Friday, October 10, 2008

Film Review--Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
directed by Marina Zenovich

This documentary by Marina Zenovich traces that singular moment in 1977 when 44 year old Roman Polanski convinced thirteen year old Samantha Gailey to perform a variety of sex acts with/to him at Jack Nicholson’s house. The film documents the trial and travails of Polanski as he tries to live down this one act of supreme misguidedness.

The film documents the rise of Polanski from show-stopper Polish lad to internationally renowned film maker. The title comes from a comment made in the film stating that Polanski is desired in Europe and wanted in America. Indeed, he has taken refuge in a place to avoid spending any more time in a correctional facility where he was incarcerated for 43 days. If he were to return to America he would face the remainder of his 90 sentence. It seems odd that anyone could get off so lightly for engaging in illegal acts with a minor (his sole charge) but such was his lawyer’s ability to convince the judge to allow Polanski to plead guilty to one charge while avoiding the others which included rape and sodomy.

For her part, Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) tells her story with grace and dignity. According to the film her mother had agreed to let her go out with the much older man so she could take part in a photo shoot. During the second shoot at Nicholson’s house Polanski got a bit too carried away and seduced the young lass and they ended up having sex. There is no suggestion that this girl who had previously engaged in sexual behavior tried to lure Polanski into the sack. Samantha said no three times but was unable to resist this charming man who was known to be irresistible by Mia Farrow among others. So, he did the deed and then the mother chimed in and before too long Polanski was arrested and brought before a judge.

The case is marred from the beginning. The judge is starstruck and arranges his cases to drain the most air time possible out of the local television networks. He wants to put on a show for reporters and the public at large. He seems less interested in seeing justice through than getting his name in the paper (he keeps a giant scrapbook containing all articles that mention his name). There is a real sense that Polanski got off easy perhaps based on his celebrity. A lesser man would have faced all six charges and would have been strung up for many years. According to Samantha Geimer, she was raped and drugged and forced to do things against her will. She succumbed due to frustration and some warped sense of not wanting to contradict this exceedingly famous man.

The best part of the film are the moments between Polanski and his wife, the ill-fated Sharon Tate. It’s heartbreaking to apprehend all of the images of Sharon looking as devastatingly beautiful as anyone dares remember. There is a legitimate indication that Polanski was at the top of his game during this period, madly in love, and nearly destroyed by the events that took Sharon’s life. The photographs where he has broken down are particularly poignant as they display an impetus that would fuel his later work.

One gets a pretty fair impression of this complicated man mostly through scenes of his films replete with soundtrack music. He is portrayed as a man of leisure who enjoyed nothing more than being out on the town with his friends and admirers. At least until Manson’s clan got to Sharon and things took on a different hue. At the heart of this film is Polanski’s universally lauded talent for making complicated films that deeply affect people. His genius is explored while his one of his more glaring foibles is writ large on a screen for all to see. It must be strange to view something so intimate about oneself, particularly a documentary that uncovers dirt you had hoped you were able to previously sweep under the rug. But no amount of housecleaning will ever sever the link between Roman Polanski and his thirteen year old would-be consort. The question remains (although it is mostly irrelevant), did he know at the time that he was breaking the law?

Yeah, yeah. He knew. He knew and he still went after it and hell, it was probably worth it. He didn’t serve much time and he still has the memories. She forgave him a few years back and so there is a warm, glowing feeling all around. Polanski can stay in Europe where we can’t touch him and she clearly has put all this behind her. She’s smart, clearheaded, and able to see a much broader picture than that single night when she gave it up to one of the most necessary and vital film makers of the modern era. This is a film of celebration. Samantha Gailey can celebrate her strength and ability to persevere through a difficult time many years ago. The film makers celebrate Polanski without throwing the onus on him for his singular indiscretion. They merely lay it all out and lets the audience decide what to make of it. It’s hard to thoroughly demonize a Roman Polanski. It’s difficult to make him into a monster for the desire for young white girl flesh that he acted on thirty years ago. His work guarantees that he remains first and foremost an artist who has captivated the hearts and minds of millions of people worldwide. As the film wisely expresses, a man cannot be judged by an inglorious act he committed thirty years ago. That’s absurd. It’s like Bill Ayers forever being tied to the planned attacks he helped originate in the Weather Underground.

Overall, this is an even-handed portrait of a complex and somewhat elusive contributor to the artistic temperament of the age. It isn’t shocking or underhanded, it gives Polanski an opportunity through his work to communicate to the audience though he doesn’t defend himself against his past behavior. This isn’t about his guilt or shame. He admits freely to having sexual intercourse with Samantha Gailey. Still, he managed to sneak away without suffering the full brunt of his punishment which proved to prevent but a slight inconvenience. His one (or perhaps it was more than one, the film didn’t specify) interlude of impropriety means nothing at the end of the day. It once possessed significant power over the minds of citizens across the globe but now it’s merely a cheap moment in an otherwise stellar life. It’s an interesting investigation into how a moment’s pleasure can turn into a firestorm that resonates many years beyond the completion of the deed.

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