VENICE, Italy—Before we delve into Roman Polanski’s latest film, or for that matter his rapturous reception at this year’s Venice Film Festival, let’s get reacquainted with the facts.
On March 10, 1977, Polanski, then 43, invited 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) to the Los Angeles home of pal Jack Nicholson for a photo shoot. After plying Gailey with glasses of champagne and half a Quaalude, she alleged that she felt “dizzy… like things were kind of blurry sometimes. I was having trouble with my coordination, like walking and stuff.” She then claimed that Polanski placed her on a bed and performed oral, vaginal, and anal sex on her—ignoring her repeated pleas for him to stop. “I was mostly just on and off saying, ‘No, stop.’ But I wasn’t fighting really because I, you know, there was no one else there and I had no place to go,” she later testified.
Nicholson was out of town, but his girlfriend Anjelica Huston was there, and at one point—feeling something was amiss—knocked on the door, only to have Polanski shoo her away.
Polanski, who has said a number of times over the years that the sex was consensual (even though Gailey was well under the age of consent), was charged with furnishing a controlled substance to a minor; perversion; a lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14; sodomy; and rape by use of drugs. He pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” and, after serving 42 days of a 90-day psychiatric evaluation at Chino State Prison, fled the country upon learning he could face additional jail time.
In the years since, three other women have come forward alleging that Polanski sexually assaulted them—with one woman claiming he molested her when she was just 10 years old. While the director of such films as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown was expelled from the Academy last year, he’d previously received a standing ovation from much of Hollywood for receiving the Best Director Oscar in 2003, was supported by over 100 Hollywood signatories following his Swiss arrest in 2009 (including Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, and Tilda Swinton), and has been working steadily in Europe.
Which brings us to Venice. On Friday, Polanski’s new film J’accuse (English title: An Officer and a Spy) premiered for critics and industry folks on the Lido. The screening I attended at the Sala Grande attracted far and away the most interest of the fest so far, its line wrapping around the theater and eclipsing that of Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra. J’accuse explores the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal lasting from 1894 to 1906 wherein Alfred Dreyfus (Louis Garrel), one of the few Jewish officers in the French Army, was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly passing military secrets over to the Germans, and subsequently banished to “Devil’s Island.” His conviction rested entirely on hearsay, forged evidence, and anti-Semitism, however, and, thanks to the tireless efforts of French intelligence officer Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), Dreyfus is ultimately freed.
In the official film notes distributed to press and industry for J’accuse, the producers included an interview between Polanski and his close friend, French writer Pascal Bruckner, whose 1981 novel Lunes de fiel was adapted by Polanski into the 1992 film Bitter Moon.
During the remarkably chummy exchange, Bruckner asks, “As a Jew who was hunted during the war and a filmmaker persecuted by the Stalinists in Poland, will you survive the present-day neo-feminist McCarthyism which, as well as chasing you all over the world and trying to prevent the screening of your films, among other vexations got you expelled from the Oscars Academy?” To that, Polanski replied, “Working, making a film like this helps me a lot. In the story, I sometimes find moments I have experienced myself, I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case… I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me.”
Prior to its Venice premiere, jury president Lucrezia Martel responded to criticisms of Polanski’s film’s inclusion in the competition lineup, explaining, “I do not divide the artists from their works of art. I think that important aspects about the work of art emerge from the man.” She also added that she “recognized a lot of humanity in Polanski’s previous films,” and that she did not plan on attending the film’s gala event on Friday, since she did not want to “congratulate” the filmmaker. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Luca Barbareschi, a producer on J’accuse, threatened to yank the movie from the fest unless Martel issued an apology—which she later did, saying her “words were deeply misunderstood” and that she bears no “prejudice” toward the film.
When the lights went up following its press screening in Venice, many of the critics and industry players in attendance applauded. They also showered the cast and producers with applause prior to—and following—the film’s press conference (even though the 86-year-old Polanski was not in attendance), with many members of the largely European media eagerly snapping photos of the Polanski collaborators, as is their wont.
In addition to Polanski, Birth of a Nation filmmaker Nate Parker is here in Venice with American Skin, his first film since a rape allegation against him came to light. Just last year, the fest’s red carpet was invaded by an Italian filmmaker donning a “Weinstein Innocent” shirt. And in 2016, Mel Gibson’s “comeback” movie, the WWII drama Hacksaw Ridge, unspooled in Venice, with the outspoken racist getting heaps of applause at every turn.
It’s a troubling trend—and one that hopefully won’t continue.