Who is Roman Polanski? That’s the question at the center of “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir,” a deeply fascinating look at the life and (sort of) career of the controversial filmmaker as told by the man himself. But this isn’t a hagiography — the documentary doesn’t shy away from the more tabloid-worthy elements of his life (you know what we’re talking about), and is more about the events that made Polanski into the man and director we know him as. ‘A Film Memoir’ doesn’t dive into the making of his movies so much as contextualize them with where he was personally and professionally at the time. And this perspective, particularly with the participation of Polanski himself, offers a refreshing look at the filmmaker you thought you might have known.
Laurent Bouzereau directs the film, with Polanski’s longtime producing partner and friend Andrew Braunsberg interviewing the filmmaker, sitting down with him in Gstaad, Switzerland during his house arrest in 2009 after he was taken into custody at the Zurich Film Festival. The structure is simple — a couple of cameras capture the sitdown talk with Braunsberg leading the conversation, as Polanski chats about everything from his childhood to his films (he doesn’t think much of “Repulsion“), but the ‘film memoir’ kicks off with events leading up to his house arrest. Polanski is candid about the strain it has put on him and his family, and the interview takes place with the Swiss government’s decision about whether or not to extradite him still looming in the background, but as we soon learn, his bit of legal trouble barely compares to what the director has lived through.
Moving in chronological order, we start with Polanski’s childhood, an initially happy time that was soon interrupted by World War II. With the Nazis occupying Poland, Polanski’s family, along with the rest of the Jews in the country, were herded into ghettos where for many the ultimate destination was the concentration camps. His pregnant mother was brutally murdered by SS officers, he saw friends and neighbors disappear, never to be seen again, but somehow he managed to scrape by and survive when so many died. Told in bracing terms by Polanski, it’s riveting and heartbreaking stuff, but we soon learn how many of the details were re-purposed for “The Pianist” (the one film, of all that he’s made, that he believes is his finest accomplishment; it’s certainly his most personal). Listening to Polanski’s stories, which are cut against footage from his film, is a powerful experience. It’s clear how many demons the project allowed the director to exorcise.
Polanski’s life of alternating tragedies and triumphs becomes a recurring theme. Riding high off the success of “Rosemary’s Baby,” and with his Hollywood career about to bloom, Polanski suffered the loss of Sharon Tate, murdered in a case of wrong place/wrong time by followers of Charles Manson. Polanski moves between deep sorrow at the brutal loss of Tate (he even endured voluntarily visiting the crime scene) and rage at his treatment by the police and tabloids, who printed all sorts of rumors about him and Tate, with implications of his guilt being tossed around even though he was literally an ocean away at the time. But of course, that would not be his only brush with the law.
The Samantha Geimer case takes up a good chunk of the film — how could it not? Those still waiting for a full confession and apology from Polanski (though it should be noted, he has apologized directly to Geimer) won’t get it here. But the director stresses he pleaded guilty, and the narrative turns to the vindictive justice that the judge in the case was planning to deliver despite advice from fellow authorities and colleagues, and more importantly, an initial promise that was made to Polanski’s defense team. Fearing he was in for a harsh sentence, Polanski left the country, and the film reminds us that despite the common notion that he “skipped bail,” the truth is that he actually wasn’t out on bail in the first place. He was legally freed and planning to attend his hearing until he was tipped to the judge’s severe change of heart. Polanski is candid and sticks to the legal intricacies rather than what happened that night. And while some may accuse him of dodging the issue, a greater sense prevails that he doesn’t want to put Geimer — who has been pulverized by the media — through the wringer again.
The film caps off with his life-altering relationship with Emmanuelle Seigner, and concludes with Braunsberg visiting Polanski after the house arrest has been lifted. And the overall result is a film that captures Polanski from a perspective many have long waited for: his own. The movie is not perfect — as thorough as he is, Braunsberg is the pic’s own worst enemy, with his haughty interview style and his tendency to speak over Polanski or put words in his mouth proving somewhat grating at times. And while this isn’t a documentary about his movies exactly, you do wish Polanski was as candid about the productions that didn’t work (or bombed) as he is about those that were successful. But really, these are minor quibbles. That Polanski still considers himself a “glass-half-full” kind of guy is astounding, and to see the 70+ year-old director looking as fit as someone twenty years younger is remarkable. ‘A Film Memoir’ is a journey into the man who made the movies we love. [B]