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In 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles on charges he gave drugs and had sex with a 13-year-old girl he was photographing for Vogue. Eleven months later, having pled guilty to one count, he fled to Europe before sentencing. This film examines that year-long period, using archival footage of the media frenzy and of Polanski's life before the charges, clips from his films, and contemporary interviews with many of the principles - attorneys, the victim, and Polanski's friends and associates. Polanski remains enigmatic, but portraits emerge of the machinations of justice and of a judge more interested in his image than his word or the law. Written by
Roman Polanski's name, while illustrious, is clouded by both tragedy and scandal. Tragedy because his parents died in the Holocaust and his wife Sharon Tate, when eight months pregnant, was horribly murdered in the Manson Family massacre, scandal because of a notorious case of sex with a minor that led to his flight from the United States, where he is still "wanted." In France he is "desired," and then some. A lifelong French citizen and a member of the Académie des Beaux Arts, he is part of the cultural establishment there, and he has received frequent European awards. The Polanski of 'Knife in the Water', 'Repulsion,' 'The Tenant,' 'Rosemary's Baby,' 'Chinatown' and 'The Pianist' is a great director, but a flawed man. He never denied that he liked young girls. "I think most men do," he says in this film. Partying and women were essential to his life, and also partly how he coped with a singularly heavy past. This documentary shown on HBO and in a handful of theaters focuses on the 1977 case when Polanski was 43 and eventually pleaded guilty in a media-blitzed Santa Monica trial to the charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, whom he plied with champagne and Quaaludes during a photo shoot for Vogue at which no one else was present. The film explains what happened and why Polansi left this country before the trial was quite over and has never returned since.
Mainly this is a story of media frenzy and a corrupt, foolish judge, Laurence J. Rittenband. In determining the case, it emerges, Rittenband was so frivolous and uncertain that he sought and followed advice from a cub reporter, his two girlfriends, and his bailiff. The course this celebrity-mad magistrate ultimately followed was illegal. The upright defense lawyer, Samantha Geimer's lawyer, the lawyer for the prosecution and Geimer herself, all of whom contribute to the documentary, have nothing positive to say about Rittenband. His conduct of the case is shown to have been contradictory, erratic, and profoundly injudicious. Polanski, it emerges, did not flee "justice" under the California DA's office, to which he had willingly submitted, but the unpredictability of Judge Rittenband.
Director Zenovich seeks to show that some media-mad American judges (Rittenband is clearly not the only one) cannot be relied upon for justice or even sane behavior when celebrities are on trial. You have to watch the movie to get the intricate, far-fetched details of Rittenband's oscillating procedures, which wind up with him hoping to get the lawyers' complicity in his pretending to give a more severe sentence--to give the media what he thought it craved--than was justified by the case or he wanted to give. Note: unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor was the only charge that held, not rape or anything else, and the decision from various sides was that Polanski should be given probation. In an earlier compromise Rittenband had already confined him to the California State Prison at Chico for 43 days of "observation" in that dangerous environment, misusing this procedure as a sentence. After the judge's erratic behavior, neither defense nor prosecution lawyers had any confidence that he would hand down a logical or appropriate sentence if Polanski submitted again. The film conveys a sense that the director had endured enough.
Though the film doesn't say so, it seems important to note that Polanski was never a resident of the US but only here on visits to make a few films and a longtime resident of England. Hence his 30-year absence from the US to avoid legal hassles is "exile" from a country he never intended to make his permanent home. He was offered the option to return to complete the trial with the same lawyers and a new judge and the promise of no sentence ten years ago, but ironically that judge insisted the proceedings be televised, so Polanski refused. Many Americans, conditioned by the media hysteria of those years, continue to see the diminutive Polanski, a horror movie director in his mid-career, as a monster "dwarf" of dark intent.
The film also presents much information about Polanski's life, with glowing descriptions by friends and associates of his talent, his technical rigor, and his joie de vivre. To the film's credit, it speaks in favor of Polanski (even his victim has forgiven him) without in any way seeking to gloss over any of his misconduct. In interview excerpts from various times he never tries to excuse himself either--even at the height of the scandal, which came on top of the Sharon Tate murder and his depiction at that time as somehow to blame for what was in fact a great personal tragedy for him.
'Wanted and Desired' may surprise and shock in its careful rehabilitation of the director's personal reputation for American viewers. The whole case, through the cooperation of the principals, is outlined with admirable thoroughness. Alas, there is not as much as there could have been about the larger themes of sex crime and the corrupting effects of media overexposure and celebrity worship on the American legal system. Zenovich has wielded her magnifying glass with skill, but if she'd stepped back for a longer look her film could have taken on more significance.
Seen at the Roxie Film Center, San Francisco. The film's music director Joe Rudge was on hand for a Q&A after the screening.
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