The first two installments of Roman Polanski's Apartment Trilogy, "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby" rank among my favorite films. Watching Catherine Deneuve and Mia Farrow travel Polanski's long, winding paths of cinema paranoia toward similar, but not quite the same destinations, still gives me a thrill every time (The third film, "The Apartment," alas, leaves me cold). And yet I've refrained from bringing up my admiration for Polanski's work, especially in recent conversations about the director's legal troubles. And when his newest film, "The Ghost Writer," hit the art house theaters a few months ago, I hesitated a good long while before deciding I could wait for the DVD rental.
As I type this, Roman Polanski is still under house arrest in Switzerland, trying to block his extradition back to the United States for heinous crimes committed in 1977 against Samantha Geimer, then a thirteen-year-old girl. I've heard too many mealy-mouthed attempts to excuse Polanski for what he did, which essentially boils down to statutory rape, or just plain rape, depending on which version of the facts you prefer. All of the subsequent legal shenanegans about the crooked judge and the botched plea agreement don't change that. Or the fact that three decades has elapsed and the grown up Geimer has forgiver her attacker. It galls me to no end that Polanski escaped any major negative consequences for his actions, and I can't say that I'm very unhappy at the thought of him being sent back to California to finally be sentenced for the crimes he was convicted of.
And yet I still enjoy Roman Polanski films. I thought he was deserving of the Best Director Oscar he won for "The Pianist" and I still want to see "The Ghost Writer." Is this hypocritical of me? How do I reconcile the films with the director that made them? Art is not created in a vacuum, especially not for top directors at Polanski's level. Does my condemnation of the man mean that I also have to condemn everything he produced in the thirty-three years he's fled the law, no matter their artistic value? Or even his work from before that? I've heard some arguments that the Apartment Trilogy, "Knife in the Water," "Chinatown" the other early films can be exempted from scorn because they were created before 1977, but this is just splitting hairs. Polanski's reputation is still enhanced by their elevation, and it's hardly possible to bifurcate him.
To muddle things even further, there was the petition circulated by several French and International filmmakers calling for Polanski's release back in September of last year, when he was first seized by the Swiss authorities, signed by Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Stephen Soderbergh, Michael Mann, Terry Gilliam, Wim Wenders, Mike Nichols, Wong Kar Wai, Sam Mendes, Costa Gravas, and dozens of other cinema luminaries. If I stop watching Polanski's films because of his failings of character, do I stop watching the films of his supporters too, for taking up a position I adamantly disagree with? Where should the line be drawn?
In the end, I think the work has to be considered separate of the artist. If the fanboys love "Star Wars" and bemoan George Lucas, then it follows that I should be able to love "Repulsion" and think unpleasant thoughts about Roman Polanski. The essence of art, after all, is communication. A horrible person may still have valuable ideas to convey, or even if the message is abhorrent, the method or means of conveyance may be worthy of attention. Leni Riefenstahl is still admired for the artistry of her Nazi propaganda, and no one disputes the technical or historical importance of "A Birth of a Nation," which is essentially a KKK recruitment film. It's strange to think of Roman Polanski in these terms, as none of his work has any overtly objectionable messages. You could easily read nefarious themes or intentions from his older films, which often featured women in peril or women betrayed. Maybe "Chinatown" was a secret cry for help.
But in spite of all the rationalizations, I still feel a guilty about supporting his films, especially the newest ones. I simply can't bring myself to disassociate Polanski-the-director from Polanski-the-man entirely – there's too much of him in his films, from the evocations of the Holocaust in "The Pianist," which blighted Polanski's childhood, to his alienated hero in "The Apartment," who he decided to play himself to mortifying effect. And frankly, I haven't forgiven him even if his victim has. I get no sense of remorse from Polanski, no indication that he's sorry for his actions. If he'd stayed in Los Angeles to face the music, or even gone back under his own steam after that judge had died, I'd be more apt to leave the past in the past.
But as it stands, I can only stand to give his films qualified praise. Oh yes, I loved "Rosemary's Baby" – even though it was directed by Roman Polanski.