In Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, documentarian Marina Zenovich takes an absorbing, incisive look at the life and career of enfant terrible Roman Polanski, the filmmaker responsible for such landmark art-cinema fare as Knife in the Water and Repulsion and such New Hollywood provocations as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski is also the man at the center of what became one of Hollywood’s most notorious sex-crime trials, which resulted in his conviction, in 1977, of statutory rape of a minor — in this case, the 13-year-old girl who was modeling for him while he was shooting photos for a magazine spread. Polanski pleaded guilty to charges of rape and, while that mitigated his sentencing, it also opened an ugly, odious can of worms in the form of massive abuse and manipulation of the judicial process, and ushered in a horrendous ordeal in which Polanski dealt with both jail time and a judge who exploited the high-profile trial for gaining media celebrity status.
By pulling back to a wider view of Polanski’s past, his career, and the particulars of his background and circumstances, Zenovich gives us both a fascinating portrait of an often misunderstood figure, in a sense, constructing a documentary defense of his character, while leaving it to us to decide the verdict, i.e. whether or how much to place our sympathies with him. Wanted and Desired peels back layers of Polanski’s biography — the death of both his parents in Nazi concentration camps, his rise in 1960s European cinema circles and, subsequently, in Hollywood — to his marriage to Sharon Tate, which ended in Tate’s murder. That event spelled the end of Polanski’s honeymoon with life in America and with the American press.
While the sections that trace Polanski’s dissipated years, especially in 70s Hollywood, now feel stale and noxious — how many times are we going to hear about how hard Hollywood once partied? — it’s when Zenovich digs into the details of Polanski’s trial that her documentary gets its grip on the viewer and makes it utterly impossible to turn away. The trial and its aftermath were a travesty and a tragedy — Wanted and Desired eloquently points out just how much. Fearing that the judge — who’d already proven himself to be crooked — was not to be trusted, Polanski fled to France before the verdict was determined. (If this last bit of information was a spoiler for you, then you need to brush up on your recent Hollywood history.)
Fortunately for world cinema, Polanski’s career has flourished in Europe these past three decades (honors include a 2002 Best Director Oscar for his Holocaust survival saga The Pianist). And just as we’re about to close the book on what was a dark chapter in both Polanski’s life and in America’s post-60s pop culture, we remind ourselves that Polanski — for all the travails of his life — still did admit to something fairly seamy and appalling. How much slack do we give him when all’s said and done? Still, what was worse? The crime or the punishment? The fact that Zenovich succeeds in provoking these questions as she re-examines a traumatic episode in the eventful life of a confounding cultural figure makes Wanted and Desired an essential entry in Hollywood’s cultural chronicle.
Directed by: Marina Zenovich
Written by: Joe Bini, Peter G. Morgan, Marina Zenovich
Cast: Istvan Bajzat, Steve Barshop, Marilyn Bishop, Madeline Bessmer, Pierre-Andre Boutang, Andrew Braunsberg, Richard Brenne