With the possible exception of the O.J. Simpson trial, it would be hard to think of a tabloid-ready celebrity scandal from the past 30 years that provokes a more purely, intensely, overheatedly emotional response than the Roman Polanski rape case of 1977. (He fled the country early in 1978.) It’s a safe bet that a lot of people, upon reading the headline that Polanski had been arrested in Zurich, with the possibility of extradition to the U.S. to stand trial on that charge, greeted the news with more or less the following sentiment: “Good! It’s about time that the authorities caught up with him. He can’t dodge the consequences of his crime forever. In a just world, there is no statute of limitations on what Roman Polanski did.”
About two years ago, I would have felt more or less the same way. But then, early in 2008, I saw the revelatory documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which takes on the full and fascinatingly complex legal and moral drama of the case. Not just the emotions, but the facts. Not just the issue of whether Polanski committed an unspeakable crime (something that the film never disputes), but how it all played out, within the U.S. legal system, at the time.
Here’s what I wrote about the film when it first played at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival:
“We all think we know what happened when the celebrated and infamous demon-imp film director took a one-way ticket out of Los Angeles, skipping the country early in 1978 just as he was about to face sentencing for the crime of ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’ with a 13-year-old girl. But Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Marina Zenovich’s startling and grippingly told anatomization of the case, will make you realize that you barely know the half of it. At first, I feared that the movie was going to tiptoe around the issue of Polanski’s guilt. But no, it never denies that he committed a heinous crime. Yet by showing how a media feeding frenzy shaped the story, oozing like slime into the wheels of justice, and by going deep behind the closed doors of the hearings and negotiations (presided over by a judge on such a star trip he made Lance Ito look like Solomon), the movie creates an indictment of a legal system that was corrupted and warped by the celebrity culture — that is, by the very entitlement it was trying so hard to rein in. Polanski, that troubled and charming creep-genius, emerges, if you can believe it, as both guilty as sin and a victim. It’s that ambivalence that makes Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired a documentary of rare fascination and power.”
If you’re interested in this case — interested, that is, in what really happened — then by all means seek out of a copy of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. You’ll be glad you did as this story now plays out with a voyeuristic and slightly queasy déjà vu.