TIFF Counts Down to Christmas with Roman Polanski
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TIFF Counts Down to Christmas with Roman Polanski

The latest Lightbox retrospective gifts Toronto cinephiles with seven of the naughty director's best.

Roman Polanski's career hasn't always been characterized by such firm self-restraint.

Roman Polanski: God of Carnage
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Saturday December 17 to Sunday December 25, selected dates

Upping the ante on Columbia Pictures’ claim that the forthcoming remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the “feel bad movie of Christmas,” TIFF’s programmers have readied a veritable advent calendar of psychological anguish with their latest directorial retrospective. Showing now through December 25, the Grinch-approved slate features six of Roman Polanski’s bleakly brilliant early-career efforts, as well as a Christmas Day screening of 2010’s similarly sombre The Ghost Writer. As tempting as it is to interpret the timing of the series as an insidious bid to deflate Torontonians’ high Holiday spirits, TIFF’s official line is that the retrospective was scheduled in anticipation of the director’s latest release, Carnage, which arrives at the Lightbox on December 30.

Catherine Deneuve slips into philophobic psychosis in Repulsion.

Screening on Wednesday, December 21 is Polanski’s first English language feature, 1965’s Repulsion ()—also the first film in his masterfully unsettling “Apartment Trilogy.” The titular affliction refers to the psychosexual paranoia suffered by Catherine Deneuve’s virginal protagonist, which blossoms into homicidal dementia when her sister departs on holiday, leaving her alone in her London flat. Polanski immerses the audience in his lead’s increasingly fractured psyche, rendering her descent into madness via a series of hauntingly surreal hallucinations that, even 45 years later, can be seen as an evident point of reference for Darren Aronofsky in conceiving 2010’s Black Swan.

Rosemary’s Baby () remains as widely acclaimed today as when it first propelled Polanski to Hollywood stardom in 1968. Quite simply, his adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestseller is one of the best horror films ever made, expertly evoking a sustained, sinister unease, and establishing a marvelously ambiguous scenario wherein it seems equally likely that the bizarre goings-on at a Gothic Manhattan apartment building might be the product of a genuine demonic pact, or of paranoid prenatal delusions. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her actor husband (John Cassavetes) are the building’s newest tenants, and are eager to start a family, particularly once he lands a starring acting role thanks to another’s sudden misfortune. Rosemary’s pregnancy proves to be a literal nightmare, however, and she becomes consumed by concern that she’ll lose the baby. Naturally, we’re not letting on one way or the other, save to assure you that Rosemary’s Baby is a certified classic. The second and most beloved of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy screens Friday, December 23—perfect for those who fancy a bit of Satanist mystery ahead of Santa’s big night.

Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes experience a hellish pregnancy in Rosemary's Baby.

TIFF aren’t entirely without a seasonal sense of generosity, though, hence the retrospective’s two scheduled screenings of Chinatown (). In case you missed yesterday’s screening, which was accompanied by a lecture from Toronto film critic Adam Nayman, the film also screens tomorrow, and even without Nayman’s insights, Chinatown is still a fixture in the pantheon of all-time greats. Polanski’s devastatingly nihilistic neo-noir features a signature turn from Jack Nicholson as ’30s P.I. Jake Gittes, who takes on what he believes to be a routine mission of marital reconnaissance, winding up nose-deep in a murderous scheme to divert the water reserves of an already drought-stricken L.A. Faye Dunaway is nearly as iconic as a tragic femme fatale, while John Huston’s defiantly lascivious antagonist reads as a fascinating stand-in for his controversial director.

Polanski then assigns himself the lead role in 1976’s The Tenant (), which screens on Thursday, December 22. His last film before his flight from justice in 1977, the third, Paris-set instalment of the Apartment Trilogy is an apt exploration of displacement and persecution, and like both Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, demonstrates a thematic concern with claustrophobia and paranoia, trading heavily in the tenuous nature of the boundary between the authentic and the imaginary. Polanski plays Trelkowski, a French citizen of Polish origin, who, like Rosemary, moves into a new building after the apparent suicide of a young female tenant. Also like Rosemary, Trelkowski’s neighbours are an elderly, meddlesome bunch, though The Tenant is more cagey than Rosemary’s Baby in its references to the supernatural. The film ultimately emerges as a fusion of its Apartment predecessors, but inverts the deranged aggression of Repulsion‘s Deneuve into a spookily manic portrait of self-annihilation.

Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes pays the price for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.

The Ghost Writer (), TIFF’s Christmas Day offering, postdates The Tenant by over 30 years, but is no less brooding, and no less personal. It was edited during Polanski’s recent period of house arrest, and features a central character in a similar predicament, in Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang. A former UK Prime Minister, Lang has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court and must remain in the US to avoid extradition. Ewan McGregor plays the man tasked with helping Lang complete his memoirs, and who subsequently stumbles upon a Chinatown-like web of intrigue linked to the disgraced PM. He’s no Jake Gittes, of course, but Polanski supplies his customary guile, as well as plenty of his customary cynicism—a seemingly essential ingredient where political subject matter is concerned, no matter the era.

Images courtesy of TIFF. For tickets and a complete programme schedule, visit Tiff.net