When it comes to documentary film portraits of show-business personalities, there are multiple obstacles to be overcome. Given the fact that film stars and directors are cosseted by an array of agents, publicists, and other hangers-on, the possibilities for uncritical enshrinement are high. Yet since the public and press are notoriously fickle, it’s not surprising when former idols are eventually demonized and the biographical impulse congeals into what Joyce Carol Oates terms “pathography”—a sensationalistic preoccupation with the flaws, perceived or real, of influential men and women. In other words, in the realm of what has been called the “bio-doc,” objectivity is an elusive pipe dream.
Laurent Bouzereau’s Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, which comes quite close to being an authorized portrait, is much more of an enshrinement than a warts-and all exposé. This being said, any documentary dealing with Roman Polanski, unquestionably one of the most influential film directors of the last 50 years, is certainly not without interest. Unfortunately, the film, more or less an unadorned interview with Polanski conducted by Andrew Braunsberg, his former producer, reveals little that can’t be gleaned from reading Polanski’s own memoir or Barbara Leaming’s biography.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible not to be moved by Polanski’s retelling of his harrowing childhood, one of the most remarkable Holocaust tales ever recounted by anyone, celebrity or not. Born in Paris, his parents made the disastrous decision to return to Poland when he was 3 and arriving in Krakow, he was shuttled to Warsaw, a city that was erroneously thought to be a safer haven. In a kind of danse macabre, they retraced their steps to Krakow, where the Nazis were constructing a heinous ghetto and the “final solution” was in full swing. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by Polanski’s recollections of his mother’s death in Auschwitz, his father’s careful plans to have him sheltered by non-Jewish Poles, and the starvation diet he endured in the Polish countryside—both before and after the country was liberated by the Russians in 1945.
Bouzereau and Braunsberg nevertheless make the fatal mistake of assuming that Polanski’s suffering somehow ennobles him and also become stymied by a misguided desire to interpret his films in purely biographical terms. By this logic, pastoral scenes in Tess and Oliver Twist become linked to the budding director’s wartime refuge in rural Poland and references to his short stature lead inevitably to the famous scene from Chinatown where Polanski portrayed a diminutive thug, a memorable cameo that, in his own words, reaffirmed his reputation as an “evil, profligate dwarf.” When prodded, Polanski proves a rather unreliable critic of his own films. For understandable personal reasons, he maintains that The Pianist, which won the Palme d’or in Cannes in 2002 and draws considerably upon his horrific childhood experiences, is his proudest achievement. Yet he dismisses Repulsion, his creepy psychological thriller starring Catherine Deneuve, and arguably a much more innovative film, as virtual hackwork.
It’s obvious that many potential viewers of this film have little interest in the niceties of film history and —to put it crudely—will be eager to proceed to the biographical money shot: Polanski’s 1978 arrest for sexual relations with a minor, subsequently revealed as Samantha Geimer. The documentary’s gloss on this scandal and his eventual European exile will disappoint both moralists who have vowed never again to see another Polanski movie and his most ardent defenders. Braunsberg and Bouzereau merely reiterate the conclusions of Marina Zenovich’s 2008 Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, especially its contention that Judge Lawrence Ritterband’s ethically dubious determination to re-imprison Polanski after he served 42 days of a 90-day sentence led inextricably to his hasty retreat to Europe.
Even if the fawning Braunsberg had little interest in continuing Zenovich’s investigative thrust, he might have at least probed, however gingerly, into the psychological dynamic that led many of the director’s admirers to believe that sexual assault was a trivial matter. It’s possible to agree that Polanski has, to invoke the cliché, “suffered enough” and should not be extradited to the United States and still question the film’s underlying assumption that his genius, and the sheer weight of his suffering—not only his Holocaust scars but the bereavement he endured when his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by members of the Manson family— somehow makes what the police transcripts describe as the repeated rape of a young woman a peccadillo of no intrinsic importance.
After Polanski was jailed in Switzerland, and threatened with possible deportation to the U.S. in 2009, luminaries such as Milan Kundera, Bernard- Henri Lévy, and Mike Nichols urged Switzerland to free Polanski from his “politico-legal imbroglio.” Writing with lucid indignation in the London Review of Books, the British critic Jenny Diski observed that: “the petitioners suggest that Polanski’s persecuted youth in Poland offers some explanation for his having sex with a 13-year-old at the age of 44. It might, but it doesn’t explain why others who have a similar background haven’t done that, or why some people without a disadvantaged background have. As to his talent, it’s clear there’s long been a thought around that ‘creative’ types are inclined to behave outside social norms. This is sometimes true, but as I understood it, the point was that we must look at the work separately from the behavior, not that the behavior itself should be excused.”
Diski’s efforts to disentangle Polanski’s talent, even genius, from his apparent crimes goes a long way in revealing what is problematic with Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir. Because the author of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby was victimized by Nazis, Stalinists, and psychotic hippies, it’s assumed that he is incapable of being a victimizer himself and must be anointed a secular saint. Sadly, life is sometimes more complicated than the bromides formulated by both Roman Polanski’s champions and his many detractors.