Plot structures in Polanski’s films | Leo Robson | The Guardian

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☞ To say that most of Polanski’s films have one of three plot structures may sound too formulaic, but it is hard to argue against this article’s main contention. Polanski’s vision is not only in the recreation of bleak and unforgiving settings, or, according to Roger Ebert (!), in the recurrence of characters who, like Charles Manson, are “anti-intellectual, witless, and driven by deep, shameful wells of lust and violence.” It also lies in the reiteration of a restricted range of plot structures that run across many of his films. They are of course not plot formulas in the conventional or generic sense, but they also highlight the fact that, in spite of his films’ variety, Polanski does not engage in significantly new thematic departures in many of his films.

Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. Photograph: BFI/Ronald Grant

The backbone of Polanski‘s body of work is formed by three kinds of narrative – the testing of an unequal marriage, the humbling of a complacent professional, and the crumbling of a lonely mind – and few of his films buck all trends to any significant degreeFrantic, for example, a cleverly exasperating thriller about a Paris kidnapping, has similarities with other humbling narratives – ChinatownThe Ninth Gate and The Ghost – including a tendency to frustrate a major star, this time Harrison Ford, in petty ways, but it lacks some of the things they share: a corpse in water, the sense of thwarted rebellion against one’s place in the food chain, a downbeat ending. The Pianist, one of two films, along with Oliver Twist, that deals directly with the personal experience to which Polanski’s other work gives oblique or allusive treatment, belongs to the lonely-mind genre only in its second half, once ghetto turns to wasteland. (Polanski started off writing his own films, or working closely with the authors of original screenplays, then, having found his formula, turned to adapting source material, much of it strikingly well-matched to his interests and strengths.)

But even these different narrative formations are telling, at bottom, the same story. Polanski has no favourite technique, favourite actor, or favourite genre; he does, however, have a pet concern, one that adapts well. If there are two men on board, both will indeed want to be captain, but it is the woman – a wife or girlfriend, never a mother – who decides which man, and the judging process is sure to be characterised by tickled malignity or scornful glee. (“The women we like,” Christoph Waltz tells Jodie Foster in Polanski’s most recent film, Carnage, speaking on behalf of men unnerved by feminism, “are sensual, crazy, shot full of hormones. The ones who want to show off how perceptive they are, the gatekeepers of the world, they’re a huge turnoff.”) Polanski’s film of Macbeth, which he adapted with Kenneth Tynan, is usually seen as his response to the murders at his house in Cielo Drive, in which his wife Sharon Tate was killed, but given that it involves a man who over-reaches himself at the insistence of his wife, it is easy to imagine him making it at more or less any point. (Of his adaptations of classics, it is more in line with his sensibility, and a stronger, more convincing performance, than Oliver Twist or Tess.)”

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