Film documentary review

Polanski, the victim?

Review of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

By Sigrid Macdonald
Ottawa, Canada
Sigrid Macdonald is author of Be Your Own Editor and is available at 

http://sigridmacdonald.blogspot.com/ and http://beyourowneditor.blogspot.com.

Based on real footage, and old and new interviews, this 2009 documentary by Steven Soderbergh and Marina Zenovich was fascinating. Despite the media frenzy surrounding the now internationally acclaimed Polish-French film director, Roman Polanski, for much of his adult life, there are still some facts that people may not know, such as the devious way his trial was conducted, and the excruciating losses he endured before his child molestation trial in 1977.

In a Kennedyesque fashion, everything went wrong for Polanski, who experienced extreme highs and lows in life. He was a Holocaust survivor and lost both his parents to the camps. Somehow he made it to Hollywood, despite all odds, creating smashing movies such as Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant and Chinatown. Meanwhile, party boy Roman fell in love with the stunning Sharon Tate. For once in his life he was happy and safe until a real-life Satanic force, in the form of the Manson family, brutally murdered pregnant Sharon.

Devastated, Polanski attempted to pull himself and his life together after all these traumatic events. One way in which he did this, according to the filmmakers, was by not getting too close to adult women and by hosting large parties, largely because he feared being alone with his sorrow and memories.

What happened to Polanski in the early part of his life was a tragedy; however, it does not justify drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl. Samantha Geimer was a model for the French Voguemagazine. She has gone public with her story, although this was not entirely voluntary as she was outed by the European press at the time of the trial.

Jack Nicholson's house

With her mother's permission, she went to Jack Nicholson's house with Polanski on March 10, 1977, when Nicholson was away. Forty-three-year-old Polanski was entranced with the girl, asking her to undress, giving her alcohol and Quaaludes, and then having sex with her.

Geimer spoke on television in 2010, saying when Polanski made advances toward her, she said no. Even if she had said yes and begged him to have sex with her, at thirteen she lacked both the emotional and legal capacity to give consent. But in fact, she said no, therefore his behavior constituted rape.

Polanski was originally charged with six counts of criminal behavior including rape, unlawful sexual intercourse, perversion, and drugging a minor, and he pled not guilty. Then the plaintiff's lawyer offered a plea bargain and all charges were dropped except for unlawful sexual intercourse. Her sexual past was mentioned both in this movie and in the newspaper at the time of the trial—disgraceful—and the viewer was left with the impression that at thirteen, Geimer was already a young sophisticate: a Lolita of sorts. On the contrary, all her so-called lack of virginity said to me was that before Polanski came along, someone else had already stolen her innocence.

The Roman Polanski sex trial was a bit like a 1960s version of the OJ trial: star-studded and full of characters who posed for the camera. The judge was the worst offender. Judge Laurence Rittenband was entranced by celebrities and his own fame, according to the movie; he encouraged international publicity and never wanted to do anything more than give Polanski a slap on the proverbial wrist. Thus, originally, he opted to sentence Polanski for ninety days in a psychiatric diagnostic unit at Chino State prison. At the end of that time, he had every intention of giving the man probation.

Embarrassed judge 'could not be trusted'

What prevented him from doing so was that Polanski went to work on a film in Germany during a stay of the trial. It was there that he was photographed at Oktoberfest in the presence of young, attractive women. Judge Rittenband was so embarrassed when these photos came out that he threatened Polanski's lawyer with increasing the sentence, which had not yet been issued. Douglas Dalton, Polanski's lawyer, quickly informed his client the judge could not be trusted, and Polanski hopped a plane to France in 1978. He has remained there ever since.

France does not have extradition laws with the United States for unlawful sexual intercourse, just for rape, so they could not force Polanski, a French citizen, to return to the U.S. He has stayed in France for years and flourished there, gaining enormous accolades for the movie The Pianist. In fact, The Pianistwon several Academy Awards, which were presented to Polanski in absentia; only in a society obsessed with celebrity worship could this twisted act occur.

Throughout the movie, friends and colleagues of Polanski's were interviewed, all of whom raved about him as a producer. The message appeared to be that Europe is far more worldly and understanding of carnal matters than uptight, religious, right-wing America. Roman has paid his dues and should be able to return to the United States was the implicit message from Zenovich and Soderbergh, but I disagree. He never served more than forty-two days in a diagnostic unit and worse, never comprehended that his behavior was wrong. Instead, like the filmmakers, Polanski feels victimized by the judge and the refusal of the Americans to allow him to return.

This notion was enhanced by Samantha Geimer publicly forgiving him in 1998, after settling matters in a civil suit. She has also said she was more damaged by the publicity, as well as the way the judge and the courts behaved, than by Polanski's actions. Now that things have been resolved between the rapist and the child rape victim, the only villain left is the American government.

People are complicated. Just because a man committed a heinous act doesn't mean he doesn't have redeeming qualities. Polanski is brilliant and driven, and the French realize and reward him for this. But evaluating the merits or the soul of one man is not a simple task; people are not all good or all evil. There must be shades of gray in our interpretations. Yes, as the title of the film states, Polanski is "wanted" in the United States but "desired" in Europe. No, Americans are not prudish to continue to exile Polanski.

Polanski is no different from a child abuser who was beaten or sexually abused as a youngster, and became a pedophile later in life. We feel great sympathy for the child who was injured, but much outrage for the adult who could be so selfish and insensitive as to injure another child in return.

Post-script, 9 April 2011: I'd like to add that in 2009 Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, which does have an extradition treaty with the US for lesser offenses. However, a Swiss court decided not to enforce this law and Polanski was allowed to return to France to live his life as a free man; I suspect that he won't be doing much traveling abroad from now on. — SM

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