DVD Review: “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”

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polanskiLike any film student who worships Chinatown and loved The Pianist, I was intrigued by how Roman Polanski, the charismatic film director, would be portrayed in Marina Zenovich’s documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.  Here is a man whose life reads like a Charles Dickens novel: Raised in Poland, his parents were persecuted by the Nazis and his mother died in Auschwitz.  As a child during World War II, he managed to survive the Krakow ghetto with the help of a Polish Catholic farmer.  After the war and reuniting with his father, Polanski went to film school and eventually gained an international reputation as an artist thanks to his film, Knife in the Water.  He went to England in the middle of the swinging ’60s and became the toast of the town.  He went on to make several more movies, including the horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers.  It was while making this film that he met and fell in love with actress Sharon Tate; their storybook romance was fodder for the British press and when they married it was a big event.  After Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby was an enormous success, he and Tate moved to Los Angeles, where they were able to slip into anonymity, should they please.  But tragedy struck Polanski’s life again when, while he was away working in England, Tate and four friends were murdered by Charles Manson’s ‘family.’

Devastated, Polanski fled California, in part because the tabloids exploited the murder of his beloved wife.  In 1974, he returned to Hollywood to direct Chinatown, the Academy Award-winning film that is considered one of the finest films of the ’70s, if not of all time.  By the late ’70s, though, Polanski’s life unraveled when he committed “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.”  Then 44, Polanski was photographing 13-year-old Samantha (Gailey) Geimer for Vogue.  According to the police reports, he gave her champagne, a Quaalude, and then had sex with her.  When arrested, Polanski was unsure what he had done wrong.

In Roman Polanski: Wanted ad Desired, Zenovich follows the course of the Polanski trial from the initial arrest all the way to the night Polanski boarded an airplane and left the United States, never to return.  For her film, she not only interviews many of Polanski’s friends (who never really defend his actions, but seem to justify what he did as something of a result of his tortured soul), but also Polanski’s defense attorney, Douglas Dalton, speaking for the first time about the infamous case, prosecuting attorney, Roger Gunson (also speaking about the case for the first time), and the victim of the crime, Samantha Geimer.

Polanski’s crime was heinous.  Period.  No matter how you spin it, he committed statutory rape.  However, as Zenovich expertly shows in her film, the director was a victim of a mistrial of justice, in particular a glory-seeking judge who basked in the glow of the attention he got from the high-profile case.  Judge Laurence Rittenband was assigned the case and he proceeded to manipulate the hearings to make them as much a show for the press as a legal proceeding.   Polanski did everything that was asked of him by the courts after agreeing to a plea bargain, including turning himself over to the Chino State Prison in California for 90 days of psychiatric evaluation.  When he was released after just 42 days and it became known that Polanski would not have to serve hard jail time, Rittenband became embarrassed and changed his mind as to what was agreed upon by the prosecutors and the defense.  Only after Polanski and his defense attorney realized that the judge could not be trusted did he flee the United States,

Zenovich does a remarkable job in cross-cutting between the case as it unfolded and detailing the past events of Polanski’s life leading up to the crime.  She certainly makes a case for Polanski to be forgiven and allowed back in the States.  In her interview, Geimer even says that she’s forgiven him and that she believes he should be allowed to return.  Whether Polanski ever comes back is doubtful.  He’s revered in France, where he lives, and his fans and peers have already forgiven him; in 2004 he won the Academy Award for Best Director (for The Pianist).   Just as important, she keeps the viewer involved throughout the movie; never boring, always thought-provoking.

The DVD comes with plenty of extras, including deleted scenes and extended interviews with Polanski’s friends, colleagues and the other people involved with the case.  It should be noted that Polanski was not interviewed at all for the movie.  However, through smart use of archival footage, Polanski is seen talking about his life and the case at pivotal moments.  If you are a Polanski fan or just enjoy a good documentary, I highly recommend this film.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Thinkfilm) is available through Amazon

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