Producer Andrew Braunsberg, one of the director’s closest friends, sits with him to talk through an extraordinary life: a childhood torn to shreds by the Holocaust, a film career in Poland, his marriage to Sharon Tate and her murder by the Manson clan, his rape of Samantha Geimer and the media circus aftermath and his life in exile, capped by arrest in Switzerland in 2009 after an extradition request by the Los Angeles district attorney.
It’s enough twists and turns to make anyone gasp. Yet Polanski recounts these events with calm and humor and a sense of intelligent perspective.
All that doesn’t help. It still feels self-serving.
On the heels of the far more probing – and useful — documentary by Marina Zenovich last year, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” this “Film Memoir” resonates more like a home movie than a doc.
In the hands of a more disinterested interviewer, the film might have uncovered the real person behind the competing mythologies.
Who is Roman Polanski? This is his version of himself. Notably missing is the Polanski whose life is an emblem of the cultural upheaval of the '60s and '70s – both the Helter Skelter murders that helped end the era of peace and love, and the drug-and-sex fuelled party that followed, of which he was a part.
Polanski is moved to tears by things that may be new to us – his father’s return to the family bosom during Nazi deportations; his mother’s dispatch to Auschwitz where she died.
But he is composed when talking about Sharon Tate’s murder, and equanimous when talking about the Geimer rape and his treatment by the legal system (the Zenovich documentary showed that the judge reneged on an agreement for Polanski to get probation with time served).
If Polanski does not visibly wallow in self-pity – and he may have cause to do so – he also does not spend time on self-reflection. He is far too proud, even if one feels his deep intelligence in all his comments. Only late in the film does he allow that “of course it was wrong” what he did, and calls Geimer a “double victim,” for enduring the media gauntlet.
The tendentious Braunsberg – who was sitting beside Polanski when the director got the call about Sharon Tate saying, “They’re all dead” — doesn't allow an uncomfortable moment. Neither does director Laurent Bouzereau.
Like everything else in Polanski’s life, reactions to this new documentary will be bifurcated: the French will love him all the more as a victimized genius. Americans will think he’s concocted a tendentious piece of drivel to excuse his past.
Neither are right. And both are.