modicum of surface damage (white dust spots and a faint tramline skittering across the frame), but the underlying image is perfectly clear. Any defects are likely to be inherent in the original materials.

Sound: The film is totally silent.

Subtitles: None supplied, none necessary (there is no dialogue, and the only onscreen text consists of the title and rudimentary production credits).

Posted on 2nd February 2009
Under: Reviews, Poland, Roman Polański | No Comments »

Green Hair, German Sausage and Headless Chickens

Today’s Mail on Sunday has an extract from Maureen Lipman’s forthcoming book Past-It Notes in which she describes working with Roman Polanski on The Pianist (2003) and encountering his somewhat unorthodox methods - which, amongst other things, involved her hair turning green and her distinguished co-star Frank Finlay being smeared with sausage. Catherine Deneuve and Mia Farrow clearly got off lightly.

Posted on 28th September 2008
Under: Poland, Roman Polański | No Comments »

Wajda’s Revenge

I’d been meaning to watch The Revenge (Zemsta, 2002) for ages - it’s Andrzej Wajda’s last completed feature prior to this year’s Katyń - and after other plans fell through last night I gave it a go. It’s a mixed bag: on the one hand, it’s hugely entertaining seeing two great directors clearly letting their hair down and having a ball (Roman Polański being the other - he’s playing the lead role), and as a farcical costume romp it worked very well.

The basic situation, sourced from Alexander Fredro’s 1834 play (previously filmed by Antoni Bohdziewicz in 1956) is that two halves of the same crumbling castle are occupied by deadly rivals Cześnik Raptusiewicz (Janusz Gajos) and Rejent Milczeka (Andrzej Seweryn). As is often the way with costume farces, Cześnik’s niece Klara (Agata Buzek) and Rejent’s son Wacław (Rafał Królikowski) are madly in love with each other, but have to meet clandestinely to avoid enraging their elders - and Cześnik is similarly enamoured of the Widow Hanna (Katarzyna Figura). And when the Rejent finds out, he resolves to marry Wacław off to Hanna to upset everybody’s plans. Unfortunately, there’s a wild card in the form of Papkin (Polański), a dwarfish braggart who manages to create the impression that his influence and charisma are far greater than they actually are, and is consequently hired to carry out tasks that prove way beyond his abilities.

So far so genuinely amusing (Polański in particular seems to be having a whale of a time, as does an almost unrecognisable Daniel Olbrychski as Cześnik’s idiot manservant Dyndalski), but English-speaking viewers have a major stumbling-block with Vanguard Cinema’s DVD (R1 NTSC). There’s nothing wrong with the transfer (anamorphic picture, Dolby 5.1 surround), but the English subtitles only seem to translate for content rather than style - and while my ear for Polish is all but nonexistent, it was clear even to me that a lot of wordplay was simply being passed over. For starters, the dialogue is in verse, and while I appreciate that English verse translations pose a major challenge, it has been attempted in the past, most famously in the Anthony Burgess-sourced subtitles for Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac and also the Russian Cinema Council’s edition of Alexander Ptushko’s Pushkin-derived The Tale of Tsar Saltan. As it stands, though, the effect is not unlike watching a Shakespeare comedy with all the puns and poetry removed, thus depriving me of what Polish critics claim is a major part of the play’s appeal.

Janina Falkowska has written about the film in much more cultural and contextual detail for Kinokultura, and passages like this one:

The dialogue is delivered brilliantly by the exceptional cast carefully gathered by Wajda for the film, making the complex script dazzle with humor and wit; the words written almost two centuries ago by Alexander Fredro nonetheless stand out as a warning to present generations of Poles. Even the exquisite players of secondary roles, such as Daniel Olbrychski (Dyndalski), provide a veritable firecracker of verbal attacks and counterattacks filled with political and sexual innuendo.

…show the kind of thing that I missed.

Posted on 23rd August 2007
Under: Reviews, Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański | No Comments »

Polanski Gallery

Here’s a link to the BFI’s Polanski Gallery, with text by yours truly, assembled for an NFT retrospective back in 2005 or thereabouts. I’m hoping to write more about Polanski’s early work on Kinoblog, but this will have to do for now.

(and here are direct links to the pages on the early Polish shorts, and his debut feature Knife in the Water)

Posted on 5th June 2007
Under: Poland, Roman Polański | No Comments »

Innocent Sorcerers

As part of my ongoing research into the extensive back catalogue of Andrzej Wajda, the grand old man of Polish cinema, I watched the Facets/Polart DVD of his 1960 film Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje) last night.

It made for a fascinating contrast with his usual work. It was his fifth feature, but his first set in the (then) present, and the lack of period trappings makes for a much looser, more relaxed style - in fact, if I’d missed the director credit and had to guess, I’d have said it had far more in common with the work of Jerzy Skolimowski (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ashes and Diamonds author Jerzy Andrzejewski and plays a minor role, as the boxer whose career is threatened by an unwelcome medical diagnosis seconds before a key fight commences) or even Roman Polanski (who also appears).

Coincidentally, I’d rewatched Eric Rohmer’s My Night With Maud (Ma Nuit chez Maud) and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love relatively recently, and all three films would make a great triple bill, as they all revolve around sensually-charged but nonetheless ultimately platonic relationships, prevented from further development by the various ideological hang-ups of one or other party.

In this case, the protagonist is Bazyli (or Basil in the subtitles), played by Tadeusz Łomnicki, a young doctor-cum-amateur jazz musician with a distinctly jaded attitude towards the fairer sex - or at least with the fact that he’s never found seduction particularly difficult. But when he meets Pelagia (Krystyna Stypułkowska), and is lured back to her flat for a series of oddly ritualised conversations and games (including a variant on strip poker performed with the aid of a matchbox, the film’s most famous set-piece), he becomes tantalised by the prospect of a relationship moving to a higher level - only to find that she disappears the next day, leaving him bewildered and, for possibly the first time in his life, emotionally self-aware.

Here’s a link to the relevant page in Wadja’s own website (in English), and a detailed review of the DVD by DVD Savant. Note that I had exactly the same technical problems with the disc that he describes - mainly, some of the worst juddering I’ve ever encountered on a PAL-to-NTSC conversion - even though I was watching the final commercial release. Unusually for a Facets release, though, the subtitles were fine - a few typos here and there and the odd bit of misformatting, but they were at least in sync, white and optional. As ever with this label, it’s swings and roundabouts.

Posted on 5th June 2007
Under: Directors, Countries, Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański, Jerzy Skolimowski | No Comments »

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