“Every film I make represents a departure for me. You see, it takes so long to make a film. By the time you get to the next one you’re already a different man.”
Polanski started film acting at nineteen and made his first student film in 1957 (Murder). Over the course of his career as a director, Roman Polanski has lured his audiences into many different worlds, whether it is inside of an apartment, the middle of a lake, or on an island. He takes these settings and creates something unique from his vision within.
Known for his claustrophobic atmospheres, precise shot composition, and diving into the psyche of characters; Polanski has become one of the greatest filmmakers in cinematic history. Anyone who harbors an interest in cinema should dip his or her toes into the filmography of this director.
Here is a list of 10 essential Roman Polanski films that every cinephile should see.
1. Knife in the Water (1963)
Shot in Poland, Knife in the Water is the only feature Polanski made before leaving his home country. While it wasn’t well received in Poland during the communist regime, many now consider it a masterpiece.
It takes place almost entirely on a small sailboat with only three characters. A married couple, Andrzej and Krystyna, pick up a young drifter looking to hitch a ride. The three of them spend a day on the couple’s boat as Polanski unravels each character, peeling their layers and leaving them raw.
The two men begin to compete with one another, whether it be about sailing or five-finger fillet, it doesn’t matter; what matters is power. Though a simple plot on the surface, the film explores human nature under a microscope, and we are unable to avert our eyes much like the characters that cannot get off the boat.
Polanski’s use of open space creates an unsettling claustrophobic atmosphere as we spend time observing these three characters who feel the need to feed their ego and prove themselves. Constricting shots and contrasting jazz music set the tone for the film as they compete. Knife in the Water is a suffocating thriller that sets the stage for the rest of Polanski’s career as an auteur.
2. Repulsion (1965)
When someone thinks of horror films, the word “quiet” probably doesn’t come up too often. However, quiet horror is exactly what Repulsion is. Though not silent (it does however have a very unsettling score), the film does not carry a weight of dialogue. Polanski carefully constructs the descent into madness with the use of diegetic sounds in the main character’s apartment and the space that captures it as we, the audience, observe her.
The film is about a young woman named Carol (played flawlessly by the beautiful Catherine Deneuve) who lives in an apartment with her older sister, Helen, and works at a salon in London. When her sister goes on vacation with her boyfriend, Carol is left alone in the apartment with her demons. Slowly the audience watches Carol as she is haunted by her abusive past and descends into madness.
Polanski pairs the visuals to Carol’s mindset in a way so perfectly horrifying that you feel haunted by whatever is causing her psychosis. The way she is expressed is that of a child. She wears nightgowns, occupies a small twin sized bed, and relies on her sister for provision and company like a child who longs for her mother. This repulsion that Carol is plagued with has taken root in her since she was a child and she has not been able to escape it, unable to live her life.
Repulsion saturates us with Carol’s perspective from the very beginning when we are forced to look into her eye during the opening credits. Who knew that ticking clocks and dripping water could be so terrifying?
3. Cul-De-Sac (1966)
If Roman Polanski would ever be considered to have made a comedy, this would be it. However, much to Polanski’s authorship, it’s a rather dark comedy that feeds on absurdity and unlikeable characters.
The plot is centered on two gangsters who find themselves stranded in a car within a rising tide. Their only hope is a nearby castle where a couple is staying. With nowhere else to go, they hold George and Teresa hostage in their own home.
It is deeply expressionistic with style and it is complemented with the incredible performances of Donald Pleasence, Fraçoise Dorléac, and Lionel Strander. These two elements of the film drive its bleak and macabre tone. Over the span of two days, the characters are humiliated and the audience is able to sit back as spectators in this wildly insane game of isolated captivity.
Polanski has stated that Cul-De-Sac is his best film because “it is the most self –contained. It only has meaning as a movie, as itself.” That’s all we can ask of filmmaker to do: create a world outside of reality and allow us to feel something. That’s exactly what this film does.
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Rosemary’s Baby delivers a disturbing tale of a woman who is impregnated by the devil. With the success of Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski swept Hollywood, and cemented himself as an icon in the cinematic world.
This is the second installment of what is known as “apartment trilogy” (the others being Repulsion and The Tenant). The stories are not weaved together, but each is a psychological display of characters that are closed-off from the world. In this case, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes) move into an apartment home with a questionable past of witchcraft. It is evident that something is not right the moment they walk down the corridor towards their soon-to-be apartment.
Filled with anxieties and uncertainties throughout this nightmare, Rosemary’s point of view is at stake as the film progresses. However these same uncertainties are paired with the older couple (Roman and Minnie) that live next door. One terrifying moment is during a scene when Rosemary and Guy are over for at their place for dinner.
It is a shot that completely sets up the eerie tone for the rest of the film. Polanski uses a close up of Rosemary turning around looking over to the living room where Guy and Roman are smoking. Then it cuts to the living room. It’s quick, but haunting. Haunting because the smoke is lingering and you can’t see them, and in this moment you know they are discussing terms for the baby.
Rosemary’s Baby is essential to watch in order to grasp the undeniable craft of Polanski’s shot composition and psychological isolation. He doesn’t need blood to make things scary, just some devil eyes and an older woman with terrible makeup.
5. Chinatown (1974)
A masterful neo-noir in the midst of the New Hollywood Era, Polanski dips his feet into something very new and exciting. Chinatown has the look and feel of 1930s cinema as soon as the opening credits roll.
Jack Nicholson gives one of his best performances as private eye Jake Gittes. His work isn’t very classy and he always seems one step behind everything. However, as Jake begins to unravel a conspiracy of power and corruption, he falls deeper into the rabbit hole.
Though Chinatown is a noir, it flawlessly pushes its boundaries during the New Hollywood era. Never would a charming private eye look so silly wearing a bandage over his nose for such a long period of time on screen. Blurring the lines of the archetypal femme fatale was not a common theme during the actual period.
If that doesn’t get you running to Netflix, maybe John Huston playing the film’s power-hungry villain, Noah Cross will. He has a casual, yet authoritative presence that swallows the film whole. There is a reason the character of Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has uncanny diction and mannerisms to Noah Cross.
Chinatown takes ownership of its individuality, creating one of the most recognized neo noirs in cinematic history.