How do I start this article?
I know of some Polanski, but I don’t include any of his films in my top 10. I found Chinatown boring, and Tess too. Even every cinematographer’s wet dream, Death and the Maiden, couldn’t engage me. I’ve never seen Rosemary’s Baby and never plan to (what would be the point?), and I watched Knife In The Water once because Orson Welles mentioned good things about it, but it wasn’t a memorable experience. Bottom line, I don’t know much about his work but I know enough to situate myself when his name comes up in conversation.
I did enjoy The Tenant. the pace of it. I enjoyed the fact that Polanski plays the leading role, and I enjoyed the story too (although I didn’t think it was scary, just weird). A man moves into the apartment of a woman who recently killed herself, and her spirit still haunts the place. He becomes possessed and starts changing his habits to match hers. What’s not to like there? Sounds like a romp. Polanski in drag, what a riot! I’m convinced John Waters ghostwrote that one.
But I have to say, this film right here, The Ghostwriter (2010), is hands down, one of my favorite films, ever, of all time. I have the habit of putting it on, like one puts on a CD of music, or a vinyl record. To enjoy it and be immersed in it. For that reason, it is useless for me to talk about it in the regular way I usually talk about other films, where I explain the story briefly, and then wax cryptically about the “narrative mechanics”. The only thing I can do instead is to go over what I find makes it such an appealing viewing experience, for me.
Let’s begin. Two words. Ewan McGregor. I don’t know what you think, but if you don’t find Ewan McGregor’s snarky, annoyed, pretty boy act, completely charming, and appealing (so full of sexual restraint), then we respond differently to the natural magnetism in people (as much as can be ‘felt’ through a screen). The overlong bedroom haircut, that furrowed brow, and the laugh out loud snarky comments make him a leading man of the rebellious kind (think James Dean). I leave the sexual fantasies to those more inclined, but suffice to say his topsy turvy involvement/detachment is a fine balancing act that mirrors exactly the kind of engagement this film warrants: a comic political satire, a modern riff on film noir, and the kind of graceful filmmaking that is a hallmark of artistic subjectivity.
I don’t want to go into detail about the appeal of every single character so let me attempt to get at the center of what makes the movie overall so appealing:
1) Good writing, harking back to the film noir scripts of Hollywood B-movies of the 40’s and 50’s. All principal characters have “a voice”: what they say, and how they say it, and the words themselves have dual meanings. Triple, even. There is always a subtext.
2) The political satire: this is such an obvious joke, politicians as failed theater actors, but also so close to what we know (the little we know) or the impressions we have about politics. That there is a “conspiracy” about it just pushes the joke down one level deeper. We grin.
3) The score.
4) Olivia Williams as a brainy, calculating, secret CIA handler, whose dirty little secret is sleeping with her husband’s ghostwriters.
As with everything that is deeply engaging, beneath all the magic, all the jokes, and all the artistry, there is an element of disquieting truth and possible mystery. More than just a plot gimmick, our main character discovers a “secret code” by looking at “beginnings”. He takes the first word of every chapter of the book he is editing, and constructs a sentence. This technique, in the “real” world, is also known as English Gematria, which is the study of letters and numbers and the different patterns that emerge out of their combination. Godard, Cronenberg, and now Polanski. And you don’t believe cinema is a crucial art? Think again.
File under: Matrix-Scripts, Corporate Advertising, Semiotics