Friday, October 23, 2009

Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired [movie review]

* Released theatrically in July 2008; now available on DVD
The timing of the release of Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired almost couldn't have been better for the filmmakers behind the documentary, given recent developments concerning the Oscar-winning director. The film deconstructs the saga of events that lead Polanski to flee the United States for France in 1978, before the outcome of his trial for crimes involving a thirteen year old girl had been decided. Polanski's arrest last month in Zurich shines new light back on the bizarre case and there is no better place to acquaint one's self with his story than this fascinating documentary from director Marina Zenovich.
For those uninitiated in his details and background, here is my own quick recap: Polanski had survived two horrible ordeals in his life (the Holocaust as a child in Poland and the murder of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson family) and emerged as a heralded, visionary director of such classics as Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and Repulsion. He had developed a reputation for his excessive habits, including drugs, booze and a fondness for young women. In March 1977, he was charged with raping a thirteen year old girl at the home of actor Jack Nicholson (who was away at the time). After being released on bail he was eventually indicted on felony charges of perversion, sodomy, rape by use of drugs, lewd and lascivious acts on a minor and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. Polanski plead guilty to the lesser charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse and served 42 days before being released, with the expectation that he would then be given probation. As the legal machinations turned slowly and indicated a harsher sentence was possible, Polanski became spooked and retreated to France, where he has lived in exile ever since (he also owns a home in Switzerland).
The film presents a meticulous analysis of the post-arrest legal aftermath, highlighting the ineptitude of presiding judge Laurence J. Rittenband. The judge was focused more on the celebrity aspect of the proceedings and his own image than overseeing a fair and quick trial. Revelations about his appalling conduct and decision-making fairly paint him as the biggest reason why Polanski felt the need to leave the country because he felt he couldn't get an honest trial. Rittenband died in 1994, but Polanski's lawyer (Douglas Dalton) and the prosecuting assistant district attorney (Roger Gunson) provide separate damning corroborating interviews that speak to his incompetency. The role of the media in the case is also examined, providing ample footage and commentary serving as a reminder that media circuses were alive and well, even 30+ years ago.
The actual details of the events that incriminated Polanski are dealt with from a peripheral vantage point, with Zenovich focussing more on the man himself and the fallout from the crime. Polanski contends the sex was consensual, which still makes it a crime considering the girl's age, and also acknowledges giving her champagne and quaaludes. Zenovich takes a neutral stance on her subject, refusing to condemn him for his admitted wrongdoings nor playing the sympathy card derived from the tribulations in his life, including getting a raw deal from the American legal system. The victim herself, Samantha Geimer, weighs in, stating that both she and Polanski got dealt life sentences by the absence of closure and unwanted media intrusion.
The documentary admirably manages to remain captivating despite the absence of Polanski himself being interviewed for the film. Archival footage and older interviews allow him a voice, as do numerous inspired snippets from his films which are inserted at correlating points in the movie to help bolster Zenovich's narrative. The supporting players are well utilized in helping to shape the rest of the story.
The timing of Polanski's recent arrest is odd, considering he has spent time in Switzerland over the years. Why now? Also defying logic is the vocal support he's gotten from his Hollywood brethren, with many A-list actors and directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen speaking on his behalf. Despite all his accolades and suffering, the man is still a fugitive who committed a heinous crime.
The latest development in the case saw the U.S. Embassy yesterday submitting a formal extradition request to Swiss authorities. Just the day before, one of Polanski's lawyers inferred that the director would be willing to finally return to America to "explain himself", a notion that was subsequently shot down by another of Polanski's lawyers, who insists they will fight the extradition order. It just gets weirder and weirder...almost like something out of one of his own films.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆