The Judge, the Director and the Vagaries of JusticeBy MANOHLA DARGIS
The sharply argued documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” isn’t about the innocence or guilt of its title subject, who after pleading guilty in 1977 to having “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a minor flew from Los Angeles to London, never again to return to America. Neither is it about Mr. Polanski’s likability, his tragic past, morals, short stature, brilliant and bad films, the sleaze factor or your personal feelings on whether there’s anything wrong with a 43-year-old man’s having sex with a 13-year-old girl. All these elements come teasingly into view here, but really this is a movie about a very different kind of perversion.
“Wanted and Desired,” which opened on Friday without advance press screenings, was bought by HBO at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Its one-week theatrical run will make it eligible for Academy Award consideration, though given that organization’s often pitiful record when it comes to nonfiction film, it seems unlikely that a movie this subtly intelligent would make its short list. That’s especially true because the director, Marina Zenovich, refuses to wag her finger at Mr. Polanski, even when presenting the sordid and grimly pathetic details of his crime, like the Champagne and partial Quaalude he furnished the 13-year-old girl and her repeated nos.
Mr. Polanski’s guilt isn’t in doubt, arguments about the age of consent notwithstanding. In March 1977, he was arrested at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and charged with raping the girl at the home of his friend, Jack Nicholson, the star of his film “Chinatown.” (Mr. Nicholson was away.) He was released on $2,500 bail and eventually indicted on six felony charges, including child molestation and sodomy. In August, after agreeing to a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to one felony count of illegal sex with a 13-year-old girl. Her family’s lawyer, Lawrence Silver, told the judge that his clients were not seeking a prison term for Mr. Polanski, only an admission of wrongdoing and rehabilitation. By Feb. 1, 1978, Mr. Polanski had fled.
As Ms. Zenovich forcefully explains — using talking-head interviews, a wealth of archival material and generous clips from Mr. Polanski’s films, including “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” — he had every reason to run. The story of what happened between the initial charges and his flight has been sketchily told before, including by his victim, Samantha Geimer, who in 2003 wrote a commentary for The Los Angeles Times in which she stated that she believed that he and his most recent film at the time, “The Pianist,” should be honored on their own merits. She added, “Who wouldn’t think about running when facing a 50-year sentence from a judge who was clearly more interested in his own reputation than a fair judgment or even the well-being of the victim?”
“Wanted and Desired” answers Ms. Geimer’s bombshell question with shocks of its own, notably corroborating interviews from Douglas Dalton, Mr. Polanski’s lawyer, and Roger Gunson, the assistant district attorney who led the prosecution. Together these two former opponents pin the blame for Polanski’s flight directly on the presiding judge, Laurence J. Rittenband (who stepped down in 1989 and died in 1994). Aided and abetted by an avalanche of fluidly organized visual material, the lawyers fill in the appalling details of what was effectively a second crime, one largely perpetrated by a celebrity-dazzled judge and the equally gaga news media he courted. This crime left two victims, Mr. Polanski, who was denied a fair trial, and Ms. Geimer, who was denied justice. As she wrote, “Sometimes I feel like we both got a life sentence.”
The film’s title refers to a line tossed off by one of Mr. Polanski’s friends, who notes that while the director remains wanted in the United States he continues to be desired in Europe. That’s not fully true, of course: his autobiographically inflected Holocaust drama “The Pianist” received several Academy Awards, including best director, amid much love and acclamation. But it does get at the strong, curiously divisive reactions he has long inspired, reactions that have as much to do with the disturbing power of his best work as his own history as a victim and a survivor. Mr. Polanski survived the Holocaust and the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson. It was the American legal system that almost did him in.
Wanted and Desired
Opened on Friday in Manhattan and Pasadena, Calif.
Directed by Marina Zenovich; written by Joe Bini, P. G. Morgan and Ms. Zenovich; director of photography, Tanja Koop; edited by Mr. Bini; music composed and arranged by Mark De Gli Antoni; Steven Soderbergh and Randy Wooten, executive producers; Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Lila Yacoub, producers. At the Coliseum Cinemas, 701 West 181st Street, Washington Heights, and Laemmle’s One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena. This film is not rated.