03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Polanski: What's On Trial?

What is fascinating about the Polanski case is that it is not particularly about Polanski. Looking at the debate raised in France (where I live) and the United States -- in defense of the extradition decision or against it -- it becomes clear that the Polanski affair has become an occasion for people to express (or rather expose) prejudices, premises, outrage about a whole host of issues, from child abuse to national integrity.

Let's look on "what is on trial" in the range of articles and television shows devoted to the subject. As you will see, Polanski himself is a minor issue in the thicket.


1. Switzerland : its decision to snag Polanski after its own Zurich film festival had invited him to receive a life achievement award. What bad manners! The authorities could have snagged him at any other time in Polanski's own Swiss chalet, where he goes several times a year. And how dare Switzerland have contacted the US first! The fury against Switzerland is such that it even elicited a Huff Post blogger to denounce Switzerland, lumping its pretended neutrality in WW II ("letting tanks in") with this recent scandal, and concluding that we should boycott Swiss chocolate. There is a suspicion as well as to Switzerland's real motives for its extradition move: to get the US to be more lenient in its IRS investigations of a major Swiss bank (the USB) which allegedly helps Americans tax-evade in Switzerland.

2. The United States: From the classical French point of view, the US is criminally puritanical about sex as opposed to France , with its own more "liberal" wink-an-eye espousal of affairs under the sheets. The extent of this prejudice is so great that most popular French papers -- such as "Le Monde" and Liberation -- have chosen to distort the facts when reporting on the case. Liberation described Polanski's crime as an "affaires des moeurs", a banal case of mores, rather than a convicted case of "illegal sex with a minor". Le Monde describes what happened as "Polanski's relations with a young girl," forgetting the word "illegal."

The distortion is such that many French readers, responding in blogs, do not understand that Polanski has already been convicted of a criminal charge, which he admitted. At a party last night, a French gentleman noted: "Oh come on, the Americans keep bringing up that old bêtise (little mistake). To his credit, this gentleman had no idea what Polanski's "little mistake" was nor that it was technically a convicted crime. How could he? The French press has been reluctant to repeat the actual facts of Polanski's bêtise: i.e. that the grand jury testimony recounts that on March 10, 1977, a thirteen year old girl was given champagne, a half-quaalude, and then sodomized, while she continually protested.

France's current treatment of the case may also reflect the fact that the French are not so up-to-date on the idea of rape as a "violation" of the person (a crime of unequal power relations) rather than a matter of eros gone awry--a fuzziness exposed in philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy's much ridiculed comment that Polanski should be let off for an "error of a youth" (he was 43 at the time).

NB: while these French views above are prevalent, they have been energetically attacked by the French themselves--so there is no "universal French view".

3. The 1970s: for its wild lenient attitude towards sex, date rape and drugs, and less conscious ideas about "child abuse." Polanski's attitude was part and parcel of the 1970s, when, following the arrest, he referred to Samantha G as the "whore" who ruined his life. Years later, in a televised interview with Diane Sawyer, he tenderly said that at the time, he had no idea that what he did was wrong--"it was spontaneous"--and that now it had dawned on him.

4. The current period: for its stricter attitude towards sex, date rape, drugs, child abuse. Today a crime like Polanski's would receive a much harsher sentence than in 1978. Now, if Polanski returns for sentencing, legally the most he himself could receive is two years.


1. Why is Polanski being charged for "une histoire ancienne", is a popular complaint in Europe. The charge is already "thirty years old"! Interestingly, the French intellectuals critiquing the lack of "prescription" in US law (prescription = dropping of charges after a certain time) overlook the fact that France does not have it either. "Prescription" in France means that after ten years, no one can be charged of a crime. It does not mean that once someone has been convicted, he cannot be punished. It is also interesting that the French call this an "old story" rather than an "old conviction", again minimizing the "crime."

2. The judge's handling of the case. Marina Zenovich's documentary : Polanski: Wanted and Desired" fueled this perspective, in concentrating on the judge's (Lawrence Rittenband) waffling about the sentencing. Polanski was initially given three months in Chino 's psychiatric ward, for psychiatric evaluation. After 42 days served, Rittenband changed his mind and seems to have been about to either sentence Polanski to serve the full term in this psychiatric ward, be deported or have a new prison sentence. Reports in the media are murky as to what he actually was going to do, so it is impossible to have an opinion here.

Incidentally, this particular charge has given the spotlight to Zenovich's film, which frankly was one of the worst films I have ever reviewed at Cannes: confused about perspective (you wonder what the film is about for the first l hour, until you get to Rittenband), amateur in film techniques ("tickertapes" predominate) and lopsided in evidence (the victim was not given a word in the documentary). The point of the film is that Rittenband was a rich powerful man, and so was Polanski, so there! To make this point, the director emphasizes that Rittenband also had had a young girlfriend, age 20, as if this means he were not allowed to judge Polanski's own deviance with a 13 year old.

I interviewed Zenovich at the premiere and asked her pointblank what was her own perspective in the film -- on the rape, or Polanski or law or ... She looked embarrassed and finally sputtered, "As a filmmaker, it is not my place to have an opinion." As to why she did not have the victim speak, she added: "Americans don't open up like Europeans." [!]

Now back to the charge against Rittenband. While everyone is outraged that he might have waffled on the plea bargain, a few have noted that the initial 90 day sentence for a rape of a minor is a rather light sentence.

3. The current US prosecutor: why is he making this charge now? Is he up for re-election? [See law professor Ronald Sokol's op ed, Oct 2, 2009] Critics also have conflated the US move to extradite Polanski with imperialism, comparing it to the Iraq invasion. Note former culture minister Jacques Lang's plea to "protect" Polanski.

4. The privileged status of wealthy criminals. Quite a few articles have critiqued the fact that Polanski, a rich man, might have received more leniency than the typical proletariat rapist. A very curious spin on the "money makes law" issue is the fact that Samantha's civil case against Polanski has been misrepresented in the French press. Fact: Samantha tried Polanski in 1988, in a civil court case -- ten years post the rape -- and received the right to indemnities of perhaps 500,000 dollars (which seems not to have been paid yet). Revealing a peculiar idea of US law, a major French tv show hosted a debate about Polanski -- in his favor--where the MC announced: "Look the girl was paid half a million by Polanski and his lawyer in front of the judge, at the time of the trial, and so"--the MC wiped her brow -- "End of story! Justice has been made!" Apparently, this French host has no problem with the "a private money-funded justice" scheme.

5. Victim legal influence. Samantha G's own reneging of the complaint , which, contrary to public misrepresentation, has not yet reached legal status. See actress Valerie Lemercier's televised comment: "I don't know all the facts [sic], but it is clear for me that since the young girl has stopped her complaint, the affair is closed." Proponents of this view overlook the fundamental question here: What does US law say here--across the board--about the victim's influence over whether a prison sentence is served?


Can an artist be considered superior to the common man? Look at what Polanski has offered. I will add that my own "verdict" of Polanski as an artist is that he is my favorite director of all time. No one is more masterful in exposing the cruelty of unequal power relations, sado-masochism (Death and the Maiden), alienation (Repulsion, Tess, Chinatown) and the awful power of the group (The Tenant, Rosemary's Baby). My (deceased) friend Jean-Pierre Ruh, Polanski's sound-engineer, rhapsodized that no director he has worked with--from Truffaut to Leone--had as much genius in craft as Polanski, to the point of asking him to use a special microphone to make exterior sounds louder than interior sounds, to enhance the "sense of alienation", as well as putting mikes under faucets to do the same. Polanski's training at the famed Lodz film school, his mature vision (his student films at age 22 -- depicting the horror of "others" -- are nothing short of genius), and his absolutely honesty in depicting his own psychic wounds make him one of the most unusual and powerful artists working in film today.

That said: the debate has been is the Artist above the Law? See the interesting twist on this idea in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad editorial by Raymond van den Boogaard, entitled "Art is not made by Nice Guys". It states that serious artists live by other standards than other human beings, and secretly we expect they do, and like it that way, making a comparison between the Polanski rape with the sexual behaviour of Lord Byron, who raped his wife, her sister and a few others: stories that "horrified and delighted the Victorians".


Polanski's past: hasn't he suffered enough? Hasn't he had a horrific childhood and adulthood? Note, most criminals have had bad childhoods and they are not excused because of this. And all respect to Polanski's history, but has anyone considered that it could be this very history that led him to be prone to pedophilia in the first place (a point hinted at in an early biography of Polanski, which notes -- perhaps with no basis -- his supposed repeated sadism with younger women)? After all, pedophilia would be a way to reverse the anguished powerless situation of his childhood: i.e. the victim theme in all his films, from Chinatown to Rosemary's Baby to the Pianist, where a helpless lone victim must submit to "all of them witches". ( Polanski's films equally show moments of vengeful violence: he himself pulling the knife on "nosy" Jack Nicholson in Chinatown , or he himself, as a 22-year-old, again pulling a knife on a hapless passerby in his 1958 student short "Two Men and a Wardrobe" (after stoning a cat to death with apple cores).

As for the violence of sado-masochistic machinations in human sexual relations, nobody is more self-aware and honest about this than Polanski himself who gave full-rein to the theme in his film Bitter Moon (19992) as well as in the early masterpiece Knife on the Water (1962).

Polanski's flight: how dare he flee the country! Some argue that he should be punished for this crime as well. Of course, however, it might be reasonable to assume that anyone who has seen Nazis take over his country and kill his mother, would have a natural suspicion (and lack of respect for) national authority, including legal systems.

Polanski's bad manners. He never sent Samantha G, the victim, a thank you note for her generous op ed in the New York Times about how one should let bygones be bygones and give him an Oscar. [This was an actual op-ed]

Polanski's good manners. The strongest point raised in his defense: rehabilitation. He's a nice guy now, and has a family of his own. Especially moving argument by Robert Harris, author of "The Ghost", the film Polanski is making (and won't finish if he doesn't get out soon). A question here: is rehabilitation a legal cause for overruling an earlier verdict?


Most spectacularly, what is on trial is the actual verdict: as if the case had not already been tried. Here there are various subsets to the arguments.

a) Is sex with a minor a bad thing? More than one blog-site has been devoted to dredging up child-adult sex relations from romantic history to show "children are not innocent". This ignores the fact that rape is not about sexual innocence but about unequal power relations, which most often targets females inscribed in a patriarchal system -- and children.

b) Was Samantha consenting to some extent, given her sexual past and the "date-rape" atmosphere? As Whoopi Goldberg notoriously said: "it wasn't rape-rape." Alternatively, people have argued (especially fathers with children), that a child is a child, and rape is rape.

c) The mother: isn't she the criminal here, dragging her daughter to a star's mansion for "photographs" (hint hint)?

* * *

What is disturbing about this whole debate -- which predominates in the media -- is that the verdict was already made (and Polanski absolutely frank about his guilt). So, if you disagree with the premises upon which the verdict was based (that it's wrong to have sex with a minor, that it is the perpetrator rather than the mother that should be on trial, that no matter what the girl's sexual history, she is still a child), or believe that a victim should decide if the law should be implemented, clearly your issue should not be with the verdict but with the law itself.

Which brings me to my own opinion. No matter how fascinating on deeper murky cultural political levels this Polanski case is, when it comes to having an opinion on the Polanski case, it should be looked at as a legal case above all.

In other words: IF a) the context of suspicious national behavior (Switzerland), b) suspicious prosecutor motivation c) criminal's painful past, d) criminal's rehabilitation, e) the length of time since the crime has been committed, f) victim opinion, and g) international shenanigans is enough to warrant that a nation's legal verdict should be overturned, then the Polanski case should be buried. But if one believes in the authority of the law--and US law in particular--then the extradition must hold.

Or change the law, so that all convicted child molesters -- the poor and non-famous and the rich and famous alike -- are eligible for leniency -- not just Polanski.

Now, of course, if you don't believe in the law, that's another story.

addendum: I find it ironic that so many French critics have been in favor of leniency, considering this is the same country where -- when I bike through a red light -- at least half a dozen pedestrians shout out: "Madame, la loi est pour tout le monde!!"

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