Over the decades, Roman Polanski has developed an on-screen persona as recognizable as those of fellow auteurs Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard. Before their cameras, Allen comes on as a comically agitated Sartre while Godard keeps his distance as a pensive, cigar-chewing Prospero; no less impishly, Polanski regularly presents himself as an insinuating figure, radiating slyness and helplessness in equal measures. It’s a persona inescapably informed by the great Polish filmmaker’s notorious private travails. Think of the perpetually persecuted characters he played in The Fearless Vampire Hunters and The Tenant, and the horrors witnessed by Polanski in Nazi-occupied Europe or Charles Manson-terrorized Los Angeles come to the fore. Think of his malevolent cameos in What? and Chinatown, and shadows from his personal scandals can be felt. (On the other hand, try not to think of the cavity search-happy commissioner he played in Rush Hour 3.) Reflecting the director’s sardonic, demon-filled worldview, Polanski’s performances can be unsettlingly funny— as small and quick as a fox, he moves like Puck one moment, Iago the next.
Indeed, Polanski originally entered cinema as a young actor in films by members of Poland’s burgeoning postwar film industry, notably those of his mentor Andrzej Wajda. (He can be seen, still in short pants, hopping around in Wajda’s 1955 debut A Generation, and wrestling backstage with a cello roughly twice his height in 1960’s Innocent Sorcerers.) Polanski was nearly 70 when he acted again for Wajda in 2002’s Zemsta, yet one feels in his performance the same brand of stylized wiliness. As the timorous braggart Papkin, he first materializes in the snow with three-cornered hat and lute, the shrimpy, exhausted figure already comically unsuited for his supposed position as a would-be adventurer and conflict-solver. The setting is a vast, crumbling 17th-century castle occupied by two feuding clans. Czesnik (Janusz Gajos) and Milczek (Andrzej Seweryn) are the patriarchs blustering and scheming on opposite sides of the palace, while Czesnik’s niece Klara (Agata Buzek) and Milczek’s son Waclaw (Rafal Krolikowski) breathlessly engage in clandestine romance. Ping-ponging between them is Papkin, the tale’s jester-weasel, dispensing a steady barrage of flattery and boasting that fools nobody.
Adapted from Aleksander Fredro’s classic stage hit, Zemsta is structured as a farcical roundelay in the Shakespeare-Mozart-Feydeau mode. It’s certainly unusual terrain for Wajda, whose specialty has long been academically composed, heavy-spirited chronicles of Polish history. However, while still showcasing the director’s dutiful interest in symbols of national discord (most notably in the half-finished brick wall erected in the middle of the castle’s courtyard), the film also serves as a high-spirited intermezzo between Wajda’s more dramatic accounts of historical trauma. If the filmmaker’s customary use of cavernous chambers often seems at odds with the comedy taking place in them, the performers keep things rollicking all the way to the final curtain bow. The cast also includes Katarzyna Figura as Widow Podstolina and a virtually unrecognizable Daniel Olbrychski, another Wajda veteran who, with hair sprouting wildly atop his lanky, cloaked frame, resembles an ambulatory, clerical carrot. Still, in the end it’s Polanski’s Papkin who leaves the most joyous impression. A mini-concerto of choked asides, shrugs, and fluttery finger movements, Polanski here revels in the kind of mordant elegance and furtive longing that have informed his own art from Knife in the Water to The Ghost Writer.