Friday, May 15, 2009

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008)

The first thing I knew about Roman Polanski, before I’d even seen any of his movies (or probably, could remember which ones were his), was that he’d had sex with a teenage girl and fled the country in the 70’s. This is, it seems, his story so far as he has one anymore, and I think it’s probably supplanted Roman Polanski, the man whose pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family in the 60’s. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which originally aired on HBO last year, does two things: it explores the concept of media celebrity as it relates to Polanski’s life, and addresses a legal injustice which, regardless of his crime, seems by all accounts egregious.

The facts, from what I can tell, seem to be undisputed: in 1977, 44 year old Polanski was hired to take photos of young girls for Vogue, and asked one 13 year old’s mother for permission. During the course of the shoot, which took place without other adult supervision, Polanski gave the victim champagne and Quaaludes and had intercourse with her. Polanski, as far as this documentary presents it, never denied that he had done it; indeed, he says in one archival interview at the beginning of the film that he believes all men desire young women. In a plea bargain Polanski pled guilty of “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor,” dismissing the more serious charges. He was then sentenced to a 90-day psychiatric evaluation, deferred so that he might finish his current project. He served 42 days, and shortly left the country, never to return, fearing imprisonment should he do so.

What’s interesting about this film is that it barely touches the issue of what Polanski did, or why. There is certainly background, enough to make one sympathize for the man’s misfortunes (which were considerable) without excusing his behavior. But the film focuses instead on a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the Santa Monica judge, Rittenband, who according to the film was a publicity hound and desperately afraid of losing face in the press. It’s a complicated enough chain of events that it does need a film to explain them, but suffice to say both the defending and prosecuting attorneys agree that the treatment of Polanski was both out of accordance with the treatment of perpetrators of similar crimes in the state at that time, and that finally this treatment ventured into the extra-legal. Which puts a different spin on Polanski’s “flight from justice,” certainly.

The film is well put-together, with archival footage and photos and lots of interviews from almost everyone involved—though there are no modern ones with Polanski himself. Given the ample evidence as to his treatment by the media, it seems no wonder that he would not wish to rehash the whole thing again, at this point. It is also interesting that his crime is neither glossed over nor exploited—for the most part, it is treated as a fact in a story that, however you feel about him, is about something else. That said, it is still a difficult movie because of the subject matter, though the media/legal situation is riveting especially as so much of it is a revelation after all these years. It is also somewhat disconcerting how charming Polanski comes across, and his tragic story combined with his unapologetic pursuit of very young women make him a complicated focal point. It is rare that a man who makes movies is so appropriate a subject for one himself, but if anyone is, Polanski is certainly at the top of that list.

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