Marina Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” (2009)
On the surface this film is about Polish-French director Roman Polanski’s conviction for having sex with an underage girl, Samantha Gailey, in 1977, and the trial and the accompanying media circus that followed which culminated in Polanski’s flight to Europe, never to return to the United States and Hollywood; on another level, the film also examines the cult of celebrity and sensationalism that surrounded and continues to dog Polanski, and the miscarriage of justice that could have occurred in his case had he remained in the US and what it says about the attraction of fame and the pressure of maintaining an image or reputation, that individuals are prepared to waive fairness and justice and to ruin people’s lives to pursue or preserve their image. The film delves into Polanski’s past including his arrival in Britain to make his first English-language film “Repulsion” and his marriage to the impossibly beautiful Sharon Tate whose murder is also covered in some detail. A mix of archival newsreels, interviews with the people involved in the case (including the victim, Samantha Gailey-Geimer), sub-titles against a black background and snippets of Polanski’s films carries the details of the case in more or less chronological order.
At first the film jumps around from the court case as it starts to unfold, to Polanski’s early career in Britain and the US and his marriage to Tate, giving the impression of uncertainty as to what direction to follow. The effect of Tate’s murder on Polanski is described to some extent. The picture that emerges of the young Polanski is a man possessed of vitality and an appetite for life, and a desire to document injustice and corruption in society through his films; at the same time, he has a strong and unusual connection with death due to his unique experiences as a Shoah survivor. The film also examines the character of Judge Laurence J Rittenband who presided over the case: he emerges as someone susceptible to the blandishments of the cult of celebrity and concerned about maintaining his reputation as a tough “hanging” judge – in short, he’s not the judge you want to be in charge of a case like Polanski’s. Once the film dives into the chronology of the case, what Polanski was required to do after pleading guilty to the charges against him, the pace picks up and the film proceeds smoothly and determinedly all the way to the end. It makes clear that Polanski was willing to sit in jail for 90 days in spite of the danger the other inmates posed to him (he ended up sitting in jail for 42 days) and to undergo psychiatric evaluation above and beyond what California state law actually required in 1977. The film also shows the machinations that Rittenband got up to, to restore his image and reputation, after allowing Polanski to travel to Europe to work (and where he was photographed at an Oktoberfest celebration in Munich, sitting between two young women) and having to weather media criticism when the photograph starts appearing in newspapers.
Interestingly Polanski himself isn’t interviewed directly by Zenovich or a member of her crew; he appears rather as a character around which everything revolves. The really important people in the case other than Polanski – Geimer herself, Polanski’s defence lawyer Douglas Dalton and the prosecutor Roger Gunson – acquit themselves as the only sane people, surprised and not a little horrified at the shenanigans Rittenband got up to. Both Dalton and Gunson complained about Rittenband’s behaviour and had him removed from the case in 1978. Most interviewees talk of their association with Polanski and of what they knew of his life up to 1977; many of them are contemptuous of Geimer’s mother for allowing her daughter to go into a situation where she was taken advantage of. Zenovich does not interview anyone other than Geimer who defends the mother’s actions.
It’s the issues raised by the film that make it more than just a blow-by-blow account of what happened during Polanski’s trial, why he suddenly left the US never to return and the aftermath of the trial and the effect the whole affair had on Polanski’s subsequent career. The impact of Polanski’s notoriety as director of the horror film “Rosemary’s Baby”, the bizarre and violent death of Sharon Tate, Polanski’s association with Hollywood glitterati and the lifestyles they led (in contrast to the humdrum lives of most Americans) on the US general public is fairly clear: many people saw him as a sinister dark dwarf-like creature far removed from the cares of making a living. Doubtless Polanski’s fame and perceived privileged status encouraged Rittenband to want to punish him severely. There is a sub-text about the sanctity of American teenage female virginity and how it must be defended from foreigners like Polanski; I am not excusing Polanski’s actions but if they had been committed by a native-born US man with no connection to Hollywood, a Jewish background or anything else that smacked of a cosmopolitan and artistic outlook at the time, the outcome of the case might have been very different. The miscarriage of justice that would have occurred had Polanski stayed is made clear but there’s no examination of the US legal system that would show how such miscarriage is allowed to happen. Surely Rittenband wasn’t the only corrupt / corruptible judge in California at the time? If the film had shown whether the kind of justice Rittenband was prepared to dish out to Polanski was common or not, viewers would get an idea of how much the system itself encourages outlandish and extreme behaviour. Unfortumately the role of the media and celebrity culture in shaping public opinion and influencing the outcome of the case as a result is investigated very little.
The film makes no claim to being impartial and tends to be more sympathetic to Polanski than it should. A lot of emphasis is placed on Tate as a kind of angel come to save Polanski from his personal demons, as if to excuse the hedonistic life-style he later led after her death which forms the backdrop to the sex scandal. Viewers are left to decide whether Polanski has been dealt with justly or not and it’s clear from the film’s presentation that Zenovich believes he has been treated badly by the US justice system. Polanski and Geimer have suffered enough from the case and any future moves by the US government to arrest him are likely to have hypocritical motives attached, especially after the pressure it placed on Switzerland in 2007 to arrest and extradite him in the wake of the Union Bank of Switzerland’s refusal to reveal the identities of US citizens (not all of whom might have been trying to evade US tax laws) who had UBS accounts.