If any director has had a crazy enough life to merit a feature-length interview about his experiences and films, it's Roman Polanski. The French-born, Polish-bred director of cinematic classics like "Rosemary's Baby," "Repulsion," and "Chinatown" endured a horrific childhood at the hands of the Nazis and a troubled and troubling adulthood punctuated by the tragic murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family, his trial for sexually assaulting a thirteen-year-old girl, and his subsequent flight from justice. Even without his often groundbreaking work in the cinema, that's a lot to cover in one conversation. So the idea of a Polanski interview movie has merit. But does the film?
According to the early reviews out of Cannes, yes and no. "Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir" is directed — or maybe conducted is more accurate — by Laurent Bouzereau, a longtime collaborator of Polanski's. That, according to Simon Gallagher at Film School Rejects, lends the film both strengths and weaknesses. Comfortable in conversation with a friend, Polanski talks at length about his films and his past. But as a friend, Bouzereau isn't going to poke and prod the still-sensitive subject of Polanski's sex scandal or his ongoing exile. "Polanski speaks with surprising engagement on each of the flashpoint subjects, occasionally breaking down, but mostly relating the facts as clearly as possible," Gallagher says, "That is, until it comes to the [sexual assault]. Given the opportunity to clear some muddied areas up, such as what actually happened and why, as well as the actual details of the settlement agreement between he and his victim, Polanski fails to act on it, and instead remains comparatively evasive." Not all critics were so measured in their reaction to Polanski's evasions; a review in The New Current calls "A Film Memoir" "sycophant dribble" that doesn't come "anywhere near making a ‘fair’ or even half balanced argument." Now that's what I call repulsion.
Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian largely agrees with Gallagher. He writes, "the film is very coy about the legal settlement with the victim and Polanski really does not talk about how and why he committed the crime or how he really feels about it now." But Bradshaw also praises the sequences about Polanski's childhood in occupied Poland, and the way the filmmaker explains how his real-life traumas have shaped his work. "Before this," he says, "I didn't realize how closely the 2002 film 'The Pianist' was based on precise childhood memories of the Krakow ghetto. It is the film he says he is proudest of now."
David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter agrees that "A Film Memoir" "is strongest when focusing on Polanski’s life prior to the felony charges of sex with a minor" but he differs with Bradshaw over its treatment of Polanski's career. "The overview of Polanski’s film output is more scattershot," he writes, with barely "the briefest mention even of key career milestones. Beyond the direct connections to 'The Pianist,' occasional visual juxtapositions are drawn, such as his youth on a farm in Poland with pastoral scenes from 'Tess' or, more questionably, shots of a pregnant Tate with images from 'Rosemary’s Baby.' But mostly, Bouzereau and Braunsberg fail to identify thematic lines in Polanski’s work."
Maybe the most positive review to "A Film Memoir" comes from Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, who really connected with the fact that for all his evasions, Polanski opens up on camera like never before. While noting that he expects "Polanski pitch-forkers" to dismiss its biased perspective, Wells praises the fact that it "tells the truth start to finish." "The theme, finally," he says, "is about 'never say die.' Even his detractors have to admit that Polanski is one tough bird."
Wells also notes that another documentary about the tough bird — this one from Marina Zenovich, the director of a previous Polanski doc, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" — is due out this fall. So if "A Film Memoir" doesn't sound like your speed you won't have to wait long for another, potentially more meritorious, treatment of this man's incredible life.
Instant Twitterverse Reaction:
"I liked 'Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir,' but it needed a lot more mea culpa and a lot less dissing of 'Repulsion' #Cannes2012"
"'Polanski: A Film Memoir' gives case for defence. Lengthy softball interview by mate explains how great he is #Cannes"
"'Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir' Juicy, whitewashy spoken history, with the most tragi-comically naff slimy luuvy interviewer ever. #cannes"
"'Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir': Obvious interest in RP narrating his life, but holy shit, couldn't he have found a less chummy interviewer?"
"'Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir' (Bouzereau): W/O. Utterly banal 'interview' (= longtime friend urging RP to tell fave anecdotes) + film clips."