03 October 2009

Two Polanski Films: Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown

Following the storm around Roman Polanski's arrest and pending extradition from Switzerland, Mike and I decided it was time to watch two of his films that were on our fill-in-the-canon list. (Canon may be too strong here but they are oft-referenced films by academics and other reviewers that we hadn't seen.) Both films were available at our local library so I placed holds on both titles and the stars aligned to make them both available last night.

Rosemary's Baby does have some creepy moments but overall it is a ridiculous film. The most unsettling scenes are in the first act where a young couple moves into an odd apartment building and soon meets the Castavets, possibly the world's most invasive elderly couple. From the time that Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband first dine with the Castavets, the film takes a turn from creepy to off-balanced and from there it rockets to just plain silly. The biggest problem comes from the connection that the screenplay (and Levin's book before that) makes between witchcraft and satanism. This not only dates the film (more so than the Vidal Sassoon haircut and 60s wardrobe) but makes it almost unwatchable for anyone who is familiar with wiccans and modern witchcraft. That aside, Polanski does manage to make the film tense right up to the last scene (which let me down), if you believe that the protagonist was unable to put two and two together until someone sent her a book filled with underlined passages. Her fogginess is due in part to being perpetually drugged by the Castavets and her complicit husband. His cooperation was one of many plot points that was poorly supported. It's clear that Rosemary's Baby is a horror film -- most of the truly frightening events are left to the imagination of the viewer -- but it is a weak representation of the genre.

Chinatown, on the other hand, is a much more watchable movie. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, the film centres on Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private eye who deals in relationship issues but .ends up getting drawn into a much bigger case. Chinatown is considered a "neo-noir" -- it bears all the marks of a Film Noir but was made 25 years after the golden age for that genre. Throughout, it reminded me of L.A. Confidential (if you have seen one, you'll likely enjoy the other). Nicholson is at his best here, playing a detective with a conscience -- he just wants to get to the bottom of it all. Faye Dunaway plays the femme fatale and she does it well; it's hard to tell just which side she's on until the end. I was not expecting the political intrigue or the other drama that unfolds; there's a lot to tell in Chinatown and it is all worth watching. The movie has aged well, perhaps due to being set in the past and, despite its age, still manages to be shocking.

** Rosemary's Baby
**** Chinatown