The toxic influence of the media and the double-edged allure of celebrity form the pervasive themes of “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” a mesmerizing portrait of the director as acclaimed artist and tortured human being. But documaker Marina Zenovich goes even deeper in her thoroughly researched account of the notorious 1977 statutory rape case, pulling auds into the dense thicket of legal issues and sordid behavior — not all of it Polanski’s — that led the director to flee to Europe. Picked up by HBO and the Weinstein Co., searing pic will be wanted and desired by discriminating auds, fests and broadcasters worldwide.
On Feb. 1, 1978, Polanski boarded a plane from Los Angeles to France (where he remains to this day), eluding sentencing after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Pic recounts the widely reported details of that 1977 episode, in which a magazine photo shoot at Jack Nicholson’s home on Mulholland Drive ended with Polanski allegedly administering champagne and quaaludes to 13-year-old Samantha Gailey before assaulting her.
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Beautifully structured pic lays out the concrete facts with methodical text scrolls, but complicates the viewer’s perception of the case with chilling, contrasting snippets of testimony from Polanski and Gailey herself. And without lightening Polanski’s burden of responsibility, Zenovich shows how a rabid press corps and an unfathomably corrupt judge conspired to thwart the case’s proper outcome.
Judge Laurence J. Rittenband (he died in 1993) is one of the few figures involved with the case not interviewed here and, unsurprisingly, emerges as the true villain of the piece. He comes across as a self-aggrandizing sleaze who relished high-profile celebrity cases but cared more about his reputation than the interests of justice. It’s a perception that might seem caricaturish were it not substantiated by the film’s two most measured and authoritative voices: Roger Gunson, the assistant D.A. who prosecuted the case, and Polanski’s attorney, Douglas Dalton.
Gunson, Dalton, a host of court reporters and legal experts, and Gailey herself (now Samantha Geimer) absorbingly recount how concern for the girl — and reluctance to put her on the stand — led to a plea bargain. Docu might have been stronger with a voice or two questioning the morality of this decision, which reduced Polanski’s six counts to the lesser unlawful-sex charge and would have resulted in probation. But Zenovich’s film trusts auds to be appropriately repulsed by Polanski’s actions, alerting them instead to the less juicy but no less heinous crime — the reckless abuse of power — committed in the proceedings.
At great length, pic details how Rittenband intended a much harsher sentence, egged on by an ill-timed photo of a seemingly unrepentant Polanski out on the town. At every step, the film portrays the news media as an insidious presence, locked with Rittenband in a relationship of mutual manipulation. (In a similar vein, considerable screen time is devoted to the 1969 murder of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, to which many reporters responded with slanderous suggestions of Polanski’s culpability.)
The legal maneuvers and talking heads alone (Geimer, who publicly forgave Polanski in 1997, is among the most eloquent and rational) would have furnished a meaty documentary, but “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” is above all a film fascinated by its subject and his paradoxes. Polanski was celebrated early on for his artistry, success and irresistible charm, yet also viewed by some as a “malignant, twisted dwarf” whose sensual appetites and unapologetic taste for young women add troubling layers to a dense psychological portrait.
Zenovich cleverly if somewhat glibly underscores pic’s psychological insights with clips from the director’s films, sampling from “Repulsion,” “Knife in the Water,” “Chinatown,” “The Tenant” and, most prominently, “Rosemary’s Baby,” whose own horrific rape scene and haunting lullaby (a remix of which plays over the end credits) here convey a sense of innocence violated. Best use of all, however, is of his 1961 black-and-white short film “The Fat and the Lean,” which wittily sums up the relationship between Rittenband and Polanski.
Pic reps a treasure trove of archival material from the ’60s and ’70s, with Tate’s filmed appearances providing piercing moments. Other tech credits, notably Mark Degli Antoni’s score, are top-of-the-line.