Friday, 26 August 2011

The Ghost Story

Though it is the final shot with its wonderfully surreal depiction of scattered pages being blown though a dusky London street that has become the standard 'iconic' signature moment from Roman Polanski's eighteenth feature-length film The Ghost Writer (2010), there is a quieter, much less provocative image earlier in the film that for me is far more suggestive. The shot depicts an abandoned car on a ferry as it arrives at the port of some fictional New England peninsula. The car's apparent vulnerability as a lone object, exposed within the otherwise vacant, cavernous interior of the ship, already insinuates the sadness and the loneliness of the dead body that will soon be discovered.

This image - which, unlike the closing shot, doesn't manipulate or mislead the viewer - suggests an immediate air of uncertainty. Already we suspect, simply through a static single-shot observation of the scene, that there is something more to this discarded vehicle. We begin to sense the influence of something sinister at work beneath the surface of the thing. A feeling of dread that recalls the familiar psychological terrain of Polanski's most famous films; where an unseen system of forces (usually supernatural, though not so here) is later found to be manipulating events from the outset.

The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski, 2010:

Our fears are eventually confirmed in what I feel are two of the most extraordinary images in Polanski's oeuvre. In the first, the car - still abandoned, still vulnerable - is inspected by a security team suspicious of a potential terrorist threat. We can see the ship departing in the background of the shot, as the muted sirens and the flashlights of the security team illuminate the centre of the frame. These actions - the drifting of the ship, the abandonment of the car and the general inspection of the vehicle - already suggests the impending fate of our lead protagonist; a character soon to introduced and immediately cut-off; hopeless in his situation, with no real chance of escape; effectively hung out to dry.

Polanski then cuts abruptly to the second image, as the body is discovered; washed-up as a sad and lonely relic on some anonymous grey shore.

The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski, 2010:

If this opening sequence, with its presentation of ordinary if not mundane proceedings leading us towards a shocking discovery, finds the director playing to the influence of Hitchcock (as he does several times throughout the film), it is the prophetic aspects of these images that really defines this sequence as something astonishing and something unique to Polanski's work. The shot of the lone car - like the two images that immediately follow - creates a disturbing premonition of things to come. These images, which seem to present the story of what happened to the first 'ghost' - the writer we never meet, but who nonetheless haunts the very fabric of the film, leading his eventual replacement on the same journey, to the same end - also suggest the possibility of what might happen, thereabouts, or in some plausible variation of events.

These images are brought to mind later in the film when the unnamed writer (played by Ewan McGregor) - having taken over the job of amending the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister - believes he may have stumbled across the conspiracy that led, directly or indirectly, to his predecessor's death. Making his way back from the mainland following an excursion to track down a potential lead, the writer spots an ominous black car trailing in his rear-view mirror. He abandons his own vehicle on the ferry and makes a run for it, jumping from the vessel and managing to elude his pursuers, once again leaving the car (the same car) deserted on the ship.

The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski, 2010:

All of a sudden we think back to that opening sequence; the car abandoned on the ferry, the body being washed up on the shore. For a split second we create a link between the two scenes and assume, for only a moment (before the film continues with its relatively disappointing final act), that we may be seeing the events leading up to that initial discovery. A brief belief that the entire film has been an intricate series of flashbacks; that the beginning is really the end (or is it... the beginning of the end?) and that all the potential avenues of interpretation can only lead us back to that cold and dismal beach.

It's a remarkable moment that illustrates Polanski's real talent for engaging his audience, not through clever tricks or ironic twists of fate, but through the subtle and extraordinary power of his images to imply or insinuate a story in retrospect. In the psychological juxtaposition that occurs between these sequences we're effectively seeing two different stories folded into one; the story of the 'writer', the main thread of the film, and the story of the 'ghost', the spectre that hangs above the narrative from the very first scene, holding the thing together. The title of the film refers to both.