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CANNES — For a major artist such as Roman Polanski, whose career achievements have to a large extent been overshadowed by tragedy, scandal and a media machine as sensationalistic as it is invasive and unrelenting, there are obvious reasons to choose a trusted friend as the conduit to share your story. But the disadvantages – narrow perspective and lack of analytical distance chief among them – are all too apparent in Laurent Bouzereau’s workmanlike documentary, subtitled A Film Memoir.
A French-American who specializes in making-of specials and other DVD extras, Bouzereau’s pedestrian approach is not the chief frustration here. In a film blessed with a subject who is complex and charismatic, forthcoming and surprisingly sympathetic, the major problem is Polanski’s painfully ingratiating on-camera interviewer, Andrew Braunsberg. A close friend since 1964, Braunsberg served as Polanski’s producer on Macbeth, The Tenant and What?
The film is basically an extended conversation between the two men that took place while Polanski was under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland, in 2009, threatened with extradition to the U.S. to face sexual misconduct charges dating to 1977.
In more skilful hands, this might have been an eloquent testament to an artist widely considered to have paid his debt during 35 years of physical exile and personal vilification. To some extent, it achieves that, due to Polanski’s candor, his still emotionally raw recollections of painful episodes from his life and his assessment without self-pity of the misdemeanors that landed him in hot water. But those merits are too often undercut by Braunsberg’s maddeningly leading interview style. Neither the people in favor of Polanski being granted unconditional liberty nor the moral watchdogs still clamoring for him to be brought to justice are likely to have their opinion much altered as a result of this ineffectual package.
The documentary is strongest when focusing on Polanski’s life prior to the felony charges of sex with a minor. Hearing the director talk of his upbringing in the Jewish ghettos of occupied Warsaw and Krakow and watching him choke up while recollecting a childhood scarred by family separations and devastating losses is deeply affecting. This section is intercut with archival material and with footage from his 2003 Oscar winner The Pianist, directly inspired by the brutalizing experience of those years. Equally moving are his reflections on the horrific murder of his second wife Sharon Tate and the damaging suspicions cast upon him by skewed media coverage prior to the case being solved.
The overview of Polanski’s film output is more scattershot, however, mostly reduced to the briefest mention even of key career milestones. Beyond the direct connections to The Pianist, occasional visual juxtapositions are drawn, such as his youth on a farm in Poland with pastoral scenes from Tess or, more questionably, shots of a pregnant Tate with images from Rosemary’s Baby. But mostly, Bouzereau and Braunsberg fail to identify thematic lines in Polanski’s work, even declining to explore the obvious parallel of sequestration in 2010’s The Ghost Writer.
Polanski espouses the Zen-like attitude that without his misadventures in the American legal system he might never have met and married his wife of the past 23 years and mother of his two children, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner. But having the intrusive Braunsberg interject banalities like, “What you found is a kind of stability you never had before,” constantly encroaches on the personal nature of the exercise. Rather than retreating to the sidelines to let his more-than-capable subject tell the story, reaction shots of Braunsberg and his superfluous, ploddingly obvious commentary get almost equal camera time to Polanski. It’s like a Barbara Walters one-on-one stripped of any needling questions.
Ultimately, while the film is not without interest for Polanski fans and certainly will land TV and festival slots, it adds little not already covered in his autobiography or in Marina Zenovich’s 2008 doc, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. This pertains also to Polanski’s persuasive account of judicial inconsistencies in the handling of his prosecution. Zenovich is completing a follow-up to her earlier film titled Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, which focuses on the attempted extradition and hopefully might provide some sharper insights.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival
Cast: Roman Polanski, Andrew Braunsberg
Production company: Anagram Films
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
Executive producer: Timothy Burrill
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: Jeffrey Pickett
Sales: Hanway Films
No rating, 94 minutes
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