March 27, 2013

piratesIn 1974, the world was a rosy place for Polish émigré director Roman Polanski. He’d just made Chinatown, merely one of the best movies of the decade (and a box-office hit to boot), and every studio in Hollywood was eager to finance his next project. He decided to mount a comedy-adventure called Pirates.

Jump to 1986. Polanski is continuing his exile from America, begun with his flight from a rape charge in 1977. He’s made only two films since ChinatownThe Tenant and Tess.

But some things stay the same; after 12 years of intermittent work, Pirates has finally arrived. You might think that such a long-cherished project would take the form of an ambitious work. But Pirates is more like an extended lark.

It’s a lavish period piece, set in the heyday of Caribbean piracy, all about the efforts of Captain Red (Walter Matthau) to acquire a priceless golden throne, which currently rests in the cargo hold of a Spanish galleon. Captain Red and his dutiful French sidekick, Frog (Cris Campion), first seen floating mid-ocean on a raft, are picked up by the galleon and given sundry work. But not for long.

They soon incite their fellow sailors to mutiny, taking the ship’s nasty leader (Damien Thomas) and his beautiful fiancée (Charlotte Lewis) hostage, and leading them to an outrageous pirates’ island, where the area’s buccaneers hold their conventions and cut out a hostage tongue or two.

There are some difficulties in securing the throne, which make up the last half of the film. The yarn itself is basic stuff; the colorful characters, the hinted love between Frog and the fiancée, the triumph of bad over evil.

It is certainly a frequently funny movie, although it’s not a parody of the genre (as some early reports suggested).

Walter Matthau, a peculiar choice for a swashbuckler (the role was originally written for Jack Nicholson), is actually very good. Matthau’s Cockney accent, pegleg, and matted mass of hair and beard create a full-blown impersonation of the crafty pirate. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is largely dull.

The best supporting performance is given by a dead rat, which Red and Frog are sentenced to eat as punishment. This bizarre, quite uproarious episode is exactly what the film needs more of.

Physically, it’s a superb production; the elaborate reproduction of the galleon (designed by Pierre Guffroy) is one of the most gorgeous boats in any movie. But despite some great sequences, a weird sense of irrelevance sets in about halfway through the movie. The level of inspiration decreases, and it’s tough to figure out why Polanski would nurture this idea for 12 years.

In its structure, and in many of its episodes, Pirates is perfectly in sync with Polanski’s absurdist view of the world as a place where greed and ambition are equally meaningless. But in itself, that is not quite enough to validate this entry in the career of a great director.

First published in the Herald, July 1986

This review is more positive than I remember the movie. Even imagining Nicholson in the role, it’s hard to see the film actually succeeding at whatever the hell Polanski meant it to be (some kind of cousin to Fearless Vampire Killers?).


July 20, 2011

Sur les toits de Paris: Frantic

One of the things Roman Polanski is so good at (and, as one of the world’s finest film artists, Polanski is good at a lot of things) is capturing the look and feel of a certain locale. Especially cities: the London of Repulsion, the New York of Rosemary’s Baby, and especially the Los Angeles of Chinatown.

This is all the more remarkable since so much of Polanski’s work takes place in claustrophobic interiors. Now, Polanski tackles Paris, which has been his home base since he fled the United States on that nasty morals charge more than a decade ago.

The film is Frantic, and it’s an exercise in the Hitchcockian form, co-written by Polanski and Gerard Brach. A visiting American doctor (Harrison Ford) loses his wife (Betty Buckley) in the first hour of their stay and Ford is forced to scour the city to find out why this happened and how to get her back. “Cherchez la femme” is the phrase of the day.

Polanski is our greatest purveyor of anxiety and dread, and this effective setup allows him to draw out all the disoriented helplessness of Ford’s situation (the film’s first line, and overriding theme, is, “Do you know where you are?”). Naturally, Ford speaks no French, and just as naturally police and American Embassy officials are no help. Polanski takes delight in throwing the poor chap to the werewolves of Parisian nightlife.

As Ford pieces some clues together, he’s drawn to the nightclubs and especially to a girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) who holds the key to his wife’s disappearance. Seigner is another of Polanski’s lovely young protégées (like Nastassja Kinski and others); she’s even poutier than usual, but she fulfills her role capably.

Although Frantic is adequate in expressing the increasing mania of the husband, it’s not really an actors’ movie. This is a director’s film, and Polanski has some terrific moments, such as Ford’s crawl across an apartment roof (unexpectedly played for laughs), as well as two separate hostage exchanges, nail-biters both. And the opening scene, when the doctor and his wife settle into their swanky hotel, is eerily deliberate, as Polanski establishes the normalcy just waiting to be broken apart.

Time and again, Polanski displays his characteristic scrupulousness. Each camera placement draws the maximum possible effect, nowhere better demonstrated than the moment the lady vanishes; the camera is in the shower with Ford looking out while the water drowns out the woman’s words and she disappears.

For all that is good about Frantic, I have to admit it’s a disappointment overall. It doesn’t go far enough; there’s something minor and bland about it, and the central character lacks the sort of depth and ambiguity that have marked Polanski’s characters in the past. It is, nevertheless, an advance over Polanski’s previous film, the misbegotten Pirates.

First published in the Herald, February 25, 1988

Well, it seems there might have been another sentence there at the end, but what happened to it I don’t know. This film really has not stayed in my mind in a significant way; even the oddball Bitter Moon left more of an impression on me. But the opening hotel sequence is a great Polanski set-piece: “nothing” happens, and you feel utterly creeped out by all of it. He married Mme. Seigner, of course.