Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Curious Case of Roman Polanski

Whatever your opinion of his films, Roman Polanski has lived for 34 years as a fugitive from justice. In 1977, he plea bargained with a guilty plea to "unlawful sexual intercourse" with a minor, was ordered to undergo 90 days of psychiatric observation at California's Chino State Prison, was released after just 42 days and was awaiting the decision of the judge, which Polanski and his lawyer were assured was going to be either deportation from the U.S. or to finish the remainder of his 90-day observation. Amid accusations of outrageous leniency, it was strongly believed that the judge intended to increase Polanski's sentence by several years. Rather than attend the sentencing hearing, Polanski was spirited away to France. Since he was never charged with rape, Polanski cannot be extradited from France, and has made the country his home, where he continued to make films - some of which have been widely acclaimed.

A 2008 documentary called Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired encapsulates the sexual assault case he was tried and convicted of in 1977, and his subsequent flight from justice to Europe. It's a curious title, even when it is given a context by one of Polanski's friends in the film. The film makes Polanski's sojourn in Hollywood sound like a bad melodrama - from extraordinary success and happiness to extraordinary failure and sadness, with sex, drugs, and murder thrown in.

There was never any doubt that Polanski committed the crime of which he was accused, despite the crime being ultimately called "consensual sex with a 13-year-old" - which is legally, if not quite physically, impossible. Not unlike many famous transgressors in the past, he got off with a light sentence - or would have if the judge, under pressure, hadn't changed his mind. Polanski's flight from justice made the American justice system look ridiculous. His subsequent thirty-plus years of liberty have emphasized this. The documentary, which is obviously on Polanski's side, makes it look all that much worse.

You would have to go back to the early 19th century to discover the reasons why some people developed the belief that artists are somehow above common morality. In fact it probably has something to do with common morality in the first place, because artists, you see, are if not above, definitely outside the world of ordinary humanity. I am not agreeing with this belief. I am merely stating what it appears to stand for.

Add to this the notion that an artist's work is sacrosanct, no matter what mischief the artist himself gets up to, and you find yourself in a critical quandary. George Orwell addressed this issue in his review of an autobiography by Salvador Dali.

"The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp ... The important thing is not to denounce him [Dali] as a cad who ought to be horsewhipped, or to defend him as a genius who ought not to be questioned, but to find out WHY he exhibits that particular set of aberrations."(1)

Polanski has admitted to a predilection for very young women - what used to be called "girls" before feminism disapproved of the word. As he has aged, and his work has gone into decline (2), he has managed to keep his nose conspicuously clean, marrying in the meantime the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner (3), who was twenty-three when they married.

High on the list of possible psychological explanations for Polanski's aberrant behavior are the deaths of his mother in a Nazi concentration camp and of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family. One of the things that nobody in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired thought to mention is that Polanski had lived in communist Poland for the first twenty-nine years of his life - a country in which virtually everyone is a prisoner of conscience. While not explaining - or indeed forgiving - his rape (there's no other word for it) of a 13-year-old girl in 1977, it goes a little way toward our understanding of what a tragic mess this man's life has been. Perhaps his being a fugitive from justice is exactly where he feels most at home?

(1) George Orwell, "Benefit of Clergy".
(2) Polanski's work is grotesquely uneven. He started out with some brilliant short films and made his feature film debut with Knife in the Water (1962), which I have celebrated elsewhere. His best films thereafter were hit and miss: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is, as Vernon Young pointed out, a masterpiece of Gothic design, Rosemary's Baby (1968), though ultimately silly, is an extraordinary horror film. Macbeth (1971) is one of the best efforts at filmed Shakespeare I've seen. Chinatown (1974) is a great American film, and his best film outside Poland. His late films, most of which I've seen, fall short of his own standard. His latest, The Ghost Writer (2010), is, for a suspense film, utterly boring.
(3) Seigner was educated at a convent school, a detail I couldn't resist pointing out.

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