Hollywood Psych: Roman Polanski

By Sean Collier

October 2, 2009

Brilliant but flawed. Let's be realistic.

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The decades-old story of Roman Polanski's crime, arrest, and flight from prosecution is a mass of contradictions. When one attempts to decide how to regard the auteur's plight on the occasion of his recent arrest, this becomes all the more evident. There may be no right way to feel about Roman Polanski.

One may be inclined to regard him sympathetically. Polanski has endured two separate tragedies of unimaginable proportions – the death of his mother at Auschwitz and his subsequent escape from the Krakow ghetto, and the horrific slaughter of his eight-months-pregnant wife and friends at the hands of the Manson family. Experiences like these, with which few, if any, of us can relate, almost certainly have such devastating effects on the human psyche that antisocial behavior by the victim is not surprising.

However, many violent criminals have troubled, tragic pasts. Violence, of course, begets violence; it does not excuse it. While having violence heaped upon his life by Nazi Germany and Charles Manson is horrific, so is every case of a sexually abused child growing up to rape and murder others. If a random individual committed a crime like Polanski's, they could use a troubled past to illicit sympathy in sentencing, but would almost certainly go to jail.

There is also the palpable feeling, especially among the film community, that Polanski has been punished enough. In addition to serving a short period of jail time for the crime (he was released 42 days into a 90 day sentence at a California state prison,) he has lived in exile for three decades, under constant fear of arrest and extradition – fears that turned out to be justified.

"Living in exile" is a funny way of putting it, though. Despite being largely limited to countries without strict extradition policies with the United States, Polanski has travelled freely between France, Poland, and Switzerland, maintaining several homes throughout Europe and generally living a life of comfort and luxury. The lack of options in his travel schedule notwithstanding, Roman is not exactly a man on the lam. Furthermore, he's a French citizen – I'm not sure one can "live in exile" in one's home.

There continues to be debate about the exact nature of his crimes and what the appropriate punishment should've been. Polanski was originally charged with a litany of offenses – rape of a child chief among them – but only pled guilty to (and was convicted of) unlawful intercourse with a minor. (Whoopi Goldberg was quoted this week as saying, in support of Polanski, that "it wasn't rape rape.") Polanski has never admitted to raping his victim, and claims the encounter was consensual; true or not, this is what he was convicted of. In the eyes of the legal system, no rape occurred. The expected punishment for this was probation and time served.


Consensual sex requires someone who can give consent, however, and a 13-year-old girl cannot. Polanski engaged in a despicable act with a child, possibly after sedating her, possibly as she repeatedly told him to stop. He may or may not have known her age, but the action was unquestionably, tremendously wrong. Polanski initially fled because the judge in charge of his case, under perhaps unlawful influence from an unrelated attorney, claimed he would ignore the terms of Polanski's plea agreement and have the director jailed and subsequently deported. While this was a legally improper and backhanded move, this punishment may have fit the crime better than six weeks of jail and probation.

A number of filmmakers and supporters have spoken, vociferously, on Polanski's behalf since his arrest. A petition signed by over 100 of Polanski's peers, including Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Jonathan Demme, Terry Gilliam, John Landis, David Lynch, and Martin Scorsese, claims that the signors "are dismayed...that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him." They go on to "demand the immediate release of Roman Polanski."

This call has a form of nobility to it – in defense of the persecuted artist, surprised and trapped when he was to be honored – but it runs dangerously close to claiming that artists are above the law. Traveling to a film festival in one's honor does not grant diplomatic immunity. Were a wanted criminal simply attempting to attend the film festival, there would be no outcry at his arrest. The circumstances of the arrest were certainly ignoble and, in many ways, cruel, but perfectly acceptable according to American, Swiss and international law.

Perhaps the strongest objection to Polanski's untimely arrest is simply this: there is no resolution, here. He committed a heinous act, but has led a deeply troubled, tragedy-ridden life. He has served time for one of his crimes, and not for another (his flight,) but the original circumstances of his trial, now 30-years-old, are questionable at best and criminal at worst. He has the support of peers, nations, the public, and even his accuser, who wishes to drop the charges and move on; however, to dismiss his actions on these grounds would imply that he is above prosecution.

With no right way to proceed and no clear way to feel about Roman Polanski, the world was content to let things be for quite some time. Unfortunately, another chapter in a sad life has been opened. How it will play it remains to be seen; almost certainly, though, there is no complete resolution on the horizon.



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