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In the light of the BFI’s current Roman Polanski season, opening today, Sami El-Hadi takes a look at three quintessential and unforgettable protagonists from Repulsion, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby.

Roman Polanski’s inimitable work depicts the world as a dangerous and mystifying place where good rarely wins out and individuals are isolated and alone, totally at odds with their environment. With no one to be trusted, the lead characters are unable to prevent the slow and inevitable build toward final and absolute catastrophe. In Repulsion, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby the viewer is forced to adopt the perspective of the fascinating flawed protagonists, joining them on a painful roller coaster ride towards seeming oblivion, during which guilt or failure marries with a profound inability to prevent the escalating events. Let’s take a look at these compelling and iconic characters:

#1 Carol Ledoux of REPULSION:
Bashful Belgian beautician losing the plot in 1960’s London played by Catherine Deneuve

Shy and reserved, Carol is uncomfortable with the attention her beauty elicits from men, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that she is a fragile and profoundly damaged individual. When her sister goes away with her boyfriend Carol is left alone in their apartment and her grip on reality steadily begins to slip. Her decline into insanity sees the tone of the film shift drastically into surreal horror.

We know very little about Carol’s identity and past but a series of waking nightmares, in which a shadowy male figure breaks into the apartment and attacks her, hint at the past traumas that have caused her perception of men and her view of the world to become horribly distorted. Ultimately doomed by her inability to distinguish between genuine threat and sincere affection, Polanski finds increasingly terrifying and vivid ways to depict Carol’s psychosis. The apartment becomes a shadowy cave representing her subconscious and the darkest side of her psyche in which she is trapped. While much mystery surrounds Carol, a simple but evocative ending gives us another hint at what’s inspired her breakdown, a small window into her past left entirely for us to interpret…

#2 Jake Gittes of CHINATOWN:
Private eye and ex-cop embroiled in a web of incomprehensible corruption and personal betrayal in downtown L.A. played by Jack Nicolson.

Driven by pride rather than morality, we get the sense that Gittes is aspiring to something that is beyond him. He works a sleazy job, he’s not as classy or sophisticated as he’d liked to be and behind all the bravado and bluster is a deep lying insecurity, underlined by a mysterious past trauma suffered in the eponymous Chinatown. It’s this fragment of backstory, subtly alluded to throughout, that constitutes the heart of the story – the psychological metaphor of Chinatown itself and the trauma that it represents for Gittes. Screenwriter Robert Towne described Chinatown as signifying ‘the futility of good intentions’ - a place where cops were told to ‘do nothing’ for fear that their intervention would make things worse.

This is just what it means to Gittes. A place where he failed someone he cared about, let things get personal and ultimately got burned. The narrative sees history repeat itself as he inadvertently betrays Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn through ignorance of the situation, inability to understand the true monstrosity of the people who run the city and his hubris, which compels him to start pulling on a thread just to see his understanding of the world unravel around him…

#3 Rosemary Woodhouse of ROSEMARY’S BABY:
New York First time Mom-to-be caught in a nightmare-ish pact with the Devil played by Mia Farrow.

Rosemary is dropped into a mysterious and sinister conspiracy, all the more horrifying for it’s deeply intimate nature. The subtle building of paranoid tension gives way to cranked-up hysteria as the film reaches its unforgettably macabre climax. And it is Rosemary’s naivety, her willingness to trust and thus be manipulated that sees her fail to prevent the unspeakable outcome. When she finally takes action she does not fully comprehend the horror of the situation, believing the Satanist coven wish to sacrifice her child when the reality is far worse than she could imagine.

And yet the true horror of the film isn’t the Satanists themselves, portrayed as an eccentric old New York couple who just happen to harbour plans to raise the antichrist, nor is it what they actually do to her, but rather the ultimate conquering power of Rosemary’s maternal instincts...

These three films and the rides you go on with their lead characters leave you short of breath and part of the pleasure in watching them comes from having your expectations built up just to have the rug pulled out from under you. Polanski is revered for his unwillingness to give traditional resolutions as much as for his insistence on punishing his protagonists in a way that will never leave our imaginations.


The BFI’s Polanski season runs from Jan 7 to Feb 8. Tickets are available at www.bfi.org.uk


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