I’m glad you asked.
The tragedy here is that such a gifted filmmaker may never make a film again, and not, as many have argued, that Polanski’s capture means justice has been compromised. After all, the recent fracas in Zurich proves that there is justice (albeit belated); Roman Polanksi, a rapist/fugitive, has been arrested. Now tell me, if that isn’t just, what is?
Well, wait. Hold on a second. If Polanksi is getting what he deserves, why do I feel wronged? Why do I feel as though I am being punished too?
Could it be because I want more Polanksi movies? Why, yes. And why shouldn’t I? Roman Polanski is arguably the world’s greatest living filmmaker. There may be equals but no one has surpassed him. Who else, since Hitchcock, has managed to mine terror from the most seemingly innocuous sources? In Rosemary’s Baby (1968) we get nervous just from watching a shot of an empty hallway. In Tess (1979), a silent, long take, held past its breaking point, becomes a source of almost unbearable tension. In Repulsion (1965), we are so aligned with Catherine Deneuve’s paranoia, nearly everything Polanski shows us, no matter how quotidian, is transformed (often in our own minds) into a picture of pure hell.
Anyone could give an audience the heebie-jeebies with a hard cut to a rotting corpse, or tremble violins for the desired effect, but only Polanski traffics in – if you forgive the cliché – true psychological horror. The phrase has been so abused, it’s hard to know what it means anymore, which is why I’m going to try, once and for all, for a definition that may help to shed some light on Polanski’s unique gift.
One horror is explicit, overt. Think of an eviscerated body, a knife in an eye. These aren’t psychological; they occur literally, on the screen in pictures. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I get a big kick out of blood, just like anyone else. But Polanski, at his best, is after more than just kicks. His preferred métier is imagined horror; he wants us to feel as his characters feel, to fear as they fear, and as such, he doesn’t torture us with props or makeup or convenient, short-hand symbols of terror, but with inference, with pictures of what we cannot see. After all, what does terror actually look like? Often, in the most dire of circumstances, it’s nothing more than empty space. It may not have a face, or even a body. That kind of torture, true torture, is the kind we can never escape, because it’s the kind that lives not in reality, but in our heads. And in Polanski pictures like The Tenant (1976), it’s everywhere.
So what I’m saying is, how can I rejoice at the news of Polanski’s capture? He may be getting what he deserves, but the rest of us are getting screwed. Now tell me, when Nancy Meyers is free to roam the streets, what kind of justice is that?