Roman Polanski Documentary Is Deft, Subtle Film

There's an enigmatic little scene near the end of "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," the captivating new documentary about the film director. You see a fierce old whale of a man in a chair, banging a drum while an elfin youth jumps and hops to the beats, like a puppet on a string. The hopping boy finally escapes his tormentor by scurrying and tumbling across a field, running toward the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The tyrannized, barefoot kid is Polanski himself, and the footage is from a 16-minute short called "The Fat and the Lean" that he made in 1961, on the brink of his fame as a brilliant new European director. The wordless scene may last less than a minute in Marina Zenovich's documentary, but it sticks with you, and it echoes another clip in her film. This one is from a television interview Polanski did decades later where he says he felt like "a mouse with which an abominable cat was making sport." The cat in question was Los Angeles Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, who'd presided over the director's 1977 criminal case for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Just before his sentence was handed down, Polanski hopped a plane to Europe. He's never returned to the United States.

That Roman Polanski is a fugitive from the American justice system overshadowed everything in the director's career—at least until he won the best-director Oscar in 2003 for his haunting Holocaust movie, "The Pianist" (which he couldn't pick up in person). Zenovich's film, to be broadcast June 9 on HBO and open in theaters in July, in no way exonerates Polanski. There's a clip at the beginning of the documentary that shows him cheerfully, and a little creepily, admitting that he likes "young women … I think most men do." But the film is more about his punishment, not his crime—and it paints a far more complex picture of what happened than most of us know. The documentary raises questions that are surprisingly relevant: why is America's judgment of Polanski harsher than Europe's—is a crime relative to a culture? And perhaps most current of all: can you separate an artist's personal life from his art? It's the same question you could ask about the rapper R. Kelly, who has finally gone on trial on child pornography charges for allegedly making a video of himself having sex with a girl perhaps as young as 13—yet he's continued to release a string of No. 1 hits during the years it's taken the case to get to court.

Polanski was at the top of his game in 1977, as director of the hugely successful "Chinatown." How his path crossed with Samantha is a classic story of Hollywood aspiration. Her mother, a pretty sometime actress, turned up at parties at Polanski's Malibu house; she agreed to allow her precocious daughter, eagerly launching her own modeling and acting career, to pose for photos Polanski was taking for Men's Vogue in France. He also shot Nastassja Kinski for a magazine—she became, at 15, his lover. That could have rung a warning bell—or signaled a potential career opportunity. The documentary depicts the encounter of Polanski and the victim with a queasy ambiguity. The pair went, with her mother's permission, to Jack Nicholson's Mulholland Drive house—the star was away—and Polanski photographed her topless, then in the Jacuzzi. There was champagne and a Quaalude for refreshments before a trip to the bedroom. When Samantha's mother found out, she called the police. Polanski never denied he'd had sex with her but maintained it was consensual. Samantha said it was not. She also told detectives she'd been drunk before. And she'd had sex before. Polanski was arrested the next day at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Except for Polanski and the judge, who's dead, Zenovich was able to interview all the key players, including the girl, Samantha Geimer, now a 44-year-old blond mother of three; the straight-arrow Mormon prosecutor Roger Gunson, and, speaking for the first time, Polanski's craggy and distinguished defense attorney, Douglas Dalton. Looking back, they all agree that the showboating judge and the media circus cost the defendant a fair day in court. "People have a right to their own opinion," says Dalton, explaining why he finally agreed to be interviewed. "People don't have a right to their own facts." Judge Rittenband, who'd presided over the Elvis and Priscilla divorce and a paternity suit against Cary Grant, badly wanted to try the case. He loved publicity and the media storm was already at gale force. In clip after clip, Zenovich shows the diminutive Polanski at court, impeccably tailored in a double-breasted jacket, jostling through cameras and mikes like a salmon pushing upstream. Just before the trial was to start, Samantha's attorney helped broker a plea bargain, so she could avoid testifying. In the film, she says the aftermath to the sex was more traumatic than the event: the probing questions of male detectives; the European photographers who staked out her house and junior high school.

Polanski pleaded guilty to "unlawful sexual intercourse"; probation was the recommendation. But the judge began to maneuver behind the scenes: he wanted to look tough for the press, though not necessarily send Polanski to prison. He asked a reporter for advice on what sentence he should give; he gave regular interviews to a Hollywood gossip columnist. The day before the sentencing—despite an agreement with Dalton and Gunson—Ritterband was overheard bragging at his country club that he was going to lock up Polanski for the rest of his life. The next day Polanski was gone, his Mercedes abandoned at the Los Angeles airport. Even the prosecutor now says, "I'm not surprised he left under those circumstances."

Polanski already knew how a media frenzy could taint a criminal case and harm the lives of even the innocent, and how the press could blur the distinction between his life and his art—the dark, edgy, sometimes violent films for which he was acclaimed. Eight years before, when his 26-year-old pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and four friends were brutally murdered in the couple's Benedict Canyon home, the press went crazy. Before the murders were solved—which took months —many news accounts blamed the victims' rich hippie lifestyle and luridly compared the killings to Polanski's movies. It wasn't just the tabloids—NEWSWEEK described the murder scene as "bizarre," like one of the director's "own peculiarly nightmarish motion pictures." The documentary treats Tate and the killings with delicacy. And along with the wonderful historic footage of Polanski's swinging '60s and '70s life—hey, there's Joan Collins doing the twist!—are sweet home movies with Tate. There's also a clip of a press conference after the killings where a tearful Polanski excoriates "a lot of newsmen who write horrible things about my wife" and says that his brief marriage was "the only time of true happiness in my life." Polanski—that slight, hopping boy—had hidden in Poland during the war after his parents were shipped to concentration camps; his mother died at Auschwitz. As Mia Farrow, who'd starred in Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby," says in the film, "Roman didn't have the blueprint for life that other people had."

Though Polanski, now 74, wouldn't talk to Zenovich on film, he agreed to see her last fall in Paris. She met him in a bar next to his house, where he lives with his wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, and their two children. He was on his cell phone helping his son, Elvis, figure out how to tape something on TV. "So many people think they know his story," says Zenovich. If you are one of them, think again. This deft and subtle film is a fitting tribute to a man—like him or not—whose life deserves more than tabloid headlines.