Going Back to The Scene of an Auteur's Crime

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

CANNES, France -- Before the new documentary about Roman Polanski and his statutory rape case had its gala opening here at the film festival (and isn't that a mouthful), there was speculation that the 74-year-old Oscar-winning director might come down from his home in Paris to attend the screening. But that never really made sense.

He would stroll the red carpet? Not for "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" or "The Pianist," but for a 99-minute film that at its heart is an investigation into his crime and punishment -- the crime being "unlawful sexual intercourse" with a 13-year-old girl, which Polanski pleaded guilty to before he fled from Los Angeles to Paris as a fugitive 30 years ago.

"I watched it wondering what it would have been like if he were there," says Marina Zenovich, the director of "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," which premieres on HBO on Monday at 9 p.m. "It's very, very personal stuff that's going on there for him, and I don't know how he would feel watching it."

The documentary contains interviews with lawyers, police, journalists and the victim herself, Samantha Geimer (now 45, married, living in Hawaii), that suggest Polanski, though guilty of having sex with a minor, was perhaps also a victim -- or as Polanski complained at the time, "I was some kind of mouse" played with by "an abominable cat." The cat being a publicity-obsessed county judge who manipulated the proceedings, lied to attorneys and misled the public, according to the film, in a case that foreshadows the carnival trials to follow, those of Phil Spector, Robert Blake, Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson.

Whatever else it accomplishes -- and the critics have praised the documentary for its subtle dexterity and thoroughness -- it may shed new light on Polanski's decision to board a flight to Europe and never return. Even Polanski's prosecutor, former Los Angeles assistant district attorney Roger Gunson, says in the film he might have done the same thing.

"This isn't an apology project for Roman Polanski," says Zenovich, a Los Angeles filmmaker who sat for an interview on a windy hotel roof the day after her film was shown in Cannes. "But even people who think they recall the details of the case may be surprised. I know I was surprised."

There are many films that could be made about the extreme life of Roman Polanski, which includes genius and tragedy, as well as violence and disgust. There is the boy Roman, a French Polish Jew, who survived in a barn during the Nazi extermination campaigns in Poland that saw his father imprisoned in a slave-labor camp and his mother taken away to Auschwitz, where she died in the death chambers.

The young auteur goes on to conquer London and Hollywood, where he arrives with beautiful new wife Sharon Tate. While Polanski is away, Tate and four others are slain by members of the Charles Manson cult in the summer of 1969. Tate was eight months pregnant; her assailants scrawl in blood the word "pig" on the walls. The media speculate that the couple's Benedict Canyon home was the scene of wild orgies and Polanski, because of his lifestyle, because of "Rosemary's Baby," was somehow culpable in his wife's murder.

After the Manson murders, Polanski rebuilds his life, achieving great success with "Chinatown." But then in 1977, in a photo shoot he was asked to do for a French fashion magazine, Polanski and a ninth-grader who wanted to be an actress spent the afternoon and evening alone at his friend Jack Nicholson's house -- with champagne and a hot tub.

Zenovich was just beginning her research when the grand jury testimony was unsealed. "I was reading, going: 'Oh my God, oh my God, this is awful. I don't want to do this.' Then the girl and her lawyer went on the Larry King show, and I was fascinated by the case."

King: "Did he forcibly rape you?"

Geimer: "You know, I said no. I didn't fight him off. I said, like, 'No, no, I don't want to go in there, no. I don't want to do this, no.' And then I didn't know what else to do. We were alone. And I didn't want to -- I didn't know what would happen if I made a scene. I was just scared and after giving some resistance, figured, well, I guess I'll get to go home after this."

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