Roman Polanski, 90 years lived without respite


By John

Of few artists it can be said that life has affected art in such a brutal way as in the case of Roman Polanski who turns 90 on August 18 and who will bring his latest film, «The Palace», to the Venice Film Festival. It is no coincidence that all of his work is crossed by the demons of doubt, distrust of mankind, violence and cruelty. 21 films in 61 years of career, almost all shot away from home, the latter transformed into “kammerspiel/chamber works” due to the complex legal events that have accompanied it since the 1970s. At the mere mention of her name, the society of entertainment (and not only that) is divided between guilty parties and forgivers with sensational peaks, as at the César ceremony for “The officer and the spy” (2020) when the actress in charge of handing him the prize for directing leaves the stage controversially, or when the president of the jury of the Venice Film Festival, Lucrecia Martel, contests the selection of the same film stating «I don’t separate the work from the person».

It all goes back to the child abuse complaint (Samantha Geimer) issued by the Los Angeles court in 1977, which resulted in a conviction for the age – less than 14 years – of the young model who later always declared that the relationship was not a rape and that she bears no grudge against him as seen in the documentary «A film memoir» (2012) by Laurent Bouzereau. However, having fled to London after his conviction, Roman Polanski has been in the “red notice” of the American government since 2005 and risks extradition if he leaves the France or Switzerland that welcomed him. It must be added that there are five allegations of sexual violence against him in all, which have not yet come to trial. This ancient story, revived by the most recent and passionate battles of the “Me Too” movement, is only the latest turning point in a life crossed by pain and drama.

Rajmund Roman Thierry Polanski was born already in exile, in Paris, on August 18, 1933 by the sculptor and painter Ryszard Liebing who changed his name due to his Jewish origins and moved to France to be accepted. When anti-Semitic intolerance infects his new homeland, at just three years old, the child follows his family back to Krakow. But here, when the Nazis arrive, he will be locked up in the city ghetto. His mother, deported to Auschwitz will die in the camp; the father, deported and survived in Mauthausen, will just have time to entrust his son to a Polish Catholic family who will then sell him to peasants with whom he will live until the arrival of the Red Army. In the 1950s, young Roman chose the path of cinema by enrolling in the Lodz School, the forge of an entire generation, and made his acting debut in 1955 on the set of a master like Andrzej Wajda (“Generation”). He graduated in 1959 but already four years earlier his short film “Rower”, for which he draws on a bad personal experience with a brutal thug, made him noticed among insiders. In that same year he marries the actress Barbara Lass and in 1962 he goes behind the camera with a film that makes noise, “The knife in the water”. It will be his only test in his homeland before “The Pianist”, opposed by the regime for the absence of an edifying ending, but welcomed with enthusiasm by the public because it contains strong thriller elements, does not follow in the footsteps of the patriotic cinema then in vogue, develops a free style strongly marked by foreign models, Hitchcock above all. Despite the obstacles, he will be an Oscar finalist and will end up beaten only by Fellini.

At less than 30 years old, Roman Polanski is already a star, exalted by critics at the Venice Film Festival. In 1963 he left Krakow for good and returned to France, to then land in London where he worked with the screenwriter Gerard Brach to the trilogy that definitively imposes it in just over two years: «Repulsion» with Catherine Deneuve, a psychological horror between Hitchcock and Bunuel; the tragicomedy “Cul de sac” which owes much to the theater of the absurd and to the reading of Samuel Beckett; “Please don’t bite me on the neck” as a parody of British horror films. The last one is also a great commercial success and on that set he meets Sharon Tate who he will later marry in his second marriage. Called to Hollywood, he moved there in 1968 to shoot “Rosemary’s Baby”, still considered a masterpiece of the genre today, but he was in Great Britain the following year when Charles Manson’s followers raid his villa in Los Angeles, exterminating Sharon Tate all eighth month of pregnancy and the friends present at home on the evening of 8 August. For two years Polanski would no longer touch the camera and in ’71 he would return with a dark, violent version of “Macbeth” which lays bare his darkest feelings.

Thanks to his friend Brach and the trust of Carlo Ponti, he tries to recover with a comedy «alla Vadim» freely inspired by «Alice» by Lewis Carroll. But “What?” does not convince him and then he will return to Los Angeles, as if to bury his personal pain, signing his masterpiece, “Chinatown” which will be worth 11 Oscar nominations. Hollywood is back at his feet but Polanski is haunted by his ghosts and takes refuge in Europe for elegant period paintings such as «Tess» and «Oliver» or for thrillers of great bills such as «The Tenant on the Third Floor» and “Frantic” where he meets his third wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. After the worldwide success of «The Pianist» (Palma d’ gold in 2002 and Oscar the following year) is definitively in the Olympus of the greats of all time and with each new test it succeeds in surprising expectations. Dreyfuss sounds like the most passionate self-defense Rebellious, tormented, atheist, ironic and seductive, even at 90 Polanski is capable of surprising us with his merciless sarcasm.