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Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 11, 2023


Featuring Roman Polanski (archival footage), Douglas Dalton, Roger Gunson, Samantha (Gailey) Geimer, Lawrence Silver, David Wells, Jim Grodin, Phillip Vannatter, Richard Brenneman, Daniel Melnick, Mia Farrow, Robert Towne, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Marilyn Beck, Elliot Rittenband, Judge Laurence L. Rittenband (archival footage), Dino DeLaurentiis (archival footage), Nastassja Kinski (archival footage) and Sharon Tate (archival footage).

Written by Joe Bini, P.G. Morgan and Marina Zenovich.

Directed by Marina Zenovich.

Distributed by ThinkFilm and Home Box Office. 99 minutes. Not Rated.

By all standards, maverick director Roman Polanski has led a tragic, heartbreaking life. When he was just a child, his mother was killed by the Nazis and his father was also sent away to the concentration camps. The first woman that he truly, unquestioningly loved, actress Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered with several of the couple's friends by the Manson family in their home – a mass murder which later seemed to be a case of mistaken identity in which the cult may have been looking for a former resident of the house. Over the past decade he has lived in exile from his adapted home of the United States – at great professional and financial disadvantage – for fear that if he leaves his home of France he will be arrested.

However, unlike the others, this tragedy was due to Polanski's own actions. While doing a photo shoot of young girls for the magazine Vogue Homme, Polanski took a young model of only thirteen back to his friend Jack Nicholson's home (Nicholson himself was out of the country), got her drunk and high and had sex with the girl.

This intriguing film, though, shows how Polanski's exile was not so much due to an unwillingness to face the consequences of his crime. Instead, it shows that much of the final outcome was due to Laurence Rittenband, a publicity-mad judge who got caught up in the media circus of the trial to the point where he became unstable and untrustworthy.

Thirty years of skewed memories have people believing that Polanski ran off just because he was a dirty old man who would not put up the idea of spending his life in jail. In some ways that is even partially true – however Wanted and Desired brings to light how hard he was trying to do make restitution for his crimes, but he kept getting the rug pulled out from under him by the overzealous judge. Even Roger Gunson, the prosecutor who was responsible for bringing Polanski to justice, now acknowledges that he is not surprised that the filmmaker fled the country, given the circumstances of the trial.

In fact, the victim, now grown up to be a pretty, well-adjusted forty-ish mother, also acknowledges here that Polanski was given a raw deal in the trial, which has to give you an idea of how out of control the whole process got.

The film also shows this to be one of the very first of the media feeding frenzies – even showing the cultural split of European television showing him to be a heroic artiste being pilloried by the puritanical establishment while the US press painted him as a sleazy perv, possibly a Satanist, who was looking to prey on the innocence of women and children.

The real truth seems to be somewhere far in the middle of those two extremes, of course.

Wanted and Desired does a fine job of chronicling Polanski's life and career leading up to the scandal – his mother's death, his unexpected discovery of true love with Tate and then the horrible loss that comes at the end, his ever-escalating film career which exploded with the likes of Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. It also finds quite a few fawning old friends – such as Rosemary's Baby star Mia Farrow – to give glowing character references for Polanski.

Somewhat more questionable is the fact that the documentary sometimes tried to haze over the fact that he did indeed commit the crime. It is sometimes tried to be explained away. He's European, they have different standards than we do here. They remind us of his earlier relationship with 15-year-old budding actress Nastassja Kinski – which not only did not cause either problems but ended up making her a star. (Though the timeline is made a little fuzzy, because she had her breakout role in Polanski's Tess a year after the California scandal.) The filmmakers delve into the heartbreak of his earlier life and pondering how it affected his relationships with women. All are legitimate considerations; none totally absolves him from his actions.

Naturally, the most intriguing passages revolve around the media onslaught and hype of the case. The original defense attorney and DA agree to be interviewed extensively and they both agree that the judge created a dog and pony show, regularly went back on agreements he made and made judicial decrees that veered from the unethical to illegal – all in an attempt to hog the spotlight.

The film suffers because Polanski himself does not participate in the documentary with any new reminiscences, though the film is peppered with little snippets of an earlier interview where the director is extremely forthcoming about the experience. Word is after the film was finished; Polanski did agree to meet with the director – but only off-camera.

Judge Rittenband, who died in 1994, is also not there to defend his own actions. If he is going to get most of the blame here – and he undoubtedly deserves it – it seems only fair to hear his explanation. Of course, with his death that is impossible, but that does make the whole thing seem a tiny bit one-sided. His son, Elliot, is given a little screen time to discuss his father, but doesn't have too much of relevance to impart. A couple of his old girlfriends discuss the judge as well, but their purpose seems to be illustrating Rittenband's fascination with show business types.

That said, for the most part this film is able to explain and perhaps even restore the reputation of a tortured genius. Maybe it will even partially clear his name. Sadly, years later, the circus still goes on. According to the film as recently as 1997, a California judge agreed to officially drop all remaining charges on Polanski in California – allowing him the freedom to return to the US – but only if the director would appear and allow the whole thing to be captured on television. Not surprisingly, Polanski declined.

(Note: Despite the fact that this is listed in the "Available at Your Video Store" section, at the time of this posting the movie is only available as a documentary running on HBO. It is almost inevitable that it will be released on DVD, but there is no official release date set.)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved. Posted: May 31, 2008.


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