The word “trapped” can be often heard in the analyses of the film; but trapped doesn’t begin to describe it. A trap is something finite, temporary: liberation is at least theoretically possible, and if the worst comes to the worst, death liberates one from any trap.
You can see the world outside when you are trapped. Or at least you know there is a world outside. Not so much so if you are walled in. Buried alive. Entombed. There sure is no escape, not even through death, and it feels like there is nothing but further walls and layers of soil in the world outside – which may very well be the case.
It is definitely the case with the bleak universe of The Ghost Writer. Everything is gray, brown, black with occasional alarming red. Whether it is the interior or the exterior, there is no elbow room: the two elements that normally symbolize all there is free and open – the sea and the sky – do everything to bury us deeper. The sky is never blue, always low, like a coffin lid.
The foghorns remind us that it is all too easy to lose one’s way in this murk. Desplat’s music doesn’t bring to mind any sunny side, either.
There is no difference between the walls made of bricks and the one made of glass: the latter shows nothing but yet another wall, that of fog, rain, and bleak landscape. When the alarm goes off and the shutter falls down, nothing really changes: it only gets a little darker. It’s not that we’re cut off from the rest of the world – the presence of the rest is questionable. There is a glass wall behind the shutter, and the wall of fog behind the glass wall, and nobody ever sees sunlight. Ours is a confined, walled-in, entombed universe.
The confines are everywhere, physical or social, those imposed by status or fate, the rules and regulations. The first word the ghost hears abroad is “Passport!” A bodyguard follows Adams on his morning jog. When the ghost walks the shore with Ruth, the security man is seen on the background between them, like the axis. These human confines are omnipresent. “Don’t wander around on your own, the security boys don’t like it.”
The ghost blends in perfectly; as James, a friend of mine and a very astute film critic pointed out, he looks like little more than a shadow.
Lang is the first person who looks incongruous: unlike the ghost, he wasn’t made for such environment. It’s him who is trapped: the idea of a trap involves a hope, to escape - to a brighter world.
There is a hint that a brighter world actually exists. The house where Emmett lives has some colors (green and cream, and precious mahogany); even the trees seem greener when seen out of his window. Those who run the show are apparently exempt from the universal prison-like drabness; or rather, there is a more spacious, better lit tomb right outside the one where we’re buried together with the ghost. It’s where Lang wants to come back to – but he is already marked for the kill, there is no escape, not even to a larger prison cell.
There is something resembling sunshine when Rick comes and draws the curtains, but it is five minutes before the end, and the end is - well, you know. And Rick is, of course, one of the privileged inmates, even if we assume he is alive at all – of all the characters he is the one who most reminds of Polanski’s soulless creatures, agents of the universal order of things.
“Single or return?” – “Return. I hope.” The hope is misplaced: the return is predetermined, and only delays the inevitable. Clues, cues, words, GPS – everything will direct you into the trap. “All right, you win”.
2. Of Cyclops and Men
It’s the first Polanski film where the main division line doesn’t run between human beings (victims, sufferers) and soulless monsters (torturers; invincible, invulnerable): both sides seem to have souls, and Ruth is as prone to suffering as the ghost himself. Both sides seem to be human beings (with a few notable exceptions), and yet there is great difference between them. At first sight it is the difference between the foolers and the fooled, the players and the pawns, but that which makes a person end up with these or those must be an inborn quality.
The key to understanding this difference is the ghost’s apparent idiocy. He does all the wrong things. He says all the wrong words to all the wrong people. He investigates where he should stop, confronts those he should avoid at all costs, gives away everything and can’t keep his mouth shut under any circumstances, As if he doesn’t know he is the main character of a political thriller.
But no, he doesn’t know this, that’s the point! He behaves exactly as any sane person would: he assumes they are all human beings around him. Exactly like I know I would if I were him. There is nothing that can’t be talked over, among people. The fact that we are all alive, endowed with speech and reason, is what matters and is actually present; the remote considerations of power, big money, and political careers are something out of books, they do not apply to the world we are living in; we might know that people kill for them, but do we really feel it?
He doesn’t know how high the stakes are, because there have never been any stakes, high or low, in his own experience. He knows, intellectually, that his predecessor was killed, but he has nothing in his experience that could make him really fathom this. Like all of us, he believes he is immortal; in his experience or personality there is nothing that would warrant such a majestic thing as becoming a victim of a political murder.
His experience is exactly like ours. He is just like us, who would blurt out anything to a human being that happened to be nearby. If we knew we lived in a political thriller with no happy ending, the kind where the protagonist dies, we might all behave differently; but we, none of us, know what is the genre of our flick.
But they – “they”, there is always a “they” – live in a world that is ruled by exactly the categories inapplicable to ours. They betray and spy, sacrifice for “higher aims”, double-cross and get rid of each other, set up and murder. Apparently, they still remain human beings – but here’s where I begin to wonder if there is only one species inside mankind. Or that there are humans per se, and some, say, “advanced” humans; some variations of the basic model that make any understanding between the species impossible.
Emmett’s residence is guarded by Cyclops Security. Cyclops isn’t a bad word for that which I have in mind. They are just humanoid enough. One may argue that Cyclops have but one eye, so may be escaped; but this is where another important characteristic comes forward.
You could escape a Cyclops if he was alone; not when they are an organized group. One eye or no one eye, together they see everything - when they are a collective entity. A “They”.
“You’re working for the good guys,” Rycart says. But there are no good guys. Whenever there are “guys”, it is always bad. The people from this side of the dividing line never form the “guys” entity; Cyclops always do (they have but one eye each, remember?)
“You are practically one of us now”. A joke, of course: never ever will he be one of any group. He will always hold on to his poor basic humanity, behaving exactly like one of those they’d never acknowledge as theirs: see what he does to their precious manuscript, for example, how he shields his head against the rain with it, how he throws it over the fence right into the puddle. Listen to the clumsy jokes he makes. See him yawn.
He’s funny, but it’s always in an awkward way. Even worse is that he’s a Brit on an American island, adding more to the general feeling of being an outsider. A huge contradiction right there: he’s invisible and yet he’s singled out. Whatever he is and wherever he is, he’s certainly not part of the group. He’s effectively on his own. (James)
3. The Ghost, the Tenant and Backstage Death
Nor is he Simone Choule.
“Mister McAra loved this car very, very much.”… “Very good. You could be the new Mike McAra.”… “So, this is where you put the granny?” – “No, this is where we put Mike McAra.”
But he won’t stand by the wardrobe, fascinated. He throws the slippers into the waste basket, and dumps everything else into a big suitcase. Not that it changes anything: doomed is doomed, and the phone number discovered during the dumping is a big step forward, into the abyss.
Yesterday, on my 1000th re-watch of The Tenant, I noticed that quite a few times during the film he is shown waking up– and every time he wakes up to find a world slightly different, further gone. Sleep is the doorway to nightmares. Dr.Walker (Frantic) woke to a nightmare, too, and, like the ghost’s, Walker’s heavy unrefreshing sleep was due to jet lag. The ghost sleeps a lot in the beginning of the film – on the plane, on the ferry, in the taxi; reading the manuscript. He awakes to the world he has no business being in.
The film begins and ends with a death; we do not actually see anyone die either time. Both times it’s ghost writers. In the first case, we see at least the body – but that ghost writer had a name, too. The first death spells the other as sure as the broken glass roof spelled Trelkovsky’s suicide; in both films we know the end from the beginning. The most conspicuous thing the ghost sees on the ferry are big red letters on the police poster: FATAL INCIDENT.
“He can’t drown two ghost writers, for god’s sake! You are not kittens.” This echoes The Tenant: “A tenant jumped out of the window.” – “Again? You must be getting them wholesale.”
The ghost refuses to assume MacAra’s identity; not that it changes anything. He has to put on the janitor’s cap and gloves instead, as if a sacrifice has to be dressed up, at some moment, for the ritual (besides The Tenant, the same trick is present in Frantic, Dance of the Vampires, Rosemary’s Baby, and Tess; on the contrary, the female protagonist in Che?, who succeeds in escaping, does so totally naked).
Trelkovsky is denied a first name; the ghost – any, like the Young Man in Knife in the Water. But the tenant’s last name was only used to brand him deeper: a Polack (desperately: “I am a French citizen!”). Carole (Repulsion) is a French woman in England, Oscar (Bitter Moon) an American in Paris, ditto Walker (Frantic); Nancy (Che?) an American in Italy, Szpilman (The Pianist) a Jew in the occupied Poland, Dean Corso (The Ninth Gate) an American in Europe, Prof.Abronsius and Alfred (Dance of the Vampires) strangers in a strange land…
The ghost is both nameless and a stranger: a perfect ghost indeed. Who is he anyway to be allowed to die before our eyes? Lang is a good candidate for a death in the limelight; the ghost can only die backstage. The possibility of inconspicuous death has already been hinted on: “If you turn left, the road will take you deeper into the woods, and you may never be seen again.” In bed with Ruth, he hugs her and momentarily throws one arm up: a white arm clearly seen in the dark room, like that of a drowning man.
Also interesting to note that even the dead ghostwriter, Mike McAra, is not only given a name, but has far more respect in death to many of the other characters in the film than the current ghostwriter has in life...(...)
he is, from the start, an awkward outsider at best, and a victim at worst… (James)
“It’s quite symbolic and gives an end to the object he carries through the entire movie. It was important to have the manuscript almost as a character throughout the film, and therefore it was good to have it in the end floating, and giving it some kind of conclusion” (Polanski in an interview). Quite. The manuscript is there, the writer is not.
4. What’s so Funny?
The film being almost preternaturally elegant and intelligent, the comic side either works for the watcher fully, or escapes him altogether.
There’s something else that needs to be mentioned: the humour. I don’t know about anyone else, but there were plenty of times where I found this film to be absolutely fucking hysterical, something that’s rare to find in a really good thriller. Sometimes it’s from the awkwardness of the ghost writer, whether he’s intentionally trying to be funny or not; other times, it comes from moments where there’s not a word spoken. One of my favourite moments in particular comes from a look passed between Adam and his media-handler Amelia that’s both subtle and so fucking obvious at the same time it had me burst out laughing. Another classic moment is of course: “Some peace protestors are trying to kill me!” Absolutely love that line! (James)
The scenes in the hotel are all hysterical, impending doom notwithstanding – or rather, thanks to impending doom. “This place really comes alive at night” – and the face of the driver, sniffling at the precisely right moment. The sign of Fisherman’s Cove Inn, reminding of old black-and-white horrors, and the receptionist in a costume. “You are the only guest in the hotel, sir.” All in all, The Ghost Writer is a comedy – just like The Tenant or, say, The Ninth Gate.
And, like The Ninth Gate, it is too subtle for its own good. Everyone loves humor, very few love irony. “It takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself,” to quote Jessamyn West, and all the jokes in The Ghost Writer are, in the end, on ourselves.
What’s so funny, indeed? Oh, everything is. Any information can be googled, but woe is him who does - one can “ruin a good story with too much research”: the punchline is the death of the researcher(s). One doesn’t become a politician “out of love”, and “heart” is a word that can only be ridiculed. We hold on to life even though there doesn’t seem to be anything especially cozy or gratifying about it. We hold on to our dear humanity, too, although the only way to win is to shed it off and join the “guys”. The ultimate irony is that this way out is not accessible: we are different biological species. Hail, loser! R.I.P.