Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Kevin Killian


This current HBO documentary is a clever patchwork of well-chosen film clips and interviews with an array of participants regarding the scandal of thirty years ago. In the end, it’s unsatisfying, but it does bring one back to the body of Polanski’s work and asks you to think about them in a new way. And maybe every documentary is unsatisfying in the same way in that, more than fiction films, more than abstract film, they seem cooked up and edited to fill a certain agenda.

Born in France, the son of a Polish Jew, Polanski was 4 when his parents took him back to Poland in 1937 just in time for the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Polanski escaped from the Krakow ghetto but his mother died in Auschwitz, while his father spent the war a prisoner in another concentration camp. Roman lived on a farm, doing the foulest sort of farm work for an elderly man (who kicked his dupa on a daily basis). After WWII he grew up in a Cold-War Poland of deprival and communist-mandated order. When the Sixties rolled around, Polanski found himself, through a bizarre chain of circumstances and film school luck, making a trio of English-language films in the swinging London of Twiggy, the Beatles, Tony Conrad and Mary Quant. And he did what any one of us might have done—went overboard with the excess. Like a rubber duck in a swirling bathtub, he wobbled among languages and among opposing worldviews and somehow always managed to keep smiling, even while making the supremely sinister and just plain nasty Repulsion, his 1965 thriller starring Catherine Deneuve. American audiences took to Repulsion in a limited way, though it seemed a strange vulgarization of the austere themes of Knife in the Water (1962), his first international breakthrough—and ninth Polish film. There’s something garish about Repulsion, and not just in Deneuve’s silent-movie rendition of psychosis: it’s the actual Carnaby Street background to which the Belgian hairdresser she plays has to live up. Though Deneuve is, of course, more beautiful than any of the English girls she encounters, she has that fish out of water inferiority complex that, the new documentary asserts, remains very much the most sanguine part of Polanski’s psychology. She’s our surrogate for him, his exploration of the way he feels about his nomad status.

When he met the ingénue Sharon Tate and they fell in love, it was the beginning of a new life for Polanski. Her murder once again shattered his world, right on the heels of the great success of his New York-based horror film Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The Satanist plot of RB seemed to infect his reputation, and its eerie echoes within Manson’s circle of thrill killing left many recalling the old saw about no smoke without fire. Polanski ping-ponged between high-budget studio films like Chinatown and independent, smaller and kookier pictures like The Tenant (1976) and What? (1972)—and then came the crime that Wanted and Desired hones in on.

Polanski had already embarked (at age 43) on a scandalous affair with Nastassja Kinski, the 15 year-old daughter of German screen star Klaus Kinski, when a leading fashion magazine asked him to guest-edit a special issue. Shooting underage girls around the world for French Vogue, Polanski met one right at home in Hollywood. Poor girl was thirteen but wanted to be seen as older, cooler than she was. She was not named in subsequent court records but is now known as Samantha Geimer (then Samantha Gailey). He gave her a Quaalude (even the word, “Quaalude,” sums up the 70s, but for those of you who weren’t there at the time this was the ultimate feel good of a downer drug), opened some champagne, and asked her to take off her top in Jack Nicholson’s hot tub. (Neither Nicholson nor his girlfriend, Anjelica Huston, were home at the time.) Soon he was having sex with her, even though she cried out more than once, “No,” “Stop,” “Don’t,” etc. Afterwards she and her mother called the police; shortly afterwards Polanski was arrested and, in some sections of the press, was painted as the devil himself.

The documentary’s director, Marina Zenovich has located just about everyone concerned, from the policemen first on the case, to the prosecutors and defense attorneys, to the reporters who covered the story at the time (even the Hollywood gossip legend Marilyn Beck). Most everyone speaks to Zenovich’s camera in remarkably unaffected ways. I don’t know if she cut out any emotion from her witnesses’ testimony, but they all act mildly interested, as though they were describing the invention of ice cream instead of a case of rape. Two principal players elude her gaze: the self-serving judge who hogged celebrity trials in Los Angeles, and Samantha’s mother, the blonde actress wannabe who got Sam into this mess in the first place and whom the documentary paints as an amoral scenester who sold out her flesh and blood. Is the mother dead? Cruel Marina includes a clip of her acting (horribly) from some old-time TV program, as if to say that she held onto her tatters of showbiz by her fingernails, the inference being that, like Mama Rose in the musical Gypsy, she became a stage-mother monster and sold her daughter to Polanski for a mess of pottage. Polanski himself is not interviewed, though the whole movie seems to have benefitted from his patronage. All of his friends show up and testify that he is not a bad person, just misunderstood—and besides, the horrors of his past life should have earned him some immunity from the laws that bind ordinary men. Not only are his friends on display, but generous clips from his films show us at every turn that he’s talented—certainly more talented than the horrid little upstart actress whose daughter he made love to in that hot tub. I expect that if the documentary was slanted in another way, Marina would not have been given blanket permission to use as much of the Polanski oeuvre to bolster her project.

Much has been made of Samantha’s appearance in the film, as though her participation denotes a softening of public opinion about the crime. She is riveting in her brief appearances, but more for what she doesn’t say. A brief title at the end of the film tells us that she settled a court case with Polanski in 1997, so I infer that she is probably bound by the terms of agreement for that cash settlement to walk a very narrow line. I didn’t hear her say she forgave him. I didn’t hear her blame her mother. She seems angry with the judge, but she doesn’t exactly say why: is it for showboating for the benefit of the press, or for allowing Polanski to escape to a life of lionization in Europe? One of Polanski’s charming cronies appears at the end to explain the movie’s provocative title, “Wanted and Desired.” Over footage of Polanski’s investiture into the Academie Francaise, Crony explains that in France, Polanski is “desired,” whereas in the USA he’s still “Wanted” (as in a “Wanted” poster at the post office).

Detailed legal maneuvers take up the large part of the film and I was surprised at how dull it all is. I love lawyers as much as anybody (my two sisters are both attorneys), but in Wanted and Desired, they look dated in the 1970s footage and tamped down in today’s catch-up footage. The thesis of the movie is that Polanski was tortured by a corrupt judicial and legal system, but I didn’t buy it—perhaps that’s obvious by now and I should just shut up about it. Okay, so why recommend the film? Well, there’s a bizarre account of the police pathologizing Polanski after attending a retrospective of all his films up to the date of the crime. The theory was that all of Polanski’s films involve the torment of a woman over water. When the police spokesman states the theory (just as baldly) as that, it sounds ridiculous, but afterwards I was thinking, hmmm, maybe they’re right! But what it would have to do with the crime I’m not sure, except they linked it with the hot tub setting. Onscreen you see the famous dream scene from Rosemary’s Baby in which Rosemary, drugged to the gills, thinks she’s having a nightmare over a sinuous riverlike weave of water, or dream, but actually John Cassavetes is raping her to make sure she gives birth to Satan later on in the film. Women, torment, over water—the three elements of Polanski’s bruited sociopathy.

When the case became more and more protracted, we hear, Polanski was forced to go back to work to fatten the coffers. Notoriously choosy when it came to picking projects, it was now a matter of taking a job, any job—for most producers and studios were turning their backs on him big time. But Dino de Laurentiis, sniffing a bargain, signed up Polanski to do a remake of John Ford’s proto-disaster movie The Hurricane (1937). The original black and white movie, set in the South Seas, starred Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall, two of the most exotic looking creatures in captivity. Polanski flirted with the idea of casting Nastassja Kinski, but was deterred; instead he fell back on his favorite, Mia Farrow, and hired bland, scrubbed Timothy Bottoms to be the dangerous man Farrow cheats on Jason Robards with. He continued to work on this project between courtroom dates and then, we learn, got permission from the show business judge to leave the country and go to Germany for further preparation on the film. But all hell broke out when a paparazzo snapped a photo of him at Oktoberfest, looking drunk and smirky, each arm around another nubile young girl. Eventually he had to leave the film and it was re-assigned to his contemporary, Swedish director Jan Troell. (Nice name, eh?) In fact all of Wanted and Desired is like a giant publicity ad for the long-awaited DVD release of Jan Troell’s 1979 Hurricane—the Polanski epic that never was. I saw it last week as soon as it became available and—was it worth the wait? Yes sirree! It has a beautiful woman (Mia Farrow) in torment—torn between Tim Bottoms and Jason Robards (and also Max von Sydow leering over her piratically) and further tempted by young, dishy Polynesian beefcake junk Dayton Ka’Ne. What’s a girl to do? She’s practically asking for a hurricane to happen—torment over water, but on a vaster scale than any preceding Polanski picture.

Mia appears in the Zenovich documentary looking exquisite and swearing Polanski’s innocence. On the question of underage sex, Mia has always had it both ways. She married Frank Sinatra when she still looked ten years old (she was 21, and Ava Gardner quipped that she’d always known Frank would end up in bed with a boy), and yet of course years later got sort of upset when it turned out that Woody Allen was having sex with her daughter Soon-Yi. What did she make of Polanski’s romance with Nastassja Kinski? Was it just a live and let live thing for her, the way it apparently was for Papa Klaus—look the other way, no one’s getting hurt? I wonder if this is a European trait in general—that’s the way the movie plays it; under the spell of Henry James, the Old World is kinky, yet unassailable, the New World filled with wealth but Puritanically shocked by the silliest things. Marina Zenovich can’t seem to pull herself out of this dualism, and yet, if it brought me to the Swedish Sirk-isms of Jan Troell’s languid Hurricane, I really can’t complain.