Two Men and a Wardrobe

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 9, 2015

What a leap forward! This celebrated film school project is textbook example of Absurdism. It might easily have been a strained and derivative attempt at a fashionable strategy or world view, attempted and failed at by a young aspirant. (No great dishonour in that, by the way!) It turns out to be nothing of the kind. Either Polanski was a remarkably sharp-eared mimic, or this darkly comical vision of futile cruelty/cruel futility came to him and out of him like a native language.

Two Men and a Wardrobe is very confident, very accomplished.  The Wardrobe in question is an objective correlative, an implausible, ridiculous thing (or plot: Ionesco’s Bald Soprano, or The Lesson) that stands—defiantly—as both symbol and self. And in addition to the Absurd, that is a very pretty young girl. As in textbook Expressionism (think of similar female characters in any one of a number of expressionist milestones), she seems to represent some kind of a promise, or a way out, some kind of transcendence, even just sweetness.

Expressionism’s female visions are often idealized. These women don’t belong in this world, or at least the fallen and technological part of it inhabited by the protagonist. Or, also, they tend to outpace and then disappear before the protagonists. Alternatively they may turn out to be unworthy of the pedestal upon which they’ve been placed. That demotion can also signal the end of hope, or the possibility of any way out.

Polanski explores another variation of this motif. This particular shining female—oh the real life, Polanski-an parallels!—is in real jeopardy. She isn’t the maiden of Romance, or the damsel of melodrama, only nominally menaced on her way to an inevitable and status-quo affirming restoration. We shall see.

The space in front of that hotel is very impressively organized. Note the especially clever visual pun of the double mirror. This guy really knows where to put the camera! As in the situationally similar but philosophically worlds-apart Paul Tomkowicz… (q.v.), that dandy doesn’t even notice the labouring classes that make his every comfort possible.

Hoteliers and restaurateurs don’t want anything to do with these guys, which makes for some familiar, traditional comic-frustration. The hooligans that now enter the scene are another thing altogether. Their sequence is almost on-par with, even surpasses the one in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when the bullies in the letter jackets are interrupted and then eclipsed by the sudden and appalling arrival of Dennis Hopper’s Frank.

These characters get quite a lingering, maybe even loving introduction. (Always the foreground/background compositions.  Very nice!) The beating they now give to these silent comedy-echoing characters with the wardrobe is comic, and effectively. But the subsequent stoning of that little kitten, and the continued and now deepening danger that threatens that glancing young woman, are not funny at all. Actor Polanski’s emergence out of the gang, his threatening approach, prefigure that notorious episode from his 1974 masterpiece, Chinatown. “You know what happens to nosy fellows?”

There’s a very brief interlude, in which the clowns try to rest just a little, but soon they are getting battered again—and by authority this time. Threatened by every class, and every institution. But it gets worse. In a beautifully designed shot Polanski pulls back from the wardrobe, and this beating, and then pans over to a glancing, searing adjacent scene. Now an unrelated, unplanted and unreaped character is bludgeoning another one-off character to death! Not just absurdity, but cruelty. Universality! There’s no explanation of course. But there could very well be a background, or a root. Is it too obvious? Is it too obviously true to avoid? Sure sounds like a figurative rendering of Poland, for this poor blasted child, during the 2nd World War!

The film concludes as the killer runs off, and our protagonists, by force, go back into the sea from whence they came. The visuals in this precocious film are bright and clear, but there’s evil afoot. Watch for this guy. And fear for him too.