CANNES, France – In his prime, Roman Polanski was one of the world’s most accomplished film directors. From his dazzling debut feature, Knife in the Water, through a string of brilliant films in the ‘60s and ‘70s that included Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown, he cemented a reputation as a brilliant wunderkind. A product of the Polish New Wave, Polanski combined the technical finesse of a Hollywood master with a flair for macabre themes influenced by his own tragic history growing up during the Nazi era.
Unfortunately, since Polanski fled the United States in 1978 to avoid possible imprisonment for a sexual assault guilty plea involving a minor, he has become better known for his association with a scandal that remains an open wound. Although it has always astonished me that even some seasoned cinephiles have vowed never to see another Polanski film—the assumption that great art can only be made by morally upstanding individuals seems blatantly wrong —it’s understandable that certain viewers might feel uncomfortable about imperatives to thoroughly ignore Polanski’s unsavory past. As the late Jenny Diski observed, “Polanski has made some cracking films, but Knife in the Water and Chinatown, fine works as they are, surely don’t license their director to rape.” Diski argued that, although we should separate an artist’s work from his behavior, “the behavior itself shouldn’t be excused.”
Polanski has recently been in the news again—both for the refusal of an American court to allow him to dictate the terms of a return to the States to visit his late wife Sharon Tate’s grave, and his withdrawal from the jury of the French Cesar awards after feminist groups strenuously objected. Of course, no one from the characteristically fawning entertainment press was indelicate enough to mention these matters at a Cannes press conference on Saturday that pondered the merits of Polanski’s new film, Based on a True Story.
Screened out of competition on Saturday, Based On a True Story certainly sounds promising on paper. Adapted by Polanski and Olivier Assayas from a well-received book by the French writer Delphine de Vigan, the distinguished cast includes Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s wife), Eva Green, and Vincent Perez. Yet, even for late Polanski, the film is stale and uninspired. An overripe melodrama that might at least have been more entertaining if it degenerated into full-fledged camp, the not particularly coherent narrative involves the unhealthy relationship between Delphine (Seigner), a wildly successful novelist, and a mercurial woman named Elle (Green), a ghost writer harboring maniacal fantasies about usurping her friend’s identity.
The increasingly unhinged Delphine seems oddly receptive to Elle’s nuttier suggestions, which include a plan to take her friend and mentor’s place at book signings. Largely ignored by her romantic partner, Francois (Perez), the host of a TV book discussion program, Delphine becomes increasingly plagued by writers’ block. As the plot becomes more convoluted, Elle eventually emerges as both evil and ridiculous. Green, who combines an erotic shimmer with a great sense of comic timing, is the film’s saving grace. She seems to be the only cast member aware of the material’s inherent ludicrousness. Whether writing vengeful posts on Facebook or sabotaging Delphine’s domestic routine, she’s an entertaining villain. There is also some inadvertent humor to be derived from Perez’s performance as a manic name-dropper. The mere litany of literary luminaries he’s chasing after for interviews—Joan Didion, Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo, among others—is perhaps comic for no other reason than the high-minded aura of this list contrasts sharply with the pulpy orientation of the film itself.
In the final analysis, Based on a True Story fails to impress because it is so patently derivative. The symbiotic relationship of two female protagonists, bound together in a turbulent love-hate relationship, is a scenario that has been mined almost endlessly in numerous films—Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female are merely the most prestigious examples. It’s arguable that the doppelgänger theme, employed by such eminent writers as Dostoyevsky, Poe, and Nabokov, has proved resilient over the years. The problem is that this movie cannot inject new life into a tried and true formula. Rather surprisingly, Polanski and Assayas fail mightily to convince us why Delphine and Elle are drawn to each other in the first place. Their fateful literary kinship is merely parasitic on older, better movies.
One of Delphine’s failed projects involves a novelistic assessment of reality television. On the surface, it would seem as though the slippage between fiction and reality would be an appropriate topic for Polanski, a man whose own biographical reality has proved much stranger and unpredictable than the plots of most movies. At the film’s press conference, Olivier Assayas remarked, quite reasonably, that fiction often possesses truths that non-fiction, the supposed barometer of truth, fails to impart. Sadly, Based on a True Story, a failed opportunity, is not convincing as either melodrama or social commentary.