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Along its winding road to crucifying the American judiciary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired—which aired to mostly warm reviews on HBO a month before its theatrical release—grinds some blunt axes, makes some dizzying leaps to judgment, and does a lot of silly editing with movie clips. Focusing on the Chinatown director’s 1977 Santa Monica rape trial and his unscheduled bolt for Europe before sentencing, Marina Zenovich’s lively, exasperating documentary is loaded with testimony from cops, lawyers, and lots of Polanski pals, and book-ended by sawn-off clips from an interview the director submitted to with the British writer Clive James.
I say “submitted to” because Polanski has made no secret of his hatred for the media, which, as he sees it, has pilloried him for his free-wheeling sex life, beginning with the 1969 murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and continuing after his trial for sodomizing 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. I’ve no doubt that James, a public intellectual and film buff asked Polanski all kinds of smart questions, but the one that opens the movie is “Do you like little girls?” Without skipping a beat, Polanski replies, “I like young women [my emphasis]. I think most men do.”
By the look of it, the interview was conducted sometime in the 1980s either in Paris, where Polanski lives, or somewhere in Europe that doesn’t have an extradition agreement with the United States. Zenovich expresses a properly ambivalent sympathy for Polanski, and she isn’t shy about drawing unfavorable comparisons between American sexual prissiness and the broader mind of Europe. Nor does she waste much energy trying to make connections between Polanski’s life and work, unless you count a few awkwardly inserted clips from Chinatown, Repulsion, and Knife in the Water that could have been chosen by the Mormon prosecutor who, having boned up for the trial by catching a Polanski retrospective, brightly summarizes the director’s oeuvre for Zenovich as “corruption meeting innocence over water.”
Zenovich uses the trial and its aftermath to deliver a sucker punch to the U.S. justice system, which, she implies, screwed over Polanski with more far-reaching consequences than his screwing of Gailey, now a wholesome-looking mother of three who appears on camera to forgive her aggressor. And it’s here that Zenovich’s zeal exceeds her grasp with a blow-by-blow demolition of presiding Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, which includes blistering testimony from the lawyers for the defense and the prosecution who banded together in a successful petition to have him removed from the case when he tried to commit Polanski to prison for a second round of psychiatric evaluation after he’d been cleared in the first. Fair enough. Rittenband was known as a celebrity whore who was far too cozy with the media. He was also a party animal who dated much younger women — meaning, 20-year-old women well over the age of consent.
Like Polanski, Zenovich cruises over that distinction to insinuate that the judge was at best a hypocrite, at worst not competent to preside over the trial. She wheels in a close Polanski friend to testify that the director is “incapable of rape,” and some older women who wonder why Gailey’s mother brought her to meet him in the first place. All of which is beside the point that it is illegal and morally outrageous to take a 13-year-old girl, whether she’s a nun or a nymphomaniac, to a strange house, feed her Quaaludes and sodomize her. That, and not prudery or a predatory press, is why Polanski is “wanted” in America, and would be in Europe if the crime had occurred there.
At the end of Wanted and Desired, Polanski plaintively asks Clive James, “Do you think there’s something more to my life than my relations with young women?” It’s possible that his career was damaged, as the movie implies, by the trial and its fallout, though in fact he continued to work with Hollywood producers from exile. Just as plausibly, this masterful director, who never made good on the promise of Knife in the Water and Chinatown, simply peaked early and then applied his fabled technical expertise to a procession of potboilers (even The Pianist, which won him an Oscar in absentia, was more faithful adaptation than art), and finally burned out on high living.
In Zenovich’s movie, Polanski comes off as a self-styled victim and a liar who pleaded innocent, changed his plea to guilty of unlawful sex with a minor, then ran away without telling his lawyers. According to many who have worked with him and a clear-eyed, entertaining new biography by Christopher Sandford (to be published in September), he is also a gifted artist and a generous, intelligent, charming man whose charisma has won him undying loyalty from friends, fellow filmmakers — and, perhaps, a free pass from the critics who love this movie.