PARIS — Talk about timing.
As France is still reeling from the recent allegations against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein—among them accusations ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault from several prominent French actresses—another famously infamous man of the movies is yet again in the spotlight. On Monday night, Roman Polanski appeared as the guest of honor at Paris’s prestigious cinema museum, La Cinémathèque Francaise, to kick off a month-long retrospective of his oeuvre.
The Oscar-winning Franco-Polish director is behind such acclaimed films as Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Pianist. He is also a sex offender who has been on the lam for decades after failing to show up for sentencing in 1978 after having been convicted of “unlawful sex” with a 13-year-old girl.
And that could be just the tip of the iceberg. This month, a California woman said that Polanski molested her in 1975 when she was just 10 years old. These accusations come on the heels of two similar allegations this year: one from a 61-year-old woman who said that Polanski raped her in the chic Swiss resort town of Gstaad when she was 15, and another from a woman who accused the director of “sexually victimizing” her in 1973 when she too was a teenager. To date, a total of five women have accused Polanski of sexual assault.
That the fugitive filmmaker was to be honored at one of the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions was enough for one feminist activist to launch a petition on Change.org urging the Cinémathèque to cancel its Polanski homage altogether.
“We’re hungry for culture, not rape culture,” Laure Salmona wrote on the website, calling Polanski’s honor “indecent.”
“It’s an insult to all the women who mobilized around the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc (Expose the pig) hashtags, and an affront to all rape victims, particularly Polanski’s victims,” she added.
Over 27,000 people signed the petition, but the organizers would not be dissuaded and the homage opened on Monday night in the city’s 12th Arrondissement, where Polanski was born.
The evening did not run entirely smoothly.
In addition to the dozens of demonstrators outside the venue, two topless Femen protesters with “Very Important Pedocriminel” written on their torsos interrupted the event, shouting “No honors for rapists!” before they were quickly escorted out.
Polanski, 84, has been a polarizing figure in France long before the Weinstein saga or the latest allegations against him. He was born in Paris in 1933, and has been freely living and working here since 1978 after fleeing the U.S. authorities. Attempts at extradition have thus far been unsuccessful. He was briefly sentenced to house arrest in 2009 at his mountain chalet in Switzerland, but released six months later after Swiss authorities chose not to extradite him. Although the French government formally withdrew support of Polanski following his arrest, film industry luminaries rallied around him, drawing up an outraged petition that demanded his immediate release. In the petition’s text Polanski is presented not as a fugitive, but as a victim of the justice system and beloved cultural treasure.
“Roman Polanski is a French citizen, a renowned and international artist now facing extradition,” the petition read. “This extradition, if it takes place, will be heavy in consequences and will take away his freedom.”
Among the signatories were cinematic heavyweights such as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Woody Allen, and yes, Harvey Weinstein.
While Polanski has his critics, they don’t typically comprise the film industry’s elite. The aging director has come under fire from women’s rights groups, including Osez Le Féminisme (Dare to be Feminist), which petitioned against Polanski’s nomination earlier this year to preside over the César awards (the French equivalent to the Oscars). Polanski ended up refusing the nomination, citing the “unjustified” controversy it had caused. Osez Le Féminisme, the group behind Monday night’s protest, has also railed against the Cinémathèque’s decision to honor Polanski.
“Have we learned nothing these past few weeks?” the group demanded in a statement on its website. “By choosing to produce this Polanski retrospective and by negating his criminal deeds, the Cinémathèque is contributing to the idea that raping a child is not all that serious in the face of artistic genius.”
Indeed, in a news release addressing the controversy the Cinémathèque emphasized the distinction between Polanski the man and Polanski the celebrated director, adding that the organization does not see itself as a “substitute for the law.”
“We don’t give out prizes or certificates for good behavior,” the statement reads. “Our ambition is different: to show the complete work of filmmakers and to place them in the permanent history of the Cinémathèque.”
Even France’s culture minister chimed in to defend the retrospective.
“It’s about a body of work, not about a man,” Françoise Nyssen told France Inter. “It’s not for me to condemn a body of work.”
Among the names on the Cinémathèque’s news release is that of its president, Costa-Gavras (Z), who is the same age as Polanski and also a filmmaker. Despite the statement’s neutral tone, Costa-Gavras has long been a Polanski supporter. Not only was he among the signatories of the 2009 petition demanding his release, but he has also publically denied that Polanski’s actions were criminal to begin with.
“There was no rape in this story,” Costa-Gavras told French radio station Europe1 in 2009. “You see a picture [of the victim] and she looked twenty-five.”
Does Costa-Gavras believe Polanski is innocent, then? Has he read the court testimony, in which 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) details how the director allegedly plied her with champagne and a tranquilizer before penetrating her vaginally and anally? Does he still really stand by his statement that Polanski didn’t in fact commit rape?
“Neither Costa-Gavras nor Frédéric Bonnaud (the organization’s general director) will participate in an interview,” the Cinémathèque's spokesperson told The Daily Beast in a curt email when approached about Costa-Gavras’s remarks.
And therein lies another reason that the reverence of Polanski will likely continue in his home country: the tendency to view an artist’s questionable behavior—or, in this case, criminal activity—through the lens of creative eccentricity. Even Polanski himself has attempted to rationalize his proclivity for underage girls.
“I realize, if I have killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see?” he told the British writer Martin Amis in an interview shortly after he had fled to France. “But… fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls—everyone wants to fuck young girls!”
Actually, they don’t. But if you’re an esteemed director like Roman Polanski, the idea is apparently more palatable.
“I don’t understand what the fuss is about,” a French former acquaintance told me a couple of years back. He was in his late-30s at the time, worked in the arts, and also tended to prefer the company of girls who were still in (or barely out of) their teens. “This happened decades ago, the woman [Samantha Geimer] wants the charges dropped, and Polanski is an artist.”
He added: “Artists can’t help but desire what is beautiful.”
That this nearly middle-aged man thought teenagers were the epitome of desirability is another issue entirely (hey, he is an ex-acquaintance!) but recalling his comments reminded me why Polanski was celebrated at the Cinémathèque last night, regardless of the protesters converging outside.
While topless demonstrators hurled insults at the Cinémathèque last night, France 5 aired an interview with Polanski during which he discussed his career and his latest film, Based on a True Story. At no point during the 22-minute segment did the presenter, Claire Chazal, mention Samantha Geimer or the latest sexual assault allegations against him. The focus was squarely on Polanski the artist and cinéaste. In her introduction, Chazal called Polanski a “major director” and a “visionary man.” The only time she alluded to any controversy surrounding Polanski was a brief remark about how he had experienced “much personal drama.”
Roman Polanski is an old pervert and a convicted sexual predator. But unlike Weinstein, who was a businessman and a hustler, Polanski is also a highly talented and much-lauded director. For many in France’s film industry, the latter will always trump the former.