. . . Europe was my true home—I loved the sheer antiquity and asymmetry that made it so different from modern, four-square America. . . .
—Roman, by Roman Polanski
In America at least, Roman Polanski has at last fallen on hard times. The writer-director’s latest movie, Pirates, released here last summer, was met by a critical reception that was at best inattentive, at worst derisive and hostile. The results were no better at the box office: out in the country, the movie lasted only a couple of weeks in general release, and even in the great city markets of New York and Los Angeles, Pirates quickly disappeared beneath the crush of the summer’s blockbusters.
The movie was far from Polanski’s first flop—in fact the list of his marginal-to-unsuccessful movies is a bit longer than the list of his successes, headed by Chinatown (1974) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But in the past, there was no denying the fact that people took him very seriously. The critics with near unanimity acclaimed him as one of the handful of great directors. His audience awaited his movies with a sense of anticipation, even excitement.
Not so with Pirates. The movie premiered at the Cannes film festival in the spring of 1986. But Americans by and large stayed away from Cannes last year, allegedly owing to fears of terrorism, and the movie’s notices there were lukewarm. For that reason, perhaps, the publicity surrounding its release in the United States—the test of whether a movie is simply ordinary or, somehow, an event—found its pathetic total expression in a 1,500-word article in the new women’s fashion magazine, Elle.
“I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf,” Polanski wrote somewhat notoriously in Roman, his 1984 autobiography. In a sense, the statement is as true now as it was then, which is to say it is partially true. But in a larger sense, it is also true that as of now, Roman Polanski is simply not “widely regarded” at all.
What a change that is for a man whose life and movies wound so intricate a path through his times—Poland, Western Europe, and the United States after the war, or at least that segment of each concerned with the movies. This is the period, as Richard Grenier has explained in these pages, during which television rose as the great mass art form and movies suffered a corresponding decline. Millions would still go to the movies, but no longer tens of millions. The ones who were left would perhaps have more in common, at least vicariously, with the producers of what they consumed than had ever been true before.
Was this so even in the case of Polanski? Here, after all, was someone whose jet-set exploits were legendary: the parties in Hollywood, London, Paris, Rome, Gstaad. Legendary, too, was his taste in women—more properly, girls. He had fled the United States in 1978 in order to avoid serving more time in prison as a result of a guilty plea in a case of statutory rape that had played on front pages throughout the country. It was not the first time he had been seen in the company of beautiful young girls. In the late 60’s, in the aftermath of the bizarre murders of his wife Sharon Tate and others at his house in Los Angeles, the accusations leveled against the way he and his friends lived—the libertine life of unconventional sex and exotic drugs—would be remembered and held against him long after Charles Manson and his followers were behind bars for the murders. So to the moviemaking, even the moviegoing, set, Polanski was truly an enfant terrible, the one who went too far, perhaps even an “evil, profligate dwarf” (he is indeed very short).
A number of critics of a variety of stripes have probed at Polanski’s movies in an effort to find a connecting thread, both among the movies themselves and between the movies and the life. The largest effort is Barbara Learning’s 1981 Polanski: A Biography, the subtitle of which is “The Filmmaker as Voyeur.” Behind the overwrought language and analytic obscurantism of the higher film criticism (“Polanski’s most compelling attempt at self-scrutiny thus far—and arguably his best film—is The Tenant, whose intimate iconography is rivaled only by Jean Cocteau at his most personal”) lies the notion of the subtitle: Polanski, like some of the characters in his movies, as a peeper at life through keyholes. The “amorality” of his movies combines with the subjective viewpoint of the camera, in this reading, to put the audience as well in the position of a peeper.
There is something to this, though not much. The reason criticism of Polanski has been off the mark is that Polanski himself has been right on the mark, making movies that quite spectacularly have expressed the sensibility of the audience. There has been little difference between the ideas in his movies and the ideas in circulation during the 60’s and 70’s among the new moviegoers, including the critics.
They were an astonishing set of ideas, and they seem all the more astonishing now that we have a little distance behind us.
Insanity, for example, became the subject of a new psychoanalytic look in those years. From the likes of R.D. Laing and others, we were to learn to understand schizophrenics as they understood themselves, and we were to do this by watching them closely and listening to what they had to say. On one literary subfront, the Beats and their successors were also finding wisdom in madness (if necessary, drug-induced madness). Allen Ginsberg saw the “best minds” of his generation, “starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn.” In 1962 Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a popular redaction of the notion that the insane are actually responding sanely to an insane world.
Just so, in 1965 Polanski made Repulsion. In this movie Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a virginal London manicurist. Her sister Helen and Helen’s lover Michael leave town on vacation. Carol, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the thought of their love-making, and by the advances of her own boyfriend, begins a steep descent into madness. Hallucinations—cracks in the wall, a man in the mirror, a rape scene (is Michael the rapist?), hands reaching out through the wall for her—lead the way to murder, first of her boyfriend, then of the landlord (who tries to seduce her). When Helen and her lover return, they find Carol catatonic. An ambulance arrives, and Michael carries her out to it.
It was a new point of view, that of a fly on the wall of the asylum. Polanski returned to it in 1974, with The Tenant. “I myself played Trelkowski,” he writes, “the shy Polish-born bank clerk whose creeping schizophrenia culminates in transvestitism and suicide.”
In between these two forays into schizophrenia came Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the movie that would earn Polanski a commercial success as great as his critical reputation. In this film a young woman (Mia Farrow), in the course of her pregnancy, gradually becomes convinced she is the victim of a great satanic conspiracy, one involving her husband, their neighbors, her obstetrician, and still others. When she finally does give birth, they tell her the child was stillborn, but through the thin walls of the apartment building she hears an infant crying. Summoning her courage, she investigates. In the apartment next door, she finds a gathering of all those she had suspected and more. At the end of the room is a cradle, wrapped in black. Rosemary looks in, recoils as she sees the catlike eyes. She shrinks away and the baby begins to cry. Rosemary moves closer—involuntarily. “You’re trying to get me to be his mother,” she protests. “Aren’t you his mother?” asks the older gentleman from next door—the man we now know is master of the coven—and Rosemary moves forward and rocks the cradle gently.
In keeping with the new fascination with insanity, Polanski left open (as he later wrote) “the possibility that Rosemary’s supernatural experiences were figments of her imagination. The entire story, as seen through her eyes, could have been a chain of only superficially sinister coincidences, a product of her feverish fancies.”
But in line with another set of ideas, as new as those about insanity, the movie also inaugurated an entire subgenre of movies in which children are evil—the Exorcist, The Omen, Damien, Children of the Corn. Meanwhile, a number of women were writing essays arguing substantially the same point. In the early 1960’s, Betty Friedan had first diagnosed “the problem that has no name,” namely, a vague sense of insufficiency and worthlessness on the part of women who were keeping house, bearing children, and doing little else. The radical feminists who followed, even if they did not go so far as to say that children were avatars of the devil (though some did), nevertheless saw in them the means by which women’s choices were radically restricted in the interests of preserving the patriarchy.
That was only one of the problems with no name. To a large part of a generation of young people, hell was Scarsdale. Thoreau’s remark that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” was never so widely quoted as in those years. Seething within what appeared to be standard middle-class households were bubbles of claustrophobia and tension that, it was said, threatened to explode at any moment.
Unbearable domestic tension was the underlying mood as well of Polanski’s first movie, Knife in the Water (1962), the only one he made in Poland. “It started out,” he writes, “as a straightforward thriller: a couple aboard a small yacht take on a passenger who appears in mysterious circumstances. From the first, the story concerned the interplay of antagonistic personalities within a confined space.” Andrzej, a sportswriter, and his beautiful younger wife Christine are driving to their boat for an overnight sail when a young man steps out in the road in front of the car. Andrzej brings it to a sudden halt. The boy asks for a ride, and Andrzej obliges, eventually issuing him an invitation to join them on the boat.
Andrzej welcomes the opportunity to show off for his wife by besting the younger man, who knows nothing of boats and sailing. Their competition is intense, eventually resulting in a fight that ends with the boy falling overboard, apparently to drown (he has told them he cannot swim). Andrzej leaves the boat, ostensibly to inform the police. But in his absence, the boy returns. He seduces Christine, and departs again. When Andrzej comes back, Christine quickly sees that he has been too afraid to go to the police. As they drive off, she tells him there is no need—the boy is alive—and she confesses her infidelity. He cannot believe it. The movie ends with the car stopped on the road, Andrzej unable to decide between accepting his wife’s infidelity or facing the possibility of a murder charge. Such are the choices of domestic life.
Chinatown (1974)—probably Polanski’s most famous work and an entry on most short lists for the best movie of the decade—arrived during a period in which it was de rigueur to think that the rich and the powerful were at best venal and corrupt, at worst murderously greedy. Great numbers of revisionist historians and their counterparts in more popular forms were attributing similar qualities to virtually all the men associated with nation- or city-building, from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert Moses and J. Edgar Hoover.
When Polanski first read the script of Chinatown he thought it was “a potentially first-rate thriller showing how the history and boundaries of L.A. had been fashioned by human greed.” He made it something a bit more radical than that. In the end, the movie’s various plot strands, involving local politics in the Los Angeles of the 30’s, incest, and murder, do not actually come together, but the point of it all is clear enough, echoing yet another idea of the period—the powerlessness of the individual against economic and political evil. “Fighting city hall”—the common man’s struggle and eventual triumph against what seem to be insurmountable odds—was a cliché of the old Hollywood. The new cliché had it that trying to fight city hall is horribly and totally futile.
Finally, still another element in the 60’s and 70’s brew was the notion (most prominently espoused by Norman O. Brown in Life Against Death and Love’s Body) that sexual repression is dangerous. “Polymorphous perversity” and the release of inhibition became the cultural imperative of the day. In 1973 Polanski made What?, “a ribald, Rabelaisian account of the adventures of a fey, innocent girl, wholly unaware of the sort of company that surrounds her in a weird Riviera villa inhabited exclusively by phallocrats.” And in Repulsion and The Tenant, it is at least in part sexual fear and loathing that drive Catherine Deneuve’s character and the character played by Polanski himself into homicidal or suicidal insanity.
In only one area did Polanski fail to resonate with the ideas of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and that was in the area of politics proper, an exception certainly traceable to his tempestuous personal experience. As a boy, Polanski, born in Poland of Jewish parents, had escaped the Nazi liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Cracow through the efforts of his father (who survived the Holocaust, though Polanski’s mother, who had been transported earlier, did not). The Soviet liberators came—“For the first and perhaps the only time in Polish history,” he writes in Roman, “Russians were made welcome in Poland”—and quickly consolidated their own brand of tyranny.
The young Polanski managed to obtain a rare passport that allowed him to travel in and out of Poland as he pleased, and he took advantage of it to live in the West, mainly in Paris. He took up with and eventually married the American actress Sharon Tate. He was in London, working on a script, when Tate, well along in pregnancy, and three friends were brutally murdered in his Los Angeles home. The press hounded him when he returned, and would continue to do so until long after the Manson “family” had been caught and its derangements revealed. The murders were wanton. Charles Manson did not even know who lived in the house when he ordered his disciples to kill its occupants.
The ravages of the Holocaust, murderous Soviet expansionism, the counterculture at its most grotesque and brutal—through these, Polanski navigated as best he could. His personal experience left him with a set of opinions that, in the case of Communism at least, were much at variance with the received views of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
More than once in Roman, he writes of “the tyranny of Communism.” His description of how he and his fellow students at the Lodz film school yearned for and emulated Western culture is often touching, as is his personal reaction to the rise and crushing of Solidarity in his homeland. During Solidarity’s heyday, he had returned to Poland for a visit. When the government imposed martial law shortly thereafter,
I saw it as one more episode in our national tragedy. This time, however, I had lived through some of Solidarity’s finest hours in person, seen for myself how freedom still stirred in the hearts of the Polish people, witnessed their remarkable courage and endurance in the face of Communist tyranny.
Yet Polanski is a perfect exemplar of Irving Kristol’s observation that being anti-Communist does not make one bourgeois, or even pro-bourgeois. A great deal of radicalism can remain. As he writes of his days in Lodz:
My new friends, who were dissidents to a man, reacted against the drab, conformist tyranny of Communism in a variety of ways. They displayed their contempt for authority by taking a keen interest in contemporary Western literature and music, notably jazz, by baring their souls in a very un-Polish manner, and even by engaging—almost as a matter of principle—in homosexuality. They likewise felt that deliberate idleness and excessive drinking were blows struck for freedom.
Even toward the counterculture that murdered his wife Polanski could remain sympathetic, seeing the murder as an “obscene perversion of hippie values.”
Polanski, the enfant terrible, is the Norman Mailer of movie directors—someone whose work has taken a subsidiary position in public reckoning to the Sturm und Drang of the way he lives his life. But if Mailer’s efforts on behalf of a “revolution in consciousness” (including drunken brawling, defending criminals, and so forth) seem contrivances, artificial attempts to infuse what ought to have been an ordinary life with high drama, Polanski is the genuine article. The drugs, the alcohol, the parties—in writing about all of them in Roman, he is offhand and undefensive. So, too, in the case of sex. That, of course, is precisely what got him into serious legal trouble and led to his seemingly permanent flight from the United States in 1978.
He was in California, working on a number of projects, including a photography spread for the French magazine Vogue Hommes:
A recent . . . issue had devoted several pages to photographs of adolescent girls by David Hamilton. They were in his usual romantic style, deliberately blurred and unfocused. I told [the magazine’s editor Gerald] Azaria I’d much rather do a similar series of my own, but not in the Hamilton manner. I proposed to show girls as they really were these days—sexy, pert, and thoroughly human.
That is how he met the girl he refers to in his book as Sandra, a thirteen-year-old. In the actor Jack Nicholson’s house (nobody was home, but he and Nicholson were great friends), at the conclusion of their second shoot, after a naked swim, after some champagne and allegedly some Quaaludes, Polanski and the girl had sex.
His subsequent arrest took him completely by surprise, as it had never occurred to him that he had done anything wrong. The girl, he claimed and continues to claim, had been a willing participant. What could the matter be? He was indicted on six counts, ultimately pleading guilty to the least serious of them, “unlawful sexual intercourse.” A probation report was ordered to determine whether or not he was a “mentally disordered sexual offender.” The report was favorable to Polanski, but facing more time in prison (he had served 42 days) and likely deportation, Polanski boarded a British Airways flight to London. He quickly moved on to France, where he was by then a citizen, and so could not face extradition for this kind of charge.
The affair was not, to put it mildly, an isolated incident. When he first slept with the actress Nastassja Kinski (in a ménage à trois, no less), she was fifteen. And there is this remarkable passage in Roman. The year is 1970, shortly after the conclusion of the Manson case, and Polanski is staying in the chalet of a Swiss industrialist in Gstaad, “the finishing-school capital of the world”:
It was now that Kathy, Madeleine, Sylvia, and others whose names I forget played a fleeting but therapeutic role in my life. They were all between sixteen and nineteen years old, schoolgirls no longer but not yet worldly-wise women with professional or marital ambitions. At this stage their dearest wish was to escape, however briefly, from the straitjacket atmosphere of boarding school routine.
They took to visiting my chalet, not necessarily to make love—though some of them did—but to listen to rock music and sit around the fire and talk. What drew them into my orbit was the lure of forbidden fruit—of staying out late when they should have been tucked up in a dormitory. . . .
What was I doing there? What did we talk about, those girls and I? Music, books, school, skiing, friends, parents. What did we have in common? That’s a question I’ve often been asked. I’ve never tried to analyze such friendships closely. I can only say that like so many girls of their age, they had untapped reserves of intelligence and imagination. They weren’t using their bodies to further their careers; they weren’t on the lookout for parts; they didn’t want to hear about distribution rights or film finance—not even about the Manson murders. And they were more beautiful, in a natural, coltish way, than they would ever be again.
This is Polanski as Humbert Humbert, but with a couple of crucial differences. Polanksi’s life, unlike that of Nabokov’s notorious character, is not limited to his obsession. And the light of Polanski’s life is not the single flame of a Lolita; his obsession, to the extent that it is one, is serial, with what he takes to be successive realizations of an aesthetic ideal. In acting on this obsession, he is actually a mentally quite well-ordered sex offender.
But the far more important difference between the real Polanski and Nabokov’s Humbert derives from the times in which each “lives.” The 1950’s America through which Humbert and Lolita traveled was a country that conformed quite closely to “modern, four-square America,” to use Polanski’s offhand notation in his autobiography. If Humbert were found out, he would be doomed; it is as simple as that.
It was by no means so simple in the America of the late 1960’s and 70’s. The radical feminists’ views on the subject of children were only part of a general cultural abandonment of the idea that children are vulnerable, unfinished people, in need of protection and training by their elders and love from them. The new esteem in which “young adults” had come to be held—two of the more conspicuous examples of which were the extension of the vote to eighteen-year-olds and the tremendous say in education that university administrators and teachers gave to those they used to think of as their charges—soon began to be applied to younger and younger age groups. By the end of the 1970’s, “out of the mouths of babes” had become the avenue for gaining wisdom on subjects as diverse as poverty and race and nuclear war.
The times also saw an astonishing amount of attention devoted to adolescent sexuality. Sex education had become a part of the curriculum of many junior and senior high schools, and information on contraception and, when necessary, abortion flowed freely from adults to teen-agers. This, too, was the period of the newly explicit teenage sex movie. The Brooke Shields phenomenon—the child-model, the child as provocative object even of sexual desire—may have been duly deplored in some quarters, but it should have come as no surprise, given the extent to which adults had been devoting themselves to thinking about teen-agers and sex. And if the age of the models worked its way down—fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven—that too was part of the devolution of the age of childhood. The apotheosis of the times might have been an audience earnestly watching a movie in which an extraordinarily beautiful teen-age girl becomes pregnant, grapples seriously with the issue of what to do, and decides to abort the fetus.
Such was the climate of ideas, such was elite opinion—why not call it evil and profligate?—in which Roman Polanski did what he did. It does not mitigate the extent of his crime in California to ask now a question that seems not to have been asked then: where was “Sandra”’s mother in all of this? Why was she letting her thirteen-year-old take her clothes off in front of a stranger with a camera? Any fair reading of what is publicly known about the girl’s mother, in her own way a creature of Hollywood, suggests that she simply did not see anything wrong—at least not with that.
It is probably not overreaching to say that by nominating Tess (starring Nastassja Kinski) for eleven Academy Awards, including Polanski for best director, the Hollywood of 1979 was letting the world know that it did not hold his personal behavior against him as a moviemaker. But it may also be fair to say that by holding Tess to three Oscars in minor categories, Hollywood hedged.
If so, it may well have been for good reason. The contrast in American society between elite and popular opinion is well-documented. There were, there are, those who think they know a child molester when they see one, and Hollywood and its elite audience may have understood that they could be asking for trouble if they tried to say otherwise. Better to acquiesce in the idea that Polanski is “an evil, profligate dwarf”—even though he is your kind of evil, profligate dwarf.
Happily, the complex of ideas associated with Polanski is no longer in the ascendant in America. There is now, for example, a general sense, evident even among radical activists, that we ought to do better by those who are mentally ill. Radical feminism did not quite carry the day on the question of the menace posed by children, and a minor cottage industry of movements has recently emerged dedicated to protecting them: from drunk drivers, from molesters, from drugs, from rock music. By now virtually all the news-magazines have gone on record to the effect that the sexual revolution is over; herpes was the shot fired across the prow, AIDS the fusillade. Even Hollywood has discovered—thanks to market research—that the crucial teen-age audience may feel intimidated and put off by nudity on the screen.
Polanski’s moviemaking, too, shows signs of being more than a little out of step with America. Pirates, which he made with a number of his friends and collaborators from the old days, is genuinely devil-may-care in spirit, a quality that American audiences generally like. But one of the consequences of the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas triumph in American movies has been to create in audiences the sense that high spirits are not enough, that a devil-may-care effect can only be brought off successfully through calculation and meticulous execution. Those two qualities are absent from Pirates.
Meanwhile, Roman Polanski himself now lives in Europe, now makes his home there. Does Europe make him welcome? It is an important question because the story of Polanski’s rise and fall in the United States is the story writ small of American culture’s recent embrace of an especially dangerous kind of decadence—largely European in origin, like Humbert and Polanski—and its crucial though far from complete turn away from it.
Europe is a continent of “antiquity and asymmetry,” Polanski has written, and thus “my true home.” The original abode of le bourgeois gentilhomme, Europe has also been home to the most savage attacks on bourgeois gentlemen. The question of how Americans, “modern, four-square” Americans, might feel about a Europe that continues to lap up and live by the sorts of ideas that Americans themselves have been striving mightily to defeat—it is an unpleasant one to think about, though these days it bears thinking about a great deal. The case of Polanski is not the worst place to begin.