Though many would cite the knife-to-nostril scene in Chinatown as the obvious frontrunner, I think the moment that best dramatizes Roman Polanski's difficult relationship with the wide audience of cinema and humanity occurs in The Tenant.
It's hard to resist reading this creepy, campy, comic psychothriller as a dark joke about the filmmaker's Hollywood assimilation, but that doesn't begin to capture the film's unsettling existential paranoia (even if it does explain the atrocious dubbing on existing prints).
The scene I'm talking about, however, is a non sequitur: Polanski, playing the lead role, is sitting in a park, watching a little French boy play with a toy boat. The camera lingers on the director's face as it registers a small range of tender emotion. The tableau of innocence mesmerizes him. When the boat floats out of reach, the boy cries out for help. Polanski walks over and slaps the child's face, hard; sneers, "Filthy little brat"; and walks away.
This jarring exchange invites a dive deep into the possibly irrelevant, yet unignorable element of autobiography that no discussion of Polanski's films can be complete without. Strip away The Tenant's narrative and there is Roman Polanski himself, pondering the child he never got to father because his pregnant wife was murdered by the Manson gang. Tenderness gives way to indignation—why should this filthy little brat have lived instead of his own child?
Or consider the Polanski who escaped from the Krakow ghetto, his survivor's guilt enhanced by the death of his sister and pregnant mother in Nazi gas chambers, slapping the face of a filthy little brat who, oblivious to the gift of his life, dares to whine about a toy boat. (This last reading may seem a bit of a stretch, even mawkish—until you notice the Stars of David formed by the legs of the folding chairs in the park and consider that nothing that no single element in any single frame of any Polanski film is there accidentally.)
If nothing else, the slap is an assertion of Polanski's urge to provoke, even if it makes the audience feel that he is the filthy little brat. For this antisentimentalist, in film as in life, acceptable behavior is something for other people to worry about. Which is, of course, the whole dilemma of being an ardent fan of Polanski's movies.
Because of what we know and think we know, it's never easy to find the line between the artist and his work. Because there is no such line. Because the Polanski who made so many titanic works of cinema is the same Polanski who escaped from the Nazis is the same Polanski who not only lost his wife and unborn child to the Mansons but was initially accused of the murders in the press is the same Polanski who gave a 13-year-old girl champagne and a quaalude fragment then had anal sex with her on the floor of Jack Nicholson's living room.
If the 20th century happened to anyone, it happened to Roman Polanski. And as a new documentary shows, it's still happening to him.
The rape—and the subsequent trial, which led to the filmmaker's 30-year exile in Paris—is the subject of the riveting Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. The film's real subject, however, is the complicated nature of morality as it pertains to time. You go in expecting director Marina Zenovich to defend or prosecute. Instead, she focuses on the contradictions intrinsic to Polanski's character, the staggering caprices fate has thrown at him, as well as those he has thrown at himself. The result is not a diatribe, not even an argument, but a suspenseful interrogation of a celebrity artist and the culture of judgment that has risen up to engulf him.
It would be nice to be all postmodern and claim the author isn't an issue when it comes to experiencing a work of art, but let's be serious. It's impossible to separate the 21st-century knowledge of a filmmaker/songwriter/novelist/actor's life from the inquiry into what they do. And so it will always be that Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, even a late-stage triumph like The Pianist will always have been directed by a rapist.
Wanted and Desired demands that we consider the dilemma from multiple angles. But it never lets its subject off the hook.
Though Polanski's trial was a farce, the crime was indisputably—and indisputably—committed. When a man commits rape, especially the rape of a child, even a sexually experienced child whose mother may have tacitly encouraged the act, it rightfully leaves a stain on his name and his character that only becomes more pronounced when he attempts to do anything other than atone for it. Some things are complicated, but some are not.
Still, the question remains: Does loving Polanski's work make you an accomplice? Wanted and Desired refuses to answer for you, which makes it all the more powerful.