/ 19 May 2024

Taking pot shots at Polanski

Appeals Court Orders Release Of Roman Polanski Transcript
Violence: Director Roman Polanski’s experience of Nazi crimes as a child and the murder of his wife Sharon Tate might have contributed to the tendency towards brutality in his films. Photo: Beata Zawrzel/Getty Images

Now that Roman Polanski’s long and stormy career seems finally over, what verdict should we pass on his body of work? 

Is the 90-year-old Pole one of the greatest film directors, as especially claimed by the French cultural establishment? Is he so important that we should wink at his statutory rape of a drugged 13-year-old and almost 50-year flight from justice?

An overview of his more than 20 feature films brings into relief his great technical facility, particularly in his early films, gift for building suffocating emotional tension.

But they also bear out his fascination with psychic disintegration, interpersonal conflict, sexual dysfunction and, tinged with sadism, the abuse of women.

After making his initial mark with the Polish-language Knife in the Water, his first Oscar nomination, he really turned heads with such essays in horror and anomie as the claustrophobic “apartment trilogy” (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant) and Macbeth.

He has ventured into comedy, but two efforts at either end of his career, the flat-footed, mixed-genre Cul-de-Sac (1966) and last year’s Palace, panned by one critic as a “ghastly flaccid hotel farce”, suggest his heart was not really in it.

He has been at his most potent when portraying human misery. Commenting on his 1992 erotic “comedy” Bitter Moon, which ends in a murder-suicide, the critic Janet Matlin described his underlying worldview as “nasty, mocking and darkly subversive”.

For the viewer, the resultant mood is generally one of emotional disturbance and gloom. Ordinary pursuits tend to be waved away and there is little to suggest the possibility of untwisted personal attachments.  

“If ever there was a body of work on intimate terms with cruelty and domination, and steeped in a vision in which men are cold-blooded and women cold-hearted, this is it,” writes The Guardian’s Leo Robson.

The most memorable films end in loathing, suicide, madness, murder and the triumph of evil. 

But he is a complicated man whose current wife, French actor Emmanuelle Seigner, insists is incapable of violence. Unlike Michael Fassbender and Wesley Snipes, for example, he has never been accused of physical battery. The lead character in The Tenant, an introverted Polish office-worker at sea in hostile Paris, played by himself, can be seen as partly autobiographical.

But the abundance of physical brutality in his films suggests a charged fantasy world that might have grown from the loss of his parents in Nazi-occupied Poland and childhood exposure to Nazi crimes, such as the shooting of an old Jewish woman in the Krakow ghetto.

“These early experiences of the oppression of the weak stole his innocence and distorted his sense of things,” Robson remarks.

The coarsening of his sensibility is also suggested by his impenitent attitude towards his self-confessed rape — in fact, he seems to view himself as the object of a puritanical, and possibly anti-Semitic, witch-hunt.

In a notorious interview with the novelist Martin Amis in 2009, he ascribed the rape uproar to the paedophiliac lust of media practitioners, judges and jurists, saying that “everyone wants to fuck young girls”. He also admitted that he liked “girls of [the rape victim’s] age … and they seem to like me”.

(The original charges, softened by a plea bargain, were considerably more serious and included rape after feeding Mandrax to a minor.)

Polanski’s insouciance is further indicated by photos taken at the Munich Oktoberfest during his trial, under terms set by the court, showing him cavorting with young girls, jugs of beer in hand.

Another plea in his defence is that the savage, drug-fuelled murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, might have indelibly darkened his cinematic vision. In particular, it is pointed out that Tate’s killing and mutilation by the Manson family in August 1969 preceded his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is filled with gratuitous visual brutality, including the decapitation of the anti-hero, whose head bounces down the castle stairs, and the gang rape of Lady Macduff’s maid.

Gratuitous nudity — Lady Macbeth’s naked somnambulism and the stabbing of Macduff’s naked teenage son while bathing, for instance — was a further interpolation, prompting some critics to point out that Playboy owner Hugh Hefner financed the film.

In fact, Polanski’s visual sadism predates the Tate murder. Repulsion was released in June 1965 and Rosemary’s Baby, in which Rosemary is graphically raped by the devil after her legs are tied apart by coven members, in June 1968. He has a taste for the rough treatment or moral/mental overthrow of childlike young beauties such as Mia Farrow, Francesca Annis and Nastassja Kinski. 

Polanski’s belief that he has been crucified emerges clearly from the parallel he drew between himself and Alfred Dreyfus, the 19th-century victim of official French anti-Semitism, while discussing his dramatisation of the Dreyfus affair in An Officer and a Spy. “I’m familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me,” he said in 2019. “I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done.”

This stunning evasion was cheered by French culturati, including woman actors such as Catherine Deneuve (who has also excoriated the #MeToo movement for infantilising women as “little things under the influence of demon phallocrats”).

Of relevance here is the concept of the “benefit of clergy”, used as a metaphor by George Orwell to explain the apparent tolerance of painter Salvador Dali’s necrophiliac and excretory fantasies.

Literally meaning that the priesthood should not have to account for crimes to the secular authorities, it is a view much favoured by the Catholic Church — witness its desire to shield paedophile priests.

For the French cultural establishment, art and artists have the same exalted status. When Polanski was arrested in Switzerland on a US extradition warrant in 2009, 850 members of the French cinematic fraternity, the SACD, petitioned for his release. They were joined by the elite of Hollywood including … wait for it … Harvey Weinstein. The Swiss courts set him free. Weinstein has given a novel twist to the “benefit of clergy” notion by arguing that, because of its “compassion”, only Hollywood is fit to judge Polanski.

It might be thought that in recent films such as The Pianist and An Officer and a Spy the Polish director has discovered a newfound concern with social justice. But their real focus is himself and his self-absorbed sense of grievance.

His operative model of society is a universal struggle for dominance. 

“If two men are on board, one is the captain,” remarks one of his characters in Knife in the Water.

It is in this work that his taste for closed interiors as spaces for gladiatorial combat first appears. The sailing boat sets the stage for a mounting Oedipal and veiled political struggle between an older journalist named Andrzej — in communist Poland, a civil servant — and a handsome young drifter, ultimately for control of Andrzej’s wife.

The theme recurs in Bitter Moon, where a cruise ship becomes a cruel testing ground for an English couple whose matrimonial idyll is soured by a sexually disabled and vengeful failed writer.

Revisiting his films, one is struck by Polanski’s ingenuity and mastery of the medium: his inventive sets, brilliant editing, acute casting and ability to wring emotional capital from the most trivial and unpromising scenes.

One example of his technical creativity is the set of Knife in the Water, which had to be mounted on a small, moving vessel on a lake.

But one sees it everywhere in the shooting detail, such as Rosemary’s hysterical attempt to escape the demonic conspiracy against her by contacting an independent doctor. 

Her terror grows as other would-be callers besiege the payphone, including a man who resembles the sinister Dr Saperstein.

There are glimpses of a humanist perspective in his portrait of the sympathetic German commanding officer in The Pianist, and perhaps in the ambiguous conclusion of Bitter Moon, where the English couple embrace in sorrow — though it is unclear whether they are truly reconciled or the emotional injury caused by their mutual infidelity is too deep for healing. 

Polanski has an Oscar for best director and five academy nominations, as well as a clutch of French Césars. But his vision has been impaired and narrowed by the intrusion of personal phantasmagoria.

He is a great technical magician and manipulator of the emotions. But, lacking their broad humanity, he cannot be classed as a great artist in the mould of Michelangelo Antonioni, Satyajit Ray or Martin Scorsese.

Actress says verdict is a ‘sad day for women’

A French court on Tuesday acquitted filmmaker Roman Polanski of defaming British actor Charlotte Lewis after she accused him of raping her when she was a teenager.

Polanski, 90, was not present for the verdict at the Paris court.

Lewis told the court she became the victim of a “smear campaign” that “nearly destroyed” her life after she spoke up about abuse that took place in the 1980s.

The 56-year-old actor told the court it had taken her time to put a name on the incident that occurred in Paris when she was 16.

France Britain Cinema Abuse Trial
In tears: Actress Charlotte Lewis, who accused Roman Polanski of raping her when she was a teen. Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP

The verdict by this court relates strictly to the charge of defamation and not the rape accusation.

The judges highlighted a “significant gap between the admiration and gratitude (of Lewis) towards the director, which she publicly expressed until 2010, and the denunciation of the violent nature of their relationship at the moment she decided to join in the condemnation against him”.

Lewis, in tears, said it was a “sad day for women accusing their assaulters”, while her lawyer, Benjamin Chouai, said she would probably appeal the ruling. 

Polanski’s most notorious conviction was one of sex with a 13-year-old minor. — Alain Jean-Robert