The films of Roman Polanski make a provocative and challenging body of work, but one which is also difficult to separate from the almost melodramatic details of Polanski’s own life. It is also difficult to align the cold horror of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) with the gritty re-envisioning of Macbeth (1971) with the gleaming neo-noir perfection of Chinatown (1974), and the Hitchcock-ian flourishes of Frantic (1988) with the playful horror of Dance of The Vampires (1967), the psychological disintegration of Repulsion (1965) and the holocaust memoir of The Pianist (2002) to name just a few. But a close examination of Polanski’s cinema reveals a body of work that is linked by its close attention to detail, visual stylistics and at times claustrophobic explorations of the subjective states their characters.
Caputo’s book is intriguing, its title seems to suggest a revelation through perception and the more one thinks about it, the more important perception seems in Polanski’s cinema. However, those hoping for an easy in, or a coffee-table type examination of the director’s work will be disappointed. Polanski and Perception is a difficult read, but it does offer slowly unfolding and at times frustrating rewards. It also has the distinction of forcing the reader to think, not just about the book, but also about Polanski’s films.
The work of Professor Richard L. Gregory and his influence on Polanski (who apparently carried a copy of Gregory’s Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing (1966) around with him while filming, and the two collaborated on 3D experiments in the 1970s) provides the basis for Caputo’s examination of Polanski’s cinema. Gregory built on the theories of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) who claimed that perception is an active process, exploring the impact ‘that mental states have on perception’ (p. 34) which runs counter to the model of direct visual perception championed by J.J. Gibson where perception is seen as an unmediated process free from sensation and emotion.
Using the theory that perception is an active process affected by emotional and psychological factors, Caputo creates two loose trilogies, what he calls the ‘Apartment Trilogy’ (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant (1976)) and the ‘Investigation Trilogy’ (Chinatown, Frantic and The Ninth Gate (1999)) and analyses them in close detail.
The ‘Apartment Trilogy’ is marked by mental illness and an extremely close identification with the breakdown of the perceptual abilities of the protagonists, but also the emphasis is strongly feminine with the one male protagonist (Trelkovsky in The Tenant) seemingly transforming into a woman through the course of the narrative.
The ‘Investigation Trilogy’ is marked by a distance which contrasts with immediacy of the earlier films including those in the ‘Apartment Trilogy’. Caputo notes this division as two separate bodies of works, ‘… the group of films in which the camera is able to penetrate the psychological sphere of the characters to which it is connected, and those in which it maintains a more observational stance, ‘outside’ the subjective perceptual experiences of these characters’ (p. 66). The ‘Investigation Trilogy’ features male protagonists, who are not suffering from mental breakdowns (their female counterparts in the ‘Apartment Trilogy’ as Carole in Repulsion, Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby and Trelkovsky in The Tenant may or may not be experiencing), although these men still are afflicted by perceptual inhibitions – an inability to understand what they are dealing with (Gittes in Chinatown), difficulty with language and cultural differences (Walker in Frantic) as well as literal barriers to clear perception, for example the glasses worn by Corso in The Ninth Gate.
The Ghost (2010) is positioned as bridge between the two bodies, in that it contains elements of both perceptual stances, but Caputo stresses that it does not neatly tie-up Polanski’s cinema because there is no neat ending available. However it does serve to conclude Caputo’s argument that active perception and perceptual psychology provide a model for how ‘individual cognitive agency in the creation of perception through hypothesisation … ultimately reveals our isolation from the world’ (p. 259).
Genre plays an important role in Polanski’s cinema, but not as a fixed entity, rather something fluid and permeable, a set of rules to be broken, and the recurrence of horror is something that could be explored further. Caputo notes that endings in Polanski’s films tend to be disappointing – (Noah Cross gets away with his crimes in Chinatown, Rosemary doesn’t make an escape in Rosemary’s Baby, Corso seemingly reaches enlightenment through a deal with the devil in The Ninth Gate) – there are no easy or neat solutions to a Polanski film and Caputo embraces this ambiguity, his conclusion:
We are not left solutions or truth, but with clashing hypotheses. Robust realities are not re-stitched, but unravelled; and thus satisfaction is consistently denied. But it is through this dissatisfaction that Polanski’s films transcend their role of delivering visceral pleasure; these are the struggles, I argue, through which an even higher order of pleasure is accessed (p. 267).
In the end, the book is not satisfying in the way Polanski’s endings are not satisfying. This is a heavy read, at times difficult to immerse oneself in, filled, though with big ideas, and scholarly attention to detail. What Polanski and Perception reveals is layers of possibilities and intense scrutiny of possible ways of seeing. Perception becomes a way of unfolding Polanski’s cinema, a way into the closed and often claustrophobic worlds it presents and also a way of hopefully separating Polanski’s films from the sensationalistic details of the director’s own life.
There is no neat conclusion, no definitive truth here, but the thing about Caputo’s exploration of the role of perception in Polanski’s cinema is that it raises some decidedly provocative questions that do force the reader to re-evaluate their perceptions, before defiantly concluding that there are no answers. It suggests that this very absence of answers is in itself an empowering and potentially exciting state to be in and I find that I cannot help but agree.
Davide Caputo, Polanski and Perception: The Psychology of Seeing and the Cinema of Roman Polanski, Intellect: Bristol, 2012.