The Fat and the Lean

(Roman Polanski, France, 1961)


The credits of this film are evasive and mystifying for legal reasons: Polanski, not possessing French citizenship at the time, had to give his editor, Jean-Pierre Rousseau, co-directing credit. Neither is his co-star, Andre Katelbach, listed, which is perhaps why the name features so prominently five years later in Cul-de-Sac (1966).

Where Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) is a picaresque exercise shot in many locations, The Fat and the Lean is a more controlled piece set in and around a single house. Like much absurdist theatre, it looks at the enigmatic, always potentially reversible, relationship between a master (Fat) and his slave (Lean).

It plumbs an especially mordant irony: while the slave pines for his freedom (symbolised here by the tantalising, ever-present vista of a nearby city), he may well also come to love his imprisonment, whether his literal chains are on or off.

As in all Polanski’s shorts, dialogue is eschewed in favour of pantomimic gesture, vivid imagery and musical counterpoint. Everyday rituals (dressing, cooking, eating, washing) are given an aura that is both droll and abject, as will often happen in his later features.

The film cleverly uses a cartoonish structure: as the same cycle of actions is repeated it proceeds faster and with sudden variations – as occurs with Polanski’s unexpected drum solo.

MORE Polanski: Chinatown, Death and the Maiden, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Frantic, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, Repulsion, The Tenant, Tess, Knife in the Water

© Adrian Martin April 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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