Alternately revered and reviled, Roman Polanski has always been a mess of contradictions. How to reconcile the seemingly impish man-child with the prodigiously assured filmmaker? Or the man who survived a brutal childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland and the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate, his pregnant wife, by the Manson Family only to be accused in 1977 of raping 13-year-old minor Samantha Geimer? Such incongruities make Polanski a natural documentary subject, but in her new film Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, director Marina Zenovich doesn’t try for a probing psychological portrait, opting to focus on the fallout from the protracted legal proceedings that followed Geimer’s charge. And if the movie doesn’t ultimately plumb the enigma of Polanski himself, Wanted and Desired admirably circumvents the media maelstrom to reveal the intricacies of one of Hollywood’s most notorious criminal cases.
Though she’s clearly fascinated by him, Zenovich doesn’t shy away from her subject’s darker sides. She leaves no ambiguities over Polanski’s guilt or even his sexual proclivities; the film includes footage of an old interview in which the auteur admits to a preference for young women. But Zenovich refrains from moralizing. Samantha Geimer, who comes across as poised and clearheaded, tells us that the frenzied press coverage of the case was far more traumatic than the actual encounter with Polanski. And you even feel a twinge of sympathy for the filmmaker, who declined to be interviewed here. One observer notes that the European Polanski had no idea what an American arrest would mean for him, especially when his story held such media appeal.
In her journalist’s quest for accuracy, Zenovich shows that the case had more than its share of twists. The film features extensive interviews with Polanski’s defense attorney, the “Lincolnesque” and dignified Doug Dalton, and whip-smart Mormon prosecutor Roger Gunson, both of whom were determined to maintain a just trial amid the feeding frenzy. But the presiding judge, Laurence Rittenband, drawn to high-profile cases, had other ideas. Dalton and Gunson attest that Rittenband privately told both men how to make their arguments so as to cast the judge’s sentences in the most flattering public light; the two attorneys would eventually join forces to have Rittenband disqualified from the case. But not before Polanski permanently fled the U.S. for France, a decision about which Gunson now reflects, “I’m not surprised that he left under those circumstances.”
As engaging as the film is, Zenovich falls back on a few predictable choices, beginning and ending the film with Mia Farrow’s eerie Rosemary’s Baby lullaby. And though she employs footage from Polanski’s movies (most notably the director’s unforgettable Chinatown} appearance), she largely skimps on any meaningful parallels between Polanski’s life and his art. One investigator notes grandly that after studying Polanski’s movies, he noticed the recurring motif of innocence and corruption meeting over water. But the more intriguing common elements of his body of work – the director’s acute sympathy with his violated female characters, the unflinchingly dark endings – would be enough material for another documentary.
If Zenovich’s overarching thesis – as the title states, that Polanski is preyed on in America and celebrated in Europe – is not notably revelatory, the filmmaker nonetheless bravely commits to digging up the truth about Polanski’s much-contested legal treatment. It’s the man himself who remains elusive.