One of the few high profile documentaries in official sections at the Cannes Film Festival is a potent film memoir of one of the world’s most celebrated yet controversial figures. ROMAN POLANSKI: A FILM MEMOIR has the director narrating his extraordinary life story with the film’s producer Andrew Braunsberg. In this intimate setting, Polanski shares stories about his idyllic childhood in Poland which was torn to shreds by the Holocaust, his early film career in Poland, his emigration to Hollywood, his tragic marriage to actress Sharon Tate (one of the victims of the Charlies Manson cult) and his alleged rape of 13 year old Samantha Geimer at the Los Angeles home of his friend Jack Nicholson, and the media circus that has forced him into a life in exile. He also discusses the drama behind the scenes of when he was arrested in Switzerland in September 2009 and kept in suspended animation under house arrest as the Swiss courts debated an extradition request by the Los Angeles district attorney.
While the film is certainly illuminating about the minutiae of a celebrated life, it is clearly done with Polanski’s reputation in mind and therefore does not really uncover the real person behind the sensational tabloid headlines. There is very little attention paid to Polanski’s involvement in the swinging Los Angeles scene of the 1970s, fueled by drugs and booze and many an orgy with underage women. The director is careful not to show much remorse for the alleged rape that causes so much legal trouble for him. What emerges is the portrait of a woman who is far too proud to engage in self-reflection and certainly in self-pity. Only late in the film does he allow that “of course it was wrong” what he did, and calls Geimer a “double victim,” for enduring the media gauntlet.
The film is far less probing than last year’s ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED by Marina Zenovich. That film questioned the basis for the long term legal hassle and the corrupt motives of the Los Angeles police and judicial system that had its own agenda in wanting to make Polanski a poster child for criminal behavior. Ultimately, this FILM MEMOIR resonates more like a home movie, in which his subject had a strong hand in sculpting the sessions and the overall impression. Like everything else in Polanski’s life, reactions to this new documentary will be split: the French will love him all the more as a victimized genius; and the Americans will continue to view him as a morally corrupt and self-centered monster who has covered his tracks as a way of excusing his past sins. Neither are right. And both are.