It’s hard to believe that it’s now over 60 years since Roman Polanski teamed with Jerzy Skolimowski for the landmark 1962 Polish thriller Knife in the Water. But it’s even harder to believe that these two giants of international cinema reunited more recently to pool their braincells and come up with The Palace, the most terrible, joyless farce since the heyday of the ’70s British sex comedy. Forget for a moment, if you can, the furor surrounding Polanski’s controversial status as a fugitive from justice and concentrate instead on the fact that the Venice Film Festival, in its infinite wisdom, went ahead and booked this entirely dreadful offering anyway, deeming it somehow worthy of a prestigious Out of Competition slot.
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The setting is The Palace, a plush Alpine hideaway where the jet set of Europe are gathering to see in the year 2000. There are fears that the Y2K bug will bring the world to a standstill, and perhaps even destroy it completely, but the unflappable maitre d’hôtel Hansueli Kopf (Oliver Masucci) insists everything will be fine. The aim is simply to satisfy the influx of rich and gaudy guests who will “stuff themselves with caviar to their hearts’ content” and drink champagne until it “gushes from their ears.”
He’s not wrong. His vulgar clientele includes a gaggle of ladies who lunch whose facelifted faces become grotesquely coquettish when vying for the attentions of a famous plastic surgeon. There’s a porn star called Bongo who once insured his cock for $5 million; a nymphomaniac French marquise whose dog Mr. Toby refuses to shit in the snowy outdoors; and a band of Russian gangsters who arrive with their entourage of hookers and bodyguards only to find that Boris Yeltsin has handed over their country to a young up-and-comer called Vladimir Putin.
Astonishingly, it gets worse and worse from there. There’s Mr. Crush, a crude, orange-faced American businessman with a blond wig who looks at first glance to be a cruel parody of Mickey Rourke and then, shockingly, turns out to be Mickey Rourke. Mr. Crush is involved in a dodgy business deal to take advantage of the Y2K bug, but his stay at the hotel is interrupted by the arrival of his lookalike illegitimate son, who comes from an Eastern European town with a “funny” foreign name and calls him “Da-da,” announcing, “I AM THE FRUIT OF YOUR COLLEGE LOVE!” while waving a Chevrolet keyring as speculative proof.
None of this, however, can prepare you for the horror of the scenes involving John Cleese as 87-year-old U.S. tycoon Arthur William Dallas III, who is celebrating a year of marriage to his 22-year-old whiyaat-traaaash wife Magnolia. Spoiler alert: he will die while they’re having sex, which will leave Magnolia penniless if, as per the terms of their pre-nup, his death is reported before midnight strikes on their first anniversary. This leads to an excruciating sequence that makes Weekend at Bernie’s look like the wittiest jape of the season, as Kopf and his staff bundle the corpse into a wheelchair, cigar in hand, while the other guests are distracted by a lavish firework display.
Nothing about it is remotely funny: Really, seriously, nothing at all. There’s toilet humor, bawdy innuendo, a tin-eared joke about Alzheimer’s, and some crass satire that plummets such shameless depths that you know if won’t really be over until the drunk lady barfs (and she does). It beggars belief, but, at the age of 90, Polanski may have actually cancelled himself with a film that will probably never see the light of day in any English-speaking countries. Polanski completists are welcome to hunt it down — it has sold to a worrying number of international territories — and if they do, they deserve everything they get.
Title: The Palace
Festival: Venice (Out of Competition)
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Ewa Piaskowska
Cast: Oliver Masucci, Fanny Ardant, John Cleese, Mickey Rourke
Running time: 1hr 40 min
Sales agent: Goodfellas
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