The first thing Roman Polanski does when we’re introduced is to hold up his hand, which has an elastic band wrapped around two fingers. He waves it and suddenly the elastic is on two other fingers. With a raffish smirk, he demonstrates it again. I suspect this is the Orson Welles factor coming into play: a nifty bit of flim-flam designed at once to charm and disarm the journalist, to present himself as a gamesome wag but also to show who’s in charge.
So here we are in Paris, walking to Polanski’s chosen restaurant. I’m trying to reconcile this charming, amiable, slightly distracted man, far too boyish and dapper to be a plausible 61, with his other images: the one-time maestro of screen paranoia, or the tabloid headline monster he subsequently became — an “evil, profligate dwarf” — as he famously put it in his 1984 memoir Roman.
I wonder where Polanski’s equanimity comes from — whether it’s a philosophical attitude gained from an intense, exceptionally traumatic life or simply the result of PR flair mastered over years of interrogation from both the press and the law.
Polanski has, after all, navigated an existence more densely filled with extremes than any other filmmaker’s. There was his wartime childhood as an escapee from Krakow’s Jewish ghetto; a phenomenal rise to fame in the 1960s with nightmarish films like Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion; then in 1969 the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, by acolytes of Charles Manson.
Her death was followed by lurid media speculation that the couple had invited tragedy by dabbling in black magic, a notion suggested by Polanski’s satanic hit of the previous year, Rosemary’s Baby.
Then, in 1977, Polanski fell from Hollywood grace after pleading guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. After 90 days in a psychiatric prison, he skipped America for Europe, and has been unable to return to the States ever since.
At one point in his memoir, the director realises that he has suddenly become “the notorious Roman Polanski” and there’s no getting round that label when interviewing him. You’re never quite sure whether you should be addressing the working director or the tabloid headline.
But the PR face is unflappable, and he seems unfazed by anything he’s asked. Asking about his new film, Death and the Maiden, I mention that some critics have found it hard to see where it fits in his canon, and he shrugs. “I make my choices instinctively and execute them instinctively too. I don’t theorise much before the film is done.”
However disturbing some of his films are, they have never been what you’d call art-house cinema; they always take the direct approach to communicate with audiences. Only occasionally, the result seems middle of the road. Death and the Maiden is a case in point, a single-set adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s stage play.
Sigourney Weaver plays a woman who has been tortured and raped in a South American state, who later turns the tables on her presumed tormentor, played by Ben Kingsley. All the elements are there to make it readily classifiable as a Polanski film: it’s claustrophobic, it concerns physical and mental torment and jockeying for power, and it’s about interrogation.
Yet it doesn’t resonate. It’s well-made, elegant drama, boasting intense performances; but it’s not interesting in any way that Dorfman’s play is not already. It doesn’t seem the most ambitious thing Polanski might have done.
“What’s ambitious?” he retorts. “Think it’s not ambitious to make a film with three people only in one house, and not bore the audience to tears, keep their attention through great moments of intense emotion? I do what I feel like doing, and I don’t care what they want me to do. I always did it for my own satisfaction, and I continue in this way. Otherwise I’d be much richer.”
One sticking point is the casting of Weaver. She’s not an obvious choice, Polanski agrees: “But using an actress in a role which is not obviously tailored for her gives those unexpected moments, because sometimes she has to struggle a little bit, play against the grain. I thought it could give some happy surprises, and it did.”
Death and the Maiden will certainly stand Polanski in better stead publicly than his last film, the spectacularly misunderstood Bitter Moon. In this cruel comedy of sado-masochistic passion, Polanski’s gamble was to use sensationalist extremism to play SM games with his own audience. In reality, though, most viewers seem to have reacted with disbelieving hilarity.
Was Polanski disappointed? “Of course — I would be a masochist if I was not. There was a lot of humour in it, don’t you think? They’re allowed to laugh. I think the film touched certain feelings many people identify with and feel very uncomfortable about recalling.”
Most observers concluded that the film was a projection of the director’s own fantasies. Polanski is quick to dispute this, but he admits: “Filmmaking is like making an X-ray of a film-maker’s soul, so obviously it’s all about me. But the way they represent it, it’s simplistic and naive and idiotic. They take an event or a character in a film and say ‘this is him’. I was not aware of it until the death of Sharon Tate, when they suddenly started talking about black magic. Whatever I do, they always find a way of somehow squeezing my own life into his picture.”
Based in Paris since 1978, Polanski tends to be characterised as an exile from Hollywood. Yet in Europe he’s hardly idle — he’s acted on stage and in films, and directed at the new Opera Bastille. How much of an exile does he feel?
“I always lived as an exile, or should I say, a fugitive. From a very child I was a fugitive. But that’s my life — it’s hard for me to imagine any other state.”
Is that the appeal of filmmaking, that it allows him to be stateless?
“You mean like a nomad? Definitely. It’s more than that. It’s just going from adventure to adventure — not from country to country but from world to world. Because it is a world, a film. It’s so complex, so involving, so gigantic that hardly anyone who hasn’t done it can imagine what it entails. When I think about my life, when you ask me about the details, the milestones for me are movies.” — The Guardian
For external observers, though, the milestones would be those public events that mark the sudden seismic breaks in Polanski’s career. The most cataclysmic for his work — bearing in mind that after Tate’s death he went on to make Chinatown, possibly his masterpiece — was the encounter with the 13-year-old “Sandra”, as he calls her in the book. It led to his exit from Hollywood, and to a series of films in which Polanski never quite regained his former confidence. Still unable to return to the States, Polanski can’t see the situation changing in the foreseeable future.
Polanski is now settling into the role of loving father. His daughter by Emmanuelle Seigner, Morgane, is now two years old, and Polanski says his life has changed. He works from home, and delights in Morgane’s disruptive tendencies. “I don’t always get much work done — she’s always calling, ‘Jouez!’
“I think it’s great to have a child late in life. When you’re young you’re too busy searching for a place for yourself in the world. I think I’m giving her much more than I would give her if I were young. I’m more patient, more tolerant.”
Eleven years after the harrowing picture that closes his book, Polanski’s life does seem at last to have found the “happy ever after” note that would then have seemed unimaginable.
“When I think about certain events of the past,” he says, “I think, Christ, I should not have done this or that, and then I think — but I would not be where I am today. That’s the irony of it. Turning the corner one block too late or too early changes completely your future. I find myself where I am, and I’m glad, because I like my life now.”
It’s an odd picture — Polanski at last redeemed as happy Hello! photo spread candidate alongside Emmanuelle and Morgane. It remains to be seen whether belated comfort also means that the film-maker will settle for yeomanly moderation — although, after the pillorying of Bitter Moon, you can see why he might. But it’s unlikely that Polanski will worry too much about what’s expected of him, or about anyone trying to read his life against his work. As he says, “I don’t have to play ball, do I?”