DVD Review: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008)

If You Think You Know the Whole Story,
Think Again.
The Truth is Revealed on 1/27/09.

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Before I ever learned about the man's past and the horrific events that have flooded his life including losing both parents in Poland during and just after the Holocaust along with the gruesome slaughter of his eight month pregnant wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family, I noticed a recurring tragic theme that seemed to pervade the films of director Roman Polanski.

Corruption and injustice ran rampant as did characters who often suffered cruelly at the hands of others whose actions eluded any legal repercussion. Examples of this theme were everywhere and especially apparent in the signature Robert Towne penned line as Jack Nicholson was being told to "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," in arguably the filmmaker's best work, Chinatown. Yet it was just one instance of injustice including Mia Farrow giving birth to a satanic monstrosity in Rosemary's Baby, Catherine Deneuve descending into madness in Repulsion, Sigourney Weaver encountering a man who tortured her years earlier in Death and the Maiden, or Harrison Ford's wife vanishing without a trace and another woman is murdered in Frantic. Simply put, in the cinema of Polanski: lives are fractured, interrupted, and seldom given closure when insanity or death arrives.

Although this could be a recurring fixation he'd most likely dismiss, it's one that nonetheless appears again and again in some of his most personal work such as Polanski's Oscar winning film The Pianist about the horrors of the Holocaust for which he won an Academy Award as Best Director. It was a ceremony he missed (of course) and one of many he's missed since he left the United States over thirty years ago without looking back following another event which shook the nation.

After being hired to guest-edit a French edition of Vogue Magazine, Polanski-- who never hid his affection for young women in interview footage which continues to make viewers uneasy at the start of Marina Zenovich's fascinating documentary-- was arrested for unlawful sexual conduct involving his thirteen year old model Samantha Gailey in 1977 at the home of its absent owner, Jack Nicholson.

Lobbying for the assignment as he did for numerous other celebrity cases including handling Elvis and Priscilla Presley's divorce and a Cary Grant paternity suit, Judge Laurence J. Rittenbrand presided over the Polanski case in one of the most bizarre, disturbing, and shockingly unprofessional miscarriages of justice ever documented on film. And it's the trial, testimonies, and events that are studied in depth in Zenovich's Sundance Film Festival Official Selection which earned its editor Joe Bini a well deserved honor.

Intriguingly leaving Polanski out of the mix and deciding instead to let the facts speak for themselves (although Zenovich revealed in a Sundance interview that he was aware of her film's existence), she gained unprecedented access. This included cooperation from both sides of the investigation as Mr. Polanski's defense attorney Douglas Dalton candidly reveals the intimate goings-on for the first time in public since the event, the former District Attorney Roger Gunson (who was chosen, it's said due to his Robert Redford like movie star looks and straitlaced Mormon background), the victim and now poised and articulate woman Samantha Geimer along with her attorney Lawrence Silver, actress Mia Farrow, and many others who were familiar with the events.

And wisely Zenovich chose not to make a sweeping "statement film" nor judge Polanski and his numerous charges by instead serving up the facts and letting viewers decide for themselves along with giving Geimer the chance to speak once again as she has in written statements and in a public statement of forgiveness that although his actions with her were wrong, she disagreed with how the entire case was handled. In doing so, Zenovich focuses on the intense courtroom circus and unbelievable events that followed his arrest.

While there was a "media feeding frenzy" that occurred around the globe as foreign press stalked the young girl like paparazzi and getting a seat in Rittenbrand's courtroom was the most coveted "ticket" of the year, Zenovich lets us in on what was really going on behind the scenes with the unchecked hubris of a judge who was far more interested in furthering his own career than he was in actively seeing justice carried out.

Subjecting Polanski to court-appointed psychiatric evaluations that revealed that he was not a dangerous or mentally unstable sex-offender nor that he should be tried as such and going against the girl and her family's request not to sentence the director as well as fighting against a plea bargain at every turn, Rittenbrand-- who has since passed away in the early '90s-- is cited numerous times by both the prosecution and defense for his gross misconduct.

We watch in horror as Rittenbrand begins subtly in agreeing to things in his chambers and then asking each lawyer to "act out" what they'd just decided behind-the-scenes for dramatic impact so that he could remain heroic to moving forward with borderline illegal propositions of using a Chino State Penitentiary 90-day evaluation term as though it were a pre-sentence. Furthermore late into the film, even prosecutor Gunson explains that-- with all beginning to openly question whether or not they could trust the judge-- he isn't surprised that ultimately Polanski left the country and never looked back.

As the proceedings continued, Rittenbrand's conduct grew more outrageous in asking a journalist "what the hell" he should do with Polanski, promising a buddy in a country club urinal that he was going to send the (expletive) guy away for the rest of his life, and holding an in-chambers press conference, in addition to trying to negotiate deportation agreements without any authority.

Needless to say, it's amazing that to this day, the situation still remains unresolved as the Oscar winning filmmaker cannot return to the United States without being arrested on sight. As a friend jokes, in France (where Mr. Polanski and his family currently reside) he is desired and in America he is wanted. And far more recently, in light of the information revealed in the film including Gunson and Dalton's successful motion to get Rittenbrand taken off the case (although he denied any wrongdoing), the two men have filed another motion this past summer that Polanski's case be reviewed and Geimer herself filed to have the charges dismissed on behalf on the traumatic effect of the publicity.

Meanwhile, after receiving unspecified assistance from the California office of producer Dino De Laurentis and fleeing to his Parisian apartment over thirty years ago, Polanski, who has flourished in his French home remains unable to return to the United States nor England-- which was also his home at one point-- for fear of extradition and jail.

Highly compelling filmmaking that makes incredible use of not only current interview footage but archival footage of Polanski, his deceased wife Sharon Tate, and others along with memorable clips from his work carefully edited together-- Zenovich's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired makes no apologies for the filmmaker's behavior which is appalling in every sense of the word once one realizes the charges involved, but she never fixates on lurid details, instead just staying true to the facts.

Most notably, in addition to illustrating the way that in essence the case and his exile to France made a much more compelling and startling account of injustice than anything the filmmaker could've imagined, she also reminds us that beneath the sordid details and surface level judgments were two human beings being used as legal and media fodder.

Obviously, this is immediately apparent when dealing with Geimer as she and her lawyer recall the way that the young woman whose panties were actually cut up in a room filled with men from all sides and distributed following her having to go through a male-dominated testimony of excruciating detail (some of which is reprinted on the screen).

However secondly-- Geimer, Zenovich and the lawyers on both sides of the aisle constantly remind us that no matter what we want to think about Polanski as a man-- nobody should've earned the kind of treatment he'd received. And this is especially apparent when the film recounts the tragedies of his life including the Holocaust and the way the public and press painted him as a Satanic foreign dwarf with a thick accent who was suspect number one in the murder of Tate before the Manson family connection was discovered or in the way that he was treated like a pawn in a much larger game in the hands of an egomaniacal judge.

Innocent until proven guilty is allegedly the name of the game but it wasn't the name of this game. And in this revealing documentary that opens your eyes to facts and never-before-revealed behind-the-scenes events, you realize how great of a tragedy it was for all involved that-- caught up in the frenzy, media, and power battles of a misused justice system and press-- there wasn't a way for somebody to say "game over" and start again.

More than thirty years later, Zenovich is trying to do just that with this work, just released on DVD from ThinkFilm, BBC, HBO Documentary Films, and Image Entertainment. The DVD, which also includes director and editor commentary, deleted scenes and over two hours of never-before-seen interviews, is filmmaking at its best and most crusading by illustrating the way that responsible journalism should be used, not to convict or free but to accurately represent a situation as it happened.

Highly recommended-- Zenovich's Wanted and Desired should be mandatory viewing for those pursuing both journalism and law degrees and it goes without saying that film scholars won't want to miss it either.

Update: As Reported by Ben Child in The Guardian on 2/3/09, Polanski's Bid to Disqualify L.A. Judges was Disqualified. Should he want to continue the case, it must be tried in the exact same court. Click Here to read the Article.