Com­posed com­po­sure. (Click to enlarge.)

My father says “Mar­ry some­one you can live with, not one you can’t live with­out.” The quar­tet of char­ac­ters in Roman Polan­ski’s new film could cer­tain­ly have ben­e­fit­ed from that advice. Over a sin­gle after­noon, the pleas­antries between them rapid­ly erode until each pair of spous­es turn on each oth­er. In the mean­time, their respec­tive sons, about whose alter­ca­tion the meet­ing osten­si­bly was in the first place, seem to oper­ate accord­ing to a sep­a­rate social dynam­ic as they word­less­ly fight then make up in two sim­ple long shots that book­end the film in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of Michael Haneke’s more opaque, yet equal­ly vicious, Caché (2005).

Polan­ski’s pre­vi­ous film blew me away (if you recall that film’s final shot, I apol­o­gize for the pun), and this one is just as impres­sive, though for com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent rea­sons. The film is a vir­tu­oso exer­cise in chore­og­ra­phy and cin­e­mat­ic block­ing, and Polan­s­ki makes metic­u­lous use of his frame (both cin­e­mat­ic and archi­tec­tur­al) and props (a bowl of tulips, cof­fee table books, a cell­phone, a cake — or is it a pie? — and the buck­et of vom­it it ends up as) as they morph from fetish­es to weapons.

Along with his pro­duc­tion design­er Dean Tavoularis (of The God­fa­ther) and cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Paweł Edel­man, he casts his char­ac­ters in a game of check­ers, as they quite lit­er­al­ly revise their posi­tions on them­selves and each oth­er, mount­ing tac­tics of defense and strate­gies of attack. As mid­day takes a near-real­time jour­ney into evening, we wit­ness the cou­ples’ devo­lu­tion from prim New York­ers into Dar­win­ian pri­mates, as each char­ac­ter brings out the worst in (but also per­haps the true nature of) the others.

Polan­s­ki mas­sages high­ly man­nered per­for­mances from his cast (who play char­ac­ters des­per­ate­ly per­form­ing ide­al­ized ver­sions of them­selves) as their masks fall to reveal the disin­gen­u­ous­ness that lies under­neath. Ulti­mate­ly, the most dis­hon­est of the lot seems to be the most gen­uine and hence the least changed in the end. In the process, the room increas­ing­ly con­stricts around the ensem­ble as reflec­tions abound and soft day­light qui­et­ly los­es out to harsh tung­sten, cut­ting sharp edges across their faces.

Polan­s­ki wise­ly makes no attempt to expand his source mate­r­i­al beyond the con­fines of a res­i­dence and its hall­way, and with the excep­tion of the afore­men­tioned book­ends, we remain as con­fined to the apart­ment as our char­ac­ters. His Buñuelian con­ceit is that none of the char­ac­ters can bring them­selves to leave with­out first achiev­ing clo­sure. Need­less to say, the result is that, as in Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf? (Nichols, 1966), they sado­masochis­ti­cal­ly rel­ish in the fact that any true con­sen­sus on what con­sti­tutes clo­sure remains tan­ta­liz­ing­ly out of their reach.

How­ev­er, unlike Mike Nichols’ land­mark cham­ber piece, this film offers no chance at affin­i­ty. Polan­s­ki uses his char­ac­ter­is­tic dis­tanc­ing devices to ensure that we feel noth­ing for these char­ac­ters but con­tempt. His cam­er­a­work arcs from sta­t­ic and com­posed through steadicam to hand­held, all too faith­ful to his char­ac­ters’ mount­ing des­per­a­tion and fail­ing sobri­ety, and at key moments is punc­tu­at­ed by choice use of dis­tort­ing wide angle to under­score sud­den bursts of slap­stick. As in his much ear­li­er (yet I would argue very sim­i­lar) mas­ter­piece Repul­sion (1965), Polan­s­ki bor­rows heav­i­ly from absurd the­ater, skirt­ing the edges of sym­pa­thy or even empa­thy, and allow­ing us instead to main­tain our crit­i­cal dis­tance secure in the assump­tion that we’re bet­ter than the hay­wire spec­i­mens on dis­play. His mas­ter­stroke is that even­tu­al­ly we real­ize, of course, that those were the exact holi­er-than-thou delu­sions which brought the char­ac­ters into that room in the first place.

And in the end, we are left with a sticky tan­gle of rela­tion­ships and a lin­ger­ing ques­tion: OK, so now what?

Rat­ing 9/10

Direct­ed by Roman Polan­s­kiStar­ring Jodie Fos­ter, John C. Reil­ly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz

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