A strange thing can happen to film directors with a genuine style. It doesn’t always happen, but it often does: their life begins to impersonate their films. It is more typical to think of the process happening the other way round: John Ford is a drunken Irish brawler at heart, so he makes pictures imbued with the experience of hard-nosed pugilists transplanted from the poteen-stills of County Galway. But I’m just as interested in how artists can be shaped by the things they make: Orson Welles becomes a version of Charles Foster Kane; Visconti becomes a victim of betrayal; and Werner Herzog turns year by year into a grizzly Nosferatu who is totally creepy but also cuddly.
To whatever extent Roman Polanski has his own filmic style, his life has impersonated it surreally. This, after all, is the man who made Rosemary’s Baby and whose own pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was later murdered by the Manson family. The connection has pursued Polanski all his life, as if he had somehow participated in the atrocity by first imagining something like it. In actual fact (if such a thing can be imagined), Polanski was rather straightforwardly devastated by the killing, but the suspicion has continued, via his films, that he’s a weirdo whose work appears to give permission to sickness of all kinds. Since 1977, when Polanski was stupid enough to have sex with a 13-year-old girl, then stupid enough to flee America for France when the judge reneged on an appeal agreement, people have watched his films with a sense that they are watching a personal manifesto. I say people; what I mean is people who aren’t sure about the difference between art and life. They think Polanski is one of his own grotesques.
I saw the director last year in the train station at Avignon. He was just an elderly fellow in a light suit, but still, after all these years, he had a fugitive look about him. The fugitive look, of course, was all in the mind of the beholder. We see what we want to see: the fellow was just eating his croissant and reading the paper. But I was framing him up for a shot in one of his own films. Like-minded individuals this week nabbed Polanski as he made his way to a Swiss film festival. It was ludicrous, really. In the same period that saw armed robber Ronnie Biggs released, the same season that saw framed mass murderer al-Megrahi sent home, a silly old bugger who slept with a teenage model 32 years ago is hauled into the back of a van in broad daylight.
It might be a relief to find there is no large principle at stake here, but a small and rather pathetic one: the district attorney’s office in LA is pissed at accusations of wrongdoing by their staff in the original case, and they (allegedly) want to put the record straight by bringing Polanski back. Grow up, I say. The girl who suffered the original injury wants it sweeping under the carpet, so who are these repulsive, bored cops who want revenge? One could almost imagine them sloping through the dark scenes of a movie by Roman Polanski.