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Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Yonder Stands the Sinner"
4 stars

In the thirty-odd years since it hit the headlines, the sex scandal involving acclaimed filmmaker Roman Polanski has essentially boiled down in the minds of the public into a narrative that begins with him being arrested in March of 1977 in Los Angeles for committing statutory rape upon a 13-year-old girl that he was photographing for the French edition of “Vogue” in the Jacuzzi at Jack Nicholson’s house and ends with him fleeing the country for France in order to escape prosecution for his crimes. Those facts are true but as with all stories, there was a lot more to it than that and the fascinating new documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” fills in the details of the case that have either been ignored, overlooked or lost in the mists of time in ways that will force most people to reexamine their thoughts on the case, whether they believe that Polanski is a tortured and misunderstood artist whose actions were the result of a lifetime of emotional and psychological traumas and tragedies or whether they believe that he is nothing more than a degenerate pervert who deserves to be rotting in prison and who got away with his especially heinous crime because of his wealth and celebrity.

At first, the film gives us a standard recitation of the facts surrounding the original complaint and Polanski’s arrest through vintage news reports and present-day interviews with the investigators, lead prosecutor Roger Gunson (a Mormon who, according to one observer, was supposedly given the case because “He was the only member of the D.A.’s office who hadn’t had sex with an underage girl”), Polanski’s defense attorney and members of the press corps who covered every aspect of the case and who rarely failed to remind audiences of Polanski’s foreignness, his celebrity status and the fact that his first wife, actress Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by followers of Charles Manson a few years earlier, an act of barbarism for which some suggested that Polanski himself was indirectly responsible as the result of having made the dark and creepy smash hit “Rosemary’s Baby.” This may seem fairly cut-and-dried but things become more complicated when we see printed-text excerpts from the testimonies from both Polanski and his victim--even if you are the type who has supported Polanski as an artist over the years, it is a jolt to read that he not only admitted to having had sex with her but even remarked at one point, while describing the seduction, that “I could sense a certain erotic tension between us.”

However, the film is not particularly interested in the salacious details of who did what to whom and whether it was consensual or not. Instead, director Marina Zenovich is more intrigued with investigating how the case descended into the kind of media circus that all but ensured that neither Polanski nor his victim would receive anything close to justice. Of the two main culprits, the obvious one is the media corps, especially the members from Europe who breathlessly reported every salacious detail and who even went so far as to report the name of the young victim and stalk the school that she attended. As a result of these actions, the concern for her welfare led the D.A., despite having a sympathetic victim and some especially damning evidence, to allow Polanski to plea-bargain the six serious charges that he was facing to down to a guilty plea on a single count that would most likely earn him a couple of years of probation. The injustice of this is underscored by the presence of the victim herself, Samantha Gailey, recounting the events and how they affected her--although she has publicly forgiving Polanski for his actions and seems to be as normal and well-adjusted as a person in her circumstance could possibly be, her resentment at what happened to her in the media still burns bright and clear.

More importantly, the man in charge of presiding over the proceedings, Judge Lawrence Rittenband, was the kind of person who was most definitely attracted to the glamour of Hollywood and actively sought to be given the case to be part of the expected hoopla. However, when the report from a court-appointed psychiatrist recommended probation for Polanski as expected, the criticism in the media about appearing soft on crime and a ill-timed photo of Polanski surrounded by young women at Oktoberfest in Germany (where he was on a court-allowed trip to begin pre-production on the ill-fated remake of “Hurricane”) led Rittenband to send him to the Chino State Penitentiary for a 90-day evaluation period. In fact, both attorneys for the case reveal that having already learned of this decision, Rittenband asked them to make a show of presenting their respective arguments in court in order to make it look better. When that observation period ended after 42 days with yet another recommendation for probation, Rittenband let it be known that he was going to ignore that as well and it was at that point that Polanski fled the country on the assumption that he was no longer going to receive anything resembling fair treatment. This became obvious when Rittenband held a press conference about his plans just after Polanski left for France, even though the case was still technically pending--a move that leads even Roger Gunson to remark “I’m not surprised that he left under those circumstances.”

While most of the participants in this tale are seen discussing the case on camera, many for the first time, the two most important figures are not to be seen or heard from outside of archival footage and interviews--Rittenband died in 1994 and Polanski declined to participate in the project. However, Zenovich has constructed her film in such a manner that the film doesn’t seem to be missing anything as a result because of the deft manner in which she has juxtaposed the new interviews along with the archival materials and selected clips from Polanski’s own work (especially her use of images from the short film “The Fat and the Lean” to sum up the twisted Polanski-Rittenband dynamic that developed between them over the course of the case) into a narrative that manages to eloquently summarize an incredibly complex case and its equally strange surroundings without either simplifying things to the extremes or bogging down in legal minutiae. More importantly, the film doesn’t try to let Polanski off the hook for his actions at any point--while Zenovich doesn’t blatantly point fingers at him throughout for his actions, some of the interview clips that she selects do leave a queasy taste in the mouth (especially the opening interview clips in which Polanski flat-out declares “I like young women” and visibly shrinks in his chair when Mike Wallace hammers him for running away) and the implication is clear that while what happened to him in the court system was blatantly unfair, that in no way excuses what he did to put himself in that position.

Although the final implication of “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” is that justice was not served for any of the principals involved with the case, However, as the end credits began to roll, I found myself thinking that might not entirely be the case. In the decades since the case wound down, Gailey has managed to carve out a more or less normal life for herself and seems to have come to terms with what happened to her in a way that has allowed her to move on. Polanski continues to be hailed as one of the world’s leading filmmakers but no matter what he does, he will be remembered just as much for his shocking and creepy behavior that long-ago March afternoon as he will be for his artistic endeavors. As for Judge Rittenband, this film ensures that his name will always be remembered in the annals of celebrity justice, though only for the most professionally and personally humiliating of reasons. In a strange way, as this film so eloquently reveals, each one has pretty much got the justice that they deserved.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16962&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/25/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/18/09 Aesop Roman Polanski: Fugitive child molester. The Defense rests. 1 stars
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  DVD: 27-Jan-2009


  DVD: 27-Jan-2009

Directed by
  Marina Zenovich

Written by
  Marina Zenovich
  Joe Bini
  P.G. Morgan


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