If you want to learn about Roman Polanski or about the early part of the legal case surrounding his guilty plea in California in 1978 to having sex with a 13-year-old girl, look elsewhere.
Polanski did not cooperate with the makers of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008, directed by Marina Zenovich, co-produced by the BBC and director Steven Soderbergh) and so the 140-minute documentary sheds no light on him. Anyone with more than basic knowledge of the sex case doesn't need the first hour. The film's initial presentation is so haphazard that any other viewer will be more confused than informed.
But if you are interested in the chaotic developments in the later part of the legal case that is still open after 35 years, look to the final half-hour of Wanted and Desired. (The title comes from a Polanski friend's observation that the director is respected and his company is desired in France but he is wanted by law enforcement in the United States.)
After minute #107, the documentary becomes focused in a way the muddled first hour is not. The last third features interviews with both the defense attorney and the prosecutor (but not the judge, who died in 1998). This portion creates a feeling of how the judge pushed his court proceedings completely through-the-looking-glass. That feeling can add to the understanding even of viewers familiar with the facts of the case.
It is presumably this second part that led Emmy Award voters to honor Zenovich with Emmys for outstanding writing and directing.
The basics of Polanski's life
Anyone familiar with a little of his biography knows more than the documentary tells.
Roman Polanski was born in France in 1933 and his family moved to Poland in 1936. He and his father survived imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps but Polanski's mother was murdered at Auschwitz. Polanski suffered a beating that fractured his skull.
He established an international reputation for directing such disturbing films as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965). He won wide acclaim and box office success for Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974).
His wife, Sharon Tate, was pregnant when she was butchered by followers of Charles Manson in 1969.
In 1977, Polanski had sex with a 13-year-old girl he was photographing for a magazine. He pleaded guilty to a felony, unlawful sexual intercourse, that is commonly known as statutory rape. He served 42 days in a California correctional facility while undergoing a psychiatric evaluation that concluded, as did an earlier probation report, that he should not be imprisoned. The victim and her family also asked the judge not to sentence Polanski to prison.
Polanski left the United States in 1978 and has not returned to the country since then. Swiss authorities held him under house arrest in 2009 while considering a U.S. extradition request. Switzerland ultimately refused the request.
In 1997, Polanski reached a civil settlement with his victim, who forgave him. In a 2011 documentary, Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, he says, "She's a victim twice. My victim and a victim of the press."
Polanski was admitted to France's prestigious Academie de Beaux-Arts in 1998 and in 2003 he won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Pianist (2002).
How the documentary makes a muddled mess of the early part of the case
Polanski didn't talk to the makers of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired so they include clips of him from other interviews. It is not clear why they bothered. He says nothing about the case. The closest he comes to saying anything remotely relevant is when he acknowledges he is attracted to young women. To anyone who has heard of Polanski, this is already obvious.
Polanski's victim did speak with someone on Zenovich's crew, or perhaps to Zenovich herself, but the use to which her comments is put amounts to almost nothing. It is a relief to see that she is well and apparently happy. That is all. Among the many questions she does not answer, and perhaps was not asked, is the most potentially interesting: What does she think of Polanski now?
The possibility that Zenovich and her colleagues did not ask the question is raised by their clumsiness in almost every other aspect of the documentary's first hour. They unfailingly do not identify when interviews were conducted. Leaving out essential context can foster suspicion that observations by actress Mia Farrow and others are presented in ways they did not intend.
The documentary makers also fail to identify several participants at all. They never re-identify some who appear early and then re-appear long after it is possible to have forgotten who they are. Making viewers look up basic information and take notes is simple laziness. We end up having to do much of the filmmakers' work.
The documentary includes comments from two friends of Polanski who criticize the victim's mother for trusting Polanski to be alone with her daughter. Again, it's not clear why. When pedophiles exploit parents' trust, it doesn't diminish their guilt.
Nor is it clear why about 20 minutes of the documentary are devoted to the slaughter of Sharon Tate in the Tate/LaBianca murders. That bloodbath does not affect the sex case. If, as seems likely, the goal is to generate sympathy for Polanski, the documentary makers missed their best opportunity. The horrors Polanski survived during World War II are mentioned only in passing. This seems to serve no documentary purpose. Instead it likely reflects the relative ease of finding people who can talk about Polanski in Los Angeles in the 1960s instead of people who can talk about him in Europe in the 1940s. Not for the first time, one suspects the filmmakers cut corners.
Superior documentaries can reflect their creators' points of view. There is enough to suggest that the makers of Wanted and Desired intended to nudge viewers to think more favorably of Polanski but they give too little to do that. They fail to make clear what they do include. It isn't until the gross unprofessionalism of Judge Laurence J. Rittenband becomes clear that the film comes to life. With Rittenband, Zenovich and her crew have the figure around whom to organize the more coherent final part of the documentary.
Why the final third can be worth viewing
Judge Rittenband is said by court employees and two of his former girlfriends to have loved the spotlight. He presided over the divorce case between Priscilla and Elvis Presley and over child custody cases involving Cary Grant and Marlon Brando. He aggressively pursued the chance to oversee the Polanski trial. As the victim says, "He was orchestrating some kind of show I didn't want to be part of."
Rittenband was removed from the case after Polanski left the United States. He had held a news conference about the pending case, a rare and perhaps unprecedented violation of judicial ethics. In the conference, he said he wanted Polanski deported. Rittenband had no jurisdiction over deportation matters. But even before these breaches, Rittenband had made a hash of the case.
Polanski's defense attorney, Douglas Dalton, and the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, Roger Gunson, both gave interviews for Wanted and Desired. They agree on almost everything and their agreement makes convincing the conclusion that Rittenband created a monumental miscarriage of justice with his mishandling of Polanski's sentencing.
In the documentary's disjointed first part, Gunson describes one of the judge's illegal contrivances as a "fabrication." Dalton says he felt uncomfortable proceeding with it. One of the documentary makers' many failures is that they did not ask the obvious: Why did the attorneys participate in the fraud?
In the movie's later part, the presentation is orderly and thorough. We come to understand that Gunson is not exaggerating when he calls one of Rittenband's later orders a "sham." The legal and extra-legal machinations the judge tries to direct (irony!) are convoluted but Zenovich and her crew finally navigate the maze with a clarity lacking in their earlier work. Wanted and Desired in the end makes it seem reasonable that Gunson would conclude of Polanski, "I'm not surprised he left under those circumstances."
The documentary did not change my impression of Polanski
Thirteen years old.
Of all the words written and spoken about the Roman Polanski case, those are the most important. Polanski's victim was not old enough to consent to sex, even if she'd wanted to. She did not want to. That she said "no" is important. That he drugged her is important also. The conclusive element is that she was a child.
When Polanski's apologists invoke his suffering during the Nazi Holocaust, they insult the millions of Holocaust survivors who have not raped children. When they cite the murder of Sharon Tate by followers of Charles Manson, they insult the millions of people scarred by horrors who have not become sexual predators.
Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. Does anything justify this?
The judge egregiously mishandled the case and gave Polanski strong reason not to trust him. Does anything justify this?
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