For an admirer of his best work, writing about a new movie by Roman Polanski is like facing a minefield of unsolvable questions: Can this film be judged like the others given the director’s criminal record and tarnished reputation? Is it possible to praise a work of art if certain parts of an artist’s life are reprehensible, or should the two be separated? Should Polanski still be allowed to make movies? Should this movie even be written about?
Those questions would be harder to answer if Polanski, who’s now 90, made something on the level of say, Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby. Or even something like The Tenant or Frantic or Repulsion or his debut feature, Knife in the Water, which came out over 60 years ago and earned him his first Oscar nomination.
The Bottom Line
But the director’s latest, The Palace, leaves little room for ambiguity. It’s the worst thing he’s ever made — or in any case the worst film this critic has ever seen by him. (I’ve only missed a couple of titles in his filmography, which now counts 23 features.)
Set in a Swiss Alps resort on New Year’s Eve, 1999, this total misfire of an ensemble comedy features a troupe of hideous rich people welcoming in the new millennium with champagne, fireworks and a cart filled with all-you-can eat caviar. Polanski then serves them up vomit, piss, dog shit, a male porn star’s busted nose, a dead Texas billionaire with an everlasting erection, and so much plastic surgery that he may have to open his own clinic to treat the cast — including Mickey Rourke, who plays the biggest a-hole of them all.
Perhaps dumping on the 1% is a way for the director to absolve himself in the public eye, focusing on characters who are way worse than many people perceive him to be. It’s probably the only excuse to be made for this grotesque and forgettable film, which premiered in Venice only four years after the director won a big prize here with An Officer and a Spy — a sturdy historical thriller that doubled as a veiled critique of Polanski’s numerous detractors.
There’s no such subtext in The Palace, which as a comedy is never funny, although it tries very hard to be — going so far as to insert a computer-generated penguin for laughs. (Because penguins are funny, right?) The director wrote the script with Ewa Piaskowska and former co-scribe Jerzy Skolimowski (EO), who penned Knife in the Water, but the three of them are totally tone-deaf when it comes to jokes.
Is a scene of French actress Fanny Ardant passing out after her chihuahua drops a load on her bed meant to be hilarious? What about the one where the dog discovers her vibrator in front of the hotel plumber? Or when John Cleese’s character asks his much younger wife (Bronwyn James) for oral sex after giving her a priceless Chopard necklace? Or when the illegitimate Czech son (Danny Exnar) of Rourke’s fraudulent money grubber, Bill Crush, shows up at the hotel with his entire family and is humiliated in the lobby? Or how about the band of Russian oligarch gangsters celebrating Putin’s sudden rise to power (announced by Boris Yeltsin on live television) while their blond girlfriends wrestle in the next room?
There are lots more such comic gems in The Palace — that is if you prefer your jokes served up like poop on a platter (yet another gag involving Ardant’s faithful little companion.) Not that Polanski has been entirely allergic to laughs: Many of his films, including some of his best, have showcased a dark and surreal brand of humor — think, for example, of all the wicked stuff that happens to Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown. But the director has never tried to make a straight comedy except for the seldom seen What? and the cheeky horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers, which, compared to this movie, is like Ernst Lubitsch meets Billy Wilder meets Charlie Chaplin, all of them on their best days.
The Palace is also meant to be an upstairs-downstairs social satire, and it’s true that the hotel staff, lead by the hardworking and thoughtful Hansueli (Oliver Masucci, who looks like Mads Mikkelsen with less of a chin), are all redeemable characters compared to the awful people they serve. But they’re neither funny nor interesting, and they spend the entire movie getting yelled at by their wealthy guests.
Shot by loyal DP Pawel Edelman and playfully scored by Alexandre Desplat, the story takes place in the elite Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, where Polanski has been holed up at various points in his life since fleeing the United States in 1978. He certainly has a low opinion of the people who frequent that place, and it would have made more sense if The Palace closed with them being burned alive in a Y2K-induced fire.
Instead, we get a rather haunting set of images toward the end, when everyone goes up to the roof to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks explode over the Alps, ringing in the new century with a blast. Polanski cuts back and forth between the pyrotechnics and his miserable set of moneybags as they watch the show in awe, their botoxed faces illuminated by lots of red and blue flashes.
It’s like watching a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, and it’s a despairing vision to leave us with. (Though — SPOILER ALERT — the film’s final shot is of the chihuahua having rear intercourse with the penguin. No joke.) If this winds up being Polanski’s last effort, then it’s too bad to end a career that includes a few of modern cinema’s greatest works with something so outright dismal. The director has never had an uplifting vision of life, but The Palace not only shows a rich man’s world turned to crap — it’s basically a crap movie.