In an on-camera interview, Roger Gunson — the former L. A. District Attorney who in the 1970s prosecuted a sexual-assault case against famous filmmaker Roman Polanski — remarks on the theme, prominent in Polanski’s films, of corruption meeting innocence over water. Polanski’s violation of a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot at the home of Jack Nicholson began in a hot tub. Fortunately for viewers, Gunson and Marina Zenovich — the director of the new documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired — never overstate the connections between Polanski’s life and art, both of which are the stuff of dark human tragedy.
The documentary, which does a fine job of interweaving press footage, interviews, scenes from Polanski’s films, and Polanski home movies, revisits the legal proceedings surrounding Polanski’s celebrity trial in L.A in 1978. The title Wanted and Desired contrasts Polanski’s reception in the U.S. and in Europe. In France, where the director has lived for the last 30 years, he is a celebrated artist, viewed as “tragic and brilliant.” In the U.S., meanwhile, he has been seen as a “malignant and twisted” fugitive from justice.
In interview footage included in the film, Polanski traces his rough relations with the U.S. press to the coverage that followed the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by members of the Manson family. In the immediate aftermath of that brutal slaying, captured in horrifyingly vivid detail in Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Polanski was suspected of involvement and the press circulated lurid rumors about orgies and drug use that made it seem as if the victim had brought her demise upon herself.
Long before the Manson murders put him at the center of one of the most notorious crimes in American history, Polanksi’s life was scarred by evil and loss. Of Polish origin, Polanski’s mother was killed in the Holocaust, but he survived when his father pushed him through the barbed wire of a camp, after which he lived alone in Krakow and Warsaw, dependent upon the assistance of strangers. The Holocaust is the setting for one of the latest films in his career, The Pianist (2002), for which he won the Best Director Oscar . . . in absentia.
The irresolution of Polanski’s trial and his flight from American just before final sentencing are the focus of Wanted and Desired. Although the basic facts of the case are not disputed, there is disagreement between assailant and victim as to words and deeds. The documentary gives a great deal of time to interviews with the victim, who now regards Polanski more with pity than vengeance. She herself rails against the judge, Laurence Rittenband, for using the trial to advance his own celebrity. Polanski is initially sent for a 90-day diagnostic study at that state prison in Chino, California. The defense and prosecution expect that, after he had served this time, he would be released on probation with time served in Chino. But he serves only 42 days there and the wrist-slap penalty irks both law enforcement and the press.
With his final sentence still to be determined, he is released to continue work on a film. Then, newspaper pictures surface from a party of a buoyant Polanski, flanked by two young females. Rittenband takes this as a personal insult, but he is by now trapped in his own all-too-clever attempts to advance his own reputation. In addition to proposing to lead counsel questionable judicial moves, Rittenband held press conferences and asked reporters for advice on sentencing. He comes under fire not just from the defense attorney but even from the prosecutor. Both defense and prosecution agree that the judge cannot be trusted. Once Polanski learns of this, he flees the country.
Despite the documentary’s quite reasonable attention to the misbehavior of the judge, one of the troubling features is that Polanski never quite comes to terms with his own wrongdoing. One of the investigators, Phillip Vannatter (remember him from the O.J. Simpson trial?) comments that, during initial questioning, Polanski never seemed to perceive that having sex with a 13-year-old was problematic. And that brings us back in a sense to the divided assessment of Polanski in America and Europe. In the latter, he is celebrated for his artistic prowess while his amorality is dismissed (or even celebrated), while in the former he has never reached a high level of celebrity for his films and is remembered mostly for the evils he has suffered and perpetrated.
But what, at this point, should we make of Polanski’s work? Much of it holds up pretty well.
His early films still merit attention: for example, Knife in the Water (1962), a clever low-budget thriller set on a boat and featuring only three characters, and Repulsion (1965), starring Catherine Deneuve as a woman driven by unknown, internal forces to psychological meltdown and horrific violence. He is perhaps best known in American popular culture for Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a film set at the Dakota, a building on Central Park West that would later be the site of John Lennon’s murder. The Satanic thriller, which predates both The Exorcist and The Omen, contains moments of genuine terror — even if Polanski (with Best Supporting Actress Ruth Gordon’s help) nearly turns Ira Levin’s dramatic investigation of evil into something of a dark comedy.
For my money, two Polanski films, produced in the years following the Manson murders, rise to the top. The first is The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971), which depicts a society awash in blood and a main character gripped and undone by the horror of his own deeds. Second but above them all is Chinatown (1974), the greatest of the neo-noir films and the one that almost single-handedly gave birth to the genre.
Polanski has a penchant for stories that depict evil as inexplicable and pervasive. One might be tempted to think of Polanski as a sort of Nietzschean artist, who seeks through art to give shape and form to the irrational violence and fundamental chaos of things. But he is both less ambitious and more cynical than Nietzsche. In his films, there is no possibility of renewal or transformation. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, for example, Polanski alters Shakespeare’s ending, an ending that celebrates the restoration of order, so as to suggest that the witches, who had tempted Macbeth to the murder of the king, are still in control. The ending of Chinatown is rewritten to preclude any possibility of escape or hope for the most sympathetic characters in the film. As many critics have noted, classic film noir seems almost sunny by comparison with Polanski’s utterly despairing if brilliant neo-noir effort.
With Nietzsche’s emphasis on the restorative power of Greek tragedy in mind, we might note the echoes of Oedipus Rex in Chinatown. This too is a land suffering from a curse, a modern drought; it is also a film that sees unnatural acts as exemplified in incest. Unlike Oedipus Rex, however, here the main culprit of the disorder is not blinded and humiliated but is rather rewarded, while those who recognize the disorder and attempt to eliminate or at least flee it are destroyed. Regeneration is impossible. To what extent these macabre and despairing visions of the human condition can be traced to Polanski’s biography is a question that Wanted and Desired, prudently perhaps, refuses to try to answer. It may also be beside the point. Works of art are what they are no matter their source in the psyche of the artist. Yet, the parallels between Polanski’s life and art, to which the documentary at times points, remain both tantalizing and horrifying.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.