Before Roman Polanski won the Best Director Academy Award earlier this year, his 2002 film The Pianist was widely regarded as a solid, unexceptional Holocaust drama. After the Oscar, some took a closer look at the film's cunning use of point of view and its unsparing depiction of a person alone and unsure whom to trust, and they realized what should have been clear all along: The Pianist is more about Polanski than about history. With the recent release of three little-seen Polanski films on DVD–the trippy 1976 thriller The Tenant, the sick 1992 sex comedy Bitter Moon, and the terse 1994 adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's theatrical psychodrama Death And The Maiden–perhaps the director's reputation will be further restored. The three are at times horrifically flawed, but even the missteps have meaning. The Tenant, perhaps Polanski's most personal work, is a darkly witty nightmare starring the director himself as a Parisian office worker who moves into an apartment recently vacated by a suicide victim. As he idly asks around about what happened, Polanski inadvertently irritates his friends and neighbors, who complain that the timid little man is too brash. Released on the heels of Chinatown, The Tenant was Polanski's attempt to return to the pointed surrealism of his early shorts and thereby reclaim his European New Wave credibility. Though the result is too slow and curious, with a weak lead performance by the writer-director, The Tenant's tone of abstracted anxiety is distinctive, and its central message, that the obnoxious define the world for everyone else, provides another tile in Polanski's career mosaic of paranoia and power brokerage. He may have felt The Tenant's material so profoundly that he couldn't translate his emotions clearly, but the opposite is true of Death And The Maiden, which explains itself into nothingness while remaining strangely impersonal. Sigourney Weaver plays a former political prisoner whose husband (Stuart Wilson) brings home a guest (Ben Kingsley) she thinks was her torturer. Kingsley proclaims his innocence, but as Weaver brandishes a wild look and a handgun, he decides to tell her what she wants to hear, regardless of the truth. Dorfman's play seems like an ideal launching pad for one of Polanski's spine-tingling examinations of how passion curdles into zealotry (with his common subtext about how men neglect their women), but Weaver's overacting and Dorfman's bold-faced dialogue oversell the scenario. Only Kingsley's sly turn gives Death And The Maiden any real feeling of disquiet. The movie is especially disappointing given that it came two years after Polanski's vibrantly nasty Bitter Moon. Co-written by Polanski with frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, Bitter Moon puts stale married couple Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas on a cruise ship, where Grant has his head turned by fragile beauty Emmanuelle Seigner. Seigner's paraplegic husband Peter Coyote offers her to Grant, if he'll sit through Coyote's story of how they met and fell in love. The tale starts out as a delirious romance, but develops into purple descriptions of pig masks and piss-drinking, and each time Grant leaves Coyote's cabin, he sees Seigner in a different light, while wondering when he's going to get to the part of the story where his host loses the use of his legs. Widely reviled a decade ago, Bitter Moon now plays as a visionary bridging of Brian De Palma's cinematic perversity and Takashi Miike's literal perversity, in addition to being another uncompromising Polanski study of the ways people torture each other. The film seems to go on too long, but that's only because it goes too far, pulling the audience through all sorts of degradation the way the director always does: one frame at a time.
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