Along its winding road to crucifying the American judiciary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired — which aired to mostly warm reviews on HBO a few weeks ago and begins a theatrical release from THINKFilm this Friday — grinds some very blunt axes, makes some dizzying leaps to judgment and does a lot of silly editing with movie clips. Focusing on the Chinatown director’s 1977 Santa Monica rape trial and his unscheduled bolt to Europe before sentencing, Marina Zenovich’s lively, exasperating documentary is loaded to the gills with testimony from cops, lawyers and lots of Polanski pals, and bookended by sawn-off clips from an interview the director submitted to with the British writer and TV talk-show pundit Clive James. I say “submitted to” because Polanski has made no secret of his hatred for the media on both sides of the Atlantic, which, as he sees it, have pilloried him for his freewheeling sex life, beginning with the 1969 murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and continuing long after his trial for drugging and sodomizing a 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. I’ve no doubt that James, a public intellectual and film buff not known for tabloid prurience, asked Polanski all kinds of smart questions about his Holocaust childhood and the impact of his exile from Hollywood on his career. But the one that opens the movie is, “Do you like little girls?” Without skipping a beat, Polanski replies, “I like young women [my emphasis]. I think most men do.”
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Polanski meets the press.
I’ll get back to this neat little revision of James’ question, but by the look of it, the interview was conducted sometime in the 1980s, either in Paris, where Polanski has lived for the past 30 years, or somewhere in Europe that doesn’t have an extradition agreement with the United States. Zenovich expresses a properly ambivalent sympathy for Polanski in exile, and she isn’t shy about drawing unfavorable comparisons between American sexual prissiness and Europe’s broader mind. Nor does she waste much energy trying to draw connections between Polanski’s life and work, unless you count a few awkwardly inserted clips from Chinatown, Repulsion and Knife in the Water, which could have been chosen by the Mormon prosecutor who, having boned up for the trial by catching a Polanski retrospective at the Nuart, brightly summarizes the director’s oeuvre for Zenovich as “corruption meeting innocence, over water.” Which might be funny, had Zenovich not obligingly cut from this hermeneutic tour de force to Polanski’s photos, allegedly taken for Men’s Vogue, of a pneumatic Gailey splashing around in Jack Nicholson’s Jacuzzi on that very bad day. At least they got the water right.
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Zenovich uses the trial and its aftermath to deliver a sucker punch to the U.S. justice system, which, she implies, screwed over Polanski with more far-reaching consequences than his screwing of Gailey, now a wholesome-looking mother of three, who appears on camera to forgive her aggressor and fret over having had her panties cut in half for evidence. And it’s here that Zenovich’s zeal exceeds her grasp with a blow-by-blow demolition of presiding Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, which includes blistering testimony from the lawyers for the defense and the prosecution, who banded together in a successful petition to have him removed from the case when he tried to commit Polanski to prison for a second round of psychiatric evaluation after he’d been cleared in the first. Fair enough. Rittenband was known as a celebrity whore who was far too cozy with the media. He was also a party animal who dated much younger women — which is to say, 20-year-old women well over the age of consent.
Like Polanski, Zenovich cruises blithely over that distinction, to insinuate that the judge was at best a hypocrite, at worst not competent to preside over the trial. She wheels in a close British friend of Polanski to testify that Polanski is “incapable of rape,” and some older women friends who wonder why Gailey’s mother brought her to meet him in the first place. All of which is beside the point that it is legally indefensible and morally outrageous to take a 13-year-old girl — whether she’s a nun or a nymphomaniac with a mother intent on laying down a behavioral blueprint for Dina Lohan — to a strange house on the pretext of a photo shoot, feed her Quaaludes and sodomize her. That, and not prudery or a predatory press, is why Polanski is “wanted” in America, and would be in Europe if the crime had occurred there. Never mind that Zenovich recently had to revise the film’s ending to effectively retract her earlier claim that, in 1998, another judge had guaranteed Polanski immunity from jail upon his return to the U.S., provided he agree to his court proceedings being televised. In the end, Polanski was primarily done in by his own rotten judgment and his complete lack of remorse.
At the end of Wanted and Desired, Polanski plaintively asks James, “Do you think there’s something more to my life than my relations with young women?” It’s possible that his career was damaged, as the movie implies, by the trial and its fallout, though, in fact, he continued from his base in France to work with Hollywood producers — mostly on terrible or aborted projects. Just as plausibly, this masterful director, who never made good on the promise of Knife in the Water and Chinatown, simply peaked early and then applied his fabled technical expertise to a procession of potboilers (even The Pianist, which won him an Oscar in absentia, was more faithful adaptation than great art), and finally burned out on high living. In Zenovich’s movie, Polanski comes off as a whiny, self-styled victim and a liar, who first pleaded not guilty, then changed his plea to guilty of unlawful sex with a minor, then ran away without telling his lawyers. According to many who have worked with him, as well as a clear-eyed, entertaining new biography by British writer Christopher Sandford (to be published in September), Polanski is also a gifted artist and a generous, intelligent, charming man whose charisma has won him undying loyalty from friends, fellow filmmakers — and, perhaps, a free pass from all the critics who loved this movie.
ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED | Directed by MARINA ZENOVICH | Written by ZENOVICH, JOE BINI and P.G. MORGAN | Produced by JEFFREY LEVY-HINTE, LILA YACOUB and MARINA ZENOVICH | Released by THINKFilm | Opens July 18 at Sunset 5