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article imageReview: Polanski tells his own story in slanted but fascinating doc Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Apr 22, 2013 in Entertainment
How do we reconcile that a man who could drug and violate a 13-year-old girl could also make undeniably great films like “Chinatown”, “Tess” and “The Pianist”? Unfortunately, “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” doesn't answer that question.
And you shouldn't expect it to do so, either, because Laurent Bouzereau's 2011 documentary – which recently had its Canadian premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival – has no pretense to objectivity. It's a series of casual, relaxed interviews with a calm, harmless-looking Polanski by his longtime friend, British producer Andrew Braunsberg, shot during and after the French-born, Polish-raised director's six-month house arrest in Switzerland in 2009 and 2010. What you do get is a close, intimate view of a bizarre, roller-coaster life – an attempt to exercise empathy, not two-sided journalism.
I started off by referring to Polanski's 1977 crime because I realize that many people would have a serious problem with a film that humanizes a confessed statutory rapist. (My original opening sentence was going to be: “Roman Polanski is a great artist and a horrible human being.”) The sad fact is, morality and artistic genius do not go hand in hand. Bad people have made great movies, and I'm sure a lot of good people have made bad movies.
So serious film lovers learn early on, for better or for worse, to separate the artist from the art. While Alfred Hitchcock (allegedly) sexually harassed Tippi Hedren and was known for cruel practical jokes, that doesn't take away from the beauty and emotional profundity of Vertigo. You can objectively admire Leni Riefenstahl's technical skills while still loathing the evil empire that she was serving. And The Birth of a Nation is an important landmark in early narrative film as much as it is a deplorable piece of racist propaganda.
And such is my situation with Roman Polanski: I have always loved his films, but could never condone having unlawful sex with an adolescent. (I would certainly hope that the latter goes without saying.) To me, Polanski is an instinctive master of the cinematic expression of fear, paranoia, tension, vulnerability, black humour, corruption, inevitable doom and, ironically enough, the nature of evil. I think Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Tess and The Pianist are all greater or lesser masterpieces, while Knife in the Water, Macbeth and The Tenant are also worthy of praise. But political correctness says we can only demonize and condemn Polanski, because of his crime, and that's where an honest film lover can run into problems.
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is made by honest film lovers rather than by moral watchdogs, and it sometimes uses clips from The Pianist, Oliver Twist and other Polanski movies to illustrate moments and details from his anecdotes, about childhood events that inspired those same film scenes. Polanski comes close to tears a few times as he recalls how his childhood was disrupted by the Holocaust – his escape from the Kraków ghetto, the loss of much of his family, his witnessing of horrific violence and his reunion with his father.
After the war, Polanski became a teenage radio and stage actor, and he eventually began directing his own short films. His feature-length debut, Knife in the Water, was more successful abroad than in Poland, leading to a contract deal in the U.K. that led to his first major hit, the great hallucinatory shocker Repulsion. “I was never fond of Repulsion,” he says, admitting he made it only to solidify other projects that interested him more, calling it “a kind of prostitution”.
Polanski also gets candid about the Manson family's brutal slayings of his wife, Sharon Tate, his unborn child and four others. He says that he had a feeling he wouldn't see Tate again during the last time he spoke to her, and that after the murders, “I was not myself for years.” The trauma of it ended what religious faith he had at the time.
The documentary works best when it focuses on Polanski's early years, as the director opens up with fascinating details from his childhood memories, even physically reenacting incidents that have never left him. Archival footage of WWII Kraków helps to paint a picture of a brutal time and place that shaped the man deeply. There's also media footage of news reports and press conferences, along with the expected movie clips. But some later periods of his life are skipped over or skimmed; either Polanski had little to say about those years, or it just wasn't interesting enough for the final cut.
The most shocking revelation to come out of Polanski's mouth is arguably: “I am an optimist.” This sounds strange coming from a man known for such a bleak, pessimistic artistic vision. The film borders on sentimentality as it describes his current, happy marriage to Emmanuelle Seigner and his affection for his children, implying that age and family life have matured his outlook. He refers to this late-life stability – in the way it has followed his early tragedies and exile – as “the paradoxical way that life operates”.
And what of the most grotesque and disturbing elephant in the room? Polanski seems reticent about the incident with Samantha Geimer at first; the initial conversation focuses only on the arrest and trial and on why he fled to France, after a corrupt judge flip-flopped on the sentence deal. (The excellent 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired tells more about this.) It's only when Braunsberg returns for another chat, after Polanski has been freed by the Swiss authorities, that he opens up a little more about it.
“Of course it was wrong,” he says about his actions. “I really feel sorry for what this event caused to her life... She's a double victim, my victim and a victim of the press.” He also says that he has written privately to Geimer to apologize to her and her family for what he did to her. Still, you never get the impression that he was ever truly wracked with personal guilt about it. Nor do you get any explanation of why or how he could commit such a deed.
If you don't like Polanski's films – or if you can see him only as evil personified – then this documentary isn't for you. You may even see it as shameless whitewashing, although it doesn't ignore or make excuses for Polanski's crime. It does emphasize that Geimer has long forgiven Polanski, both publicly and privately – which, of course, does not justify what he did in any way. Still, the film's position seems to be that Polanski is not a monster, but rather a complex human being who did a monstrous thing. This may be too much for viewers who'd rather hold a more black-and-white view.
Polanski is the only movie director who's as notorious for his private life as for his films, and Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is hardly a definitive study of either. It's just a chance for him to tell his own story in his own words, and on that level, it's interesting (if limited) viewing. As far as more objective or critical content... forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
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