“I’ve been through a lot of tragedies, but I’ve also had lots of compensation for that. It’s not all dips—it’s up and down.” So says Roman Polanski, the Oscar winner in exile, in Laurent Bouzereau’s compelling, occasionally insightful, but wildly frustrating documentary “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” It is a film that takes great pains to allow the man behind “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” to talk, explain, and elucidate on his childhood, his career (to some degree), the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate, the rape that eventually led him to flee to Europe, his later life, and eventually, his arrest in Switzerland and possible extradition on sexual misconduct charges. Yet, for an artist whose stylistic flourishes changed the course of modern cinema and continue to fascinate, 'A Film Memoir' is a stiff, by-the-numbers affair.
It feels like an extension of Bouzereau’s usual work as directory of making-of docs and DVD special features; the Polanski documentary would not feel out of a place as the extra disc in a box set of the director’s work. And that’s too bad. Because it has something that Marina Zenovich’s more aesthetically ambitious Polanski studies—“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” and “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out” lacked: Polanski himself, as he lives today. To be more specific, Bouzereau shot this extended conversation with the director and his friend (and producer of “Macbeth,” “What?” and “The Tenant”) Andrew Braunsberg during Polanski’s 2009 house arrest in Switzerland.
That access is a major score, yet the use of Braunsberg as an interrogator is…odd. And quite foolish. It is difficult, after all, to find a filmmaker whose name carries more baggage—good and bad—than Roman Polanski. Allowing a friend and collaborator to interview him for the documentary is a choice that leaves Bouzereau and his film open to all manner of critique. Even when Braunsberg asks questions that could be construed as pointed, he does so as a friend. And why wouldn’t he? Braunsberg is not at fault here—Bouzereau is. Perhaps Polanski only agreed to participate if someone like Braunsberg was asking the questions. Who knows? Whatever the circumstances, the end result is an interesting disappointment.
After establishing our location—a lovely Swiss chalet, the site of Polanski’s detainment following 10 weeks in maximum security prison—the likable Braunsberg takes his friend back to his birth. The early years are, of course, essential to the director’s tale. Polanski’s is “a life that was quite unlike anybody else’s, full of such tragedy, such triumph, such disasters,” as Braunsberg puts it, and his house arrest provided ample time in which to ponder the past. Braunsberg says Polanski told him that he had “never had much time for myself, and I’m looking at this as my monastic retreat,” adding, “I’m thinking a lot about my childhood.”
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of his life is aware of Polanski’s harrowing youth. He was born in Paris—ironically, the city to which he would flee in 1977 (after a quick stop in London), but his father moved the family to Krakow, Poland, just before the Nazis invaded. The move “was a big mistake, of course,” Polanski says. Young Roman was sent with his mother and sister to Warsaw, and a life of starvation and catastrophe (Polanski recalls his mother finding a can of pickled cucumbers, a scene that he eventually used in “The Pianist”). His father returned, but the memories of what followed soon after still brings him to tears: “Father burst into tears and said, ‘They took mother.’ I wasn’t crying. And I said, ‘Stop crying, because they will pick us up.' ” Polanski later learned that his mother was pregnant. This is without question the most involving portion of “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” Polanski’s tales are devastatingly sad, especially those of the other children he knew. One memory, of a young boy named Stefan constantly clutching the one photo he has with his mother—by then likely in a concentration camp—is particularly moving.
Polanski was sent into hiding and survived, as did his father and sister. Clearly, he remains haunted by these years, and brought many specific elements into “The Pianist.” The genesis of Polanski the filmmaker, however, is rather an afterthought in Bouzereau’s documentary. We learn of his early days as an actor, meeting Andrez Wadja, his acceptance into film school after several acting school rejections, then, suddenly, we arrive at “Knife in the Water.” The film is hated in his homeland, but wins a prize at Venice, and lands the cover of Time magazine.
Bouzereau moves too quickly through the remainder of Polanski’s life. “Repulsion” (“I was never very fond of ‘Repulsion,’ Polanski states. “It was a bit of a prostitution.”), “Rosemary’s Baby,” Sharon, Manson… While there are some interesting comments from Polanski about his late, eight-month pregnant wife’s almost inconceivable slaughter—his time with Tate was, he says, “An extremely happy period of my life which lasted unfortunately not very long”—we positively hurtle along to the rape of Samantha Geimer. Braunsberg introduces the topic with rather shocking casualness: “Then suddenly you had your experience with Samantha.” And we thrust back into the world covered in Zenovich’s docs. Here, however, tough questions are not asked. Polanski owns up to his actions, telling the interviewer, “Of course it was wrong; I have not changed my views about it.” And he explains his decision to flee in a way that is quite understandable. But it all feels…a little too calm. A little too restrained. Polanski answers every question—but are these the right questions?
The rest of the film brings us up to speed on Polanski’s life in Paris, his marriage and his children, and argues that the man speaking to us now is very different from the one in archival footage. “What I have now would have never occurred if what had happened before had not taken place,” he tells his friend, and that’s certainly an admirable viewpoint. This, it seems, is Bouzereau’s goal: to give us the human Polanski, not the Polanski of tabloid headlines. Undoubtedly, in an attempt at presenting a full portrait of Roman Polanski the man, not enough time is spent on Polanski the filmmaker. The films are almost an afterthought. “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” is a rare opportunity to hear a master filmmaker speak about his life. Both his haters and fans will agree, it is a highly watchable documentary. But don’t expect either group to feel they have heard the whole story. [B-]
"Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir" is now available on VOD.