Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired


Well, he’s not “wanted” anymore. When the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired premiered at Sundance in 2008, it seemed like an epilogue, the wrapping-up of a story which would never have a real ending. Today, with Polanski in the custody of Swiss authorities, it’s become clear that the story was not over after all. And as this film – available for instant viewing or rental on Netflix – reveals, the tale of Polanski’s crime, prosecution (or persecution), and exile is anything but a clear narrative with good and bad, right and wrong, clearly marked. Nonetheless, Wanted and Desired displays a general sympathy for the director’s plight as he is jerked back and forth by a publicity-seeking judge. The still used above is from the 1961 Polanski short film The Fat and the Lean; that’s Polanski himself, acting in his own film, running across a field toward the Eiffel Tower, fleeing a lumbering fat old man. Obviously crafted years before the filmmaker’s legal predicament, the simple, almost allegorical footage is nonetheless cleverly employed by the documentary to illustrate the complex situation Polanski found himself in. It also suggests Wanted and Desired‘s general attitude toward its subject.

On March 10, 1977, a 13-year-old girl was taken to Jack Nicholson's home in Los Angeles. The movie star was out of town, but his good friend Roman Polanski (who had directed Nicholson to wide acclaim in Chinatown) was escorting the girl, an aspiring model named Samantha Gailey, to the house for a photo shoot. The shoot, for French Vogue, echoed a star marking spread Polanski had orchestrated for Nastassja Kinski years before - Kinski, then 15, became Polanski's lover shortly thereafter. It seems Polanski had a similar trajectory in mind for his even younger subject. She was coaxed into disrobing for some pictures taken in a jacuzzi and before long, the thin veneer of professionalism had slipped away. Champagne followed, accompanied by a chopped-up Quaalude, and then, according to Polanski, a seduction. According to Gailey, it was rape. She reported the crime soon after and suddenly she and Polanski were at the center of a media whirlwind - one which only began to fade when the director stepped onto an airplane heading for France and never returned to face sentencing (he had submitted to a plea bargain which demoted the rape to statutory rape, although Gailey maintains to this day that she was taken advantage of).

The ensuing controversy, media attention, and psychological distress were not without precedent for the playboy director. Indeed, his entire life - and work - had been haunted by violence, paranoia, and persecution. A Holocaust survivor, whose parents were victims of Hitler's genocide, Polanski had grown up in Communist Poland, where he distinguished himself at the state film school. In Poland, the director created several memorable short films, including one in which two anonymous peons emerge from the sea, fully dressed, carrying a wardrobe. As they proceed through the streets of a Polish city, they are harassed by bullies, and eventually the two wounded souls return to the sea, wardrobe and all. Many of Polanski's signature touches are already present in this early work. Firstly, of course, there is the defeatist, dispiriting conclusion, in which the fantastical figures must return to the sea, still carrying their beloved furniture like a broken promise.

Furthermore, Polanski himself makes an appearance as a cruel sadist (he's one of the bullies who harass the wardrobe-carriers), presaging his later memorable cameo in Chinatown in which he cuts a private eye's nose as punishment for being "nosy." Interestingly, in other films Polanski casts himself as the victim rather than the villain: his persona easily slips back and forth between the sense of persecution and the perversion of power, as if he can't decide whether he is being abused or desires to abuse others (perhaps one is the result of the other). However, there's one more element present in the early film which is perhaps the most compelling in light of Polanski's crime - and in Wanted and Desire, it's suggested by Roger Gunson, assistant district attorney and, apparently, amateur "auteur" critic.

"Every Roman Polanski movie has a theme: corruption meeting innocence over water," Gunson points out. Cue footage of the young brute performing calisthenics on the sailboat in - you guessed it - Knife in the Water; the body being dragged out of the secret reservoir in Chinatown; Rosemary of Rosemary's Baby floating on a mattress in her sea dream before being raped by Satan himself... and then, the actual snapshots taken by Polanski of a nude Gailey in the hot tub. The water's clear enough and so, unfortunately, is the innocence - looking at Gailey's eyes in these photos we see a fresh-faced child, barely even an adolescent, certainly not old enough for a 44-year-old man to consider having sex with.

As for the corruption, in his four decades of life experience Polanski's mindset and psychological makeup had essentially been poisoned by repeated trauma. Any lingering innocence that survived the Final Solution and the Polish police state - perhaps that which was represented in his delight with beautiful wife Sharon Tate  in the late sixties - must have been extinguished in 1969 by a madman with a scraggly beard, a battered copy of the White Album, and a swastika scrawled on his forehead.

When Charles Manson's followers butchered the pregnant Mrs. Polanski, the filmmaker was not only subjected to naturally extreme grief and trauma but to the indignity of questions surrounding he and his wife's lifestyles: accusations of orgies, infidelities, even connotations of Polanski's involvement in the gruesome deaths hung in the air. It didn't help that within several months, the director was out and about with scores of beautiful women, or that he decried the press but continued to parade in the public eye. (Later on, this penchant for high living would get him in trouble: allowed to go to Europe during his sentencing, in order to work on a film, he was photographed squeezed between two pretty young things at Oktoberfest, an embarrassing picture which may have seriously debilitated his standing with the judge.) Yet confronted with the appearance of frivolity, Polanski observes that different people deal with grief in different ways: some enter a monastery, some go looking for a whorehouse. Obviously he belongs to the latter type, but if his stated goal of these years was to "have fun" it was with an increasing edge of desperation.

Five years after the killings, when Chinatown hit screens, its writer Robert Towne expressed frustration with the downbeat ending. He had envisioned an exposure of corruption, and not the sickeningly powerful vindication of the charismatic but monstrous Noah Cross whose public crime, denying water to L.A. so that the city will starve and be forced to the sea (enriching himself in the process) is dwarfed by his private crime, the rape and impregnation of his daughter. The film ends with the daughter killed and the teenage granddaughter returned to her father/grandfather's custody. Jack Nicholson's detective, having inadvertently facilitated this mayhem in an effort to do good is led away from the scene of the crime and informed, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."

So who is Polanski? Jake Gittes, a misguided man besieged by others, or Noah Cross, a corrupt, venal lecher who abuses his power? Is he the dancing young man making a wily escape for the Eiffel Tower, or the venal actor/husband of Rosemary's Baby, evading culpability for crime against an innocent female so that he can live it up and continue his career? The documentary poses this question initially when it contrasts the image of Polanski in the American and European press. Richard Brenneman, a reporter interviewed in Wanted and Desired, notes:

    "As the case progressed, I was struck: how could the same man be two different things to two different sets of press? The European reporters looked at Polanski as this tragic, brilliant, historic figure. Here was this man who had survived the Holocaust, who had survived the gassing of his mother, and then had come here and developed his own voice, had maintained his own voice against the power of the Hollywood machine. And the American press tended to look at him as this sort of malignant, twisted dwarf who had this dark vision."

After facing this quandary, Wanted and Desired essentially backs off the analysis in order to follow the twists and turns of the legal drama. The documentary leaves little doubt that Judge Laurence J. Rittenband presided over a legal fiasco, soliciting tips from inappropriate advisors, changing his mind arbitrarily and without appropriate justification, and asking participants to make a farce out of justice for the amusement of the cameras. When Rittenband was eventually removed from the case, after Polanski had already fled the country, Samantha Gailey felt even more exploited and abused by the legal system than by Polanski.

Exposed from then on to ridicule and rumors, she has recently asked that charges be dropped against the director, whom she has publicly forgiven, maintaining that he has paid a price and that she wants to move on with her life, as a middle-aged mother of her own children. Polanski too has children, and a wife, in France, where he was accepted with open arms. He indeed re-invented himself in Paris (where he was born, as well, before returning with his parents to Poland) and as the film concludes, there is a sense that, despite the lack of conclusion a certain resolution has been achieved.

Now that sentiment is no longer feasible, and so old questions re-emerge. Most of those interviewed in the movie are defensive or non-committal on the subject of Polanski's crime, but some are actively hostile toward the victim: the French papers, so nobly defensive of the suffering artist, exposed every salacious fact they could about Samantha Gailey, whose name could not even be revealed in the American press. At one point in the documentary, the lawyers are discussing cutting up the 13-year-old's panties, trying to make sure each side got a spot of semen on their sample (Judge Rittenband had decreed, Solomon-like, that the exhibit be divided in half, with one portion going to the prosecution, the other to the defense). The figures, now aging, struggle to suppress smiles as they discuss the ridiculousness of grown men in suits tearing apart a teenage girl's underwear. Then the camera pulls back, the silly music stops, and Samantha herself is revealed sitting next to one of these men, trying to mask her obvious discomfort at the restrained amusement.

Wanted and Desired, then, never forgets Samantha Gailey's suffering (Gailey has since changed her name and tried to move on with her life). But it has trouble holding Polanski's feet to the fire. Roman Polanski himself is not interviewed, though he met with Wanted and Desired's director in Paris. His crimes are stated coldly, typed out across the screen in fact, but he is barely held up to scorn and ridicule the way Judge Rittenband has. When he wins at the Academy Awards for The Pianist in 2002, we see the audience rise to impassioned applause as Harrison Ford announces that the Academy will accept the award on the director's behalf (never mind that many of these same people sat on their hands or even booed when Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar three years earlier - as if informing, however venal, is worse than rape). And Polanski is shown accepting inclusion in the French Academie de Beaux-Arts, an honored member of a great and prestigious society, his mistakes long since forgotten and forgiven.

Yet the film does conclude with the same interview which began it, in which a reporter sits across a restaurant table from Polanski and presses him on the subject of his life-changing encounter in the late 70s. "When the newspapers and the magazines and the books talk about you and little girls, is there anything in it?"

"Well," Polanski responds, dodging the gravity of the accusation, "I like young women, let's put it this way. But I think most men do actually." Then he stares at the questioner, as if challenging him to go further. The reporter does, and Polanski continues to dissemble before acknowledging the case his questioner is alluding to. Clearing his throat, theatrically, he reaches across the table, diving into a basket full of nuts and then cracking one open. "What," he inquires, "would you like me to say about it exactly?" The trace of a smirk breaks across his calm expression, and as the creepily childlike score of Rosemary's Baby emerges on the soundtrack, the effect is somewhat sinister.

Then, in the end, we're back in that restaurant, and a meal is brought to the table. Ever charming, Polanski grins boyishly and proclaims, "I think it was a wonderful idea to do this, this interview over, over this lunch but the night is getting into the dinner, and case of you have in mind finishing this interview, I want to ask you if you intend to end on this note, or do you think there's something more to my life than my relations with, uh, young women?"

Today, the answer to that question just got a little more complicated.

Read the ensuing discussion (62 comments) here.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner, and cross-posted on Wonders in the Dark, where the above comments were left.

Polanski, as many predicted, was later released by Swiss authorities and returned to France rather than facing justice in the United States, where he remains a fugitive of justice.

No comments: