Josh Reviews Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
In March, 1977, filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown) was arrested and charged with raping a 13 year-old girl at the home of his friend, Jack Nicholson (who was out of town at the time). Polanski eventually agreed to a plea bargain and pled guilty to one felony count of illegal sex with a 13 yea-old girl. In early 1978, before a sentence could be imposed, Polanski fled the country, never to return.
The above three sentences about sums up what I knew about this famous case. (In all honesty, I probably didn’t even know quite that much before watching this film!) What is most fascinating about the recent documentary by Marina Zenovich, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, is that the issue the film focuses on isn’t the act that Polanski committed, but rather on what happened afterwards.
What actually occurred at Jack Nicholson’s house isn’t the subject of much debate, apparently. There is a little bit of a “he said, she said” back-and-forth at the start of the film, as Zenovich compares and contrasts Polanski’s version of the story with that of the girl (Samantha Geimer). There are a few important details on which they differ. But Polanski does not deny having sex with the girl, nor does she seem to suggest that he forced himself on her. The film does not spend a lot of time trying to defend Mr. Polanski’s actions, and rightly so. Whether the sex was consentual or not, Polanski’s actions in sleeping with a 13 year-old girl were abhorrent.
No, the focus of the film is on the even more shocking events that transpired after Polanski was arrested. Ms. Zenovich lays out, in great detail, the ways in which the escalating chaos of the media circus and the publicity-hungry judge assigned to the case waylaid any attempt at justice. Through a lively mix of fascinating archival footage from a whole host of sources and a wonderful array of insightful new interviews that Ms. Zenovich conducted with almost every single key figure in the case, including Samantha Geimer herself, viewers are walked through the stunningly tortured legal process as the case unfolded.
The most fascinating elements of the film are the new interviews with Polanski’s lawyer, Douglas Dalton, and the Assistant D.A. who lead the case for the prosecution, Roger Gunson. Both men come across as remarkably intelligent, honest men, and both are very candid in their interviews. One might expect a film like this to demonize one side or the other, falling back on easy caricatures such as a depiction of Polanski the sadist defended by his showboating lawyer… or the stiff-laced DA blinded by self-righteousness. But Zenovich resists any such over-simplification, and the inherent decentness of both Mr. Dalton and Mr. Gunson is incredibly compelling. In the end, when Mr. Gunson — who, remember, lead the PROSECUTION of Polanski — admits that he believes that Polanski’s flight from the U.S. was justified, it is a shocking moment. Even Samantha Geimer (the victim) states that she believes that Polanski was not treated justly by the legal system.
Just how things could have gone so wrong with the case that Mr. Gunson and Ms. Geimer could come to make those statements is the meat and potatoes of the film, and it is a fascinating tale. Like Polanski or loathe him, this cogent analysis of how his case was handled (or mishandled) is a powerful, troubling story. I highly recommend this film.