Polish-born Film Director Roman Polanski, aged 86, is once again the subject of controversy in respect of his nomination for, and subsequent award of a prestigious Cesar Award for his latest film, J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy). Polanski was given Best Director at the French equivalent of the Oscars for a film about the Dreyfuss affair, in which he has in interviews compared himself to the film’s leading character, stating an affinity with a man falsely accused of crime and punished for it for long years.
I’m not here to comment on the validity of the award. It may be perfectly right and only fair to give Polanski the Director due recognition. But Polanski the Director is inseperable from Polanski the Man. And Polanski the Man comes with an indelible history.
To state the facts: in 1977 Polanski formed a friendship with a 13 year old girl, in which he was encouraged by her mother. Polanski then took the girl to his home, without a chaperone, and gave her both drinks and drugs. He then had sexual intercourse with the girl, vaginally, orally and anally. The girl protested throughout, saying No several times and asking him to stop. Less clinically, Polanski raped a girl he knew to be substantially under the age of consent, in all orifices.
Polanski was charged with five serious charges, including rape, sodomy and furnishing a minor with drugs, to which he pleaded not guilty. Eventually, he agreed a plea-bargain in which the charges would be dropped, and he would plead to unlawful sexual intercourse in exchange for probation.
On the eve of the hearing, Polanski was informed that the Judge was considering refusing to accept the plea-bargain, as he was legally entitled to do, on the grounds that the punishment was not in proportion to the offences. Fearing imprisonment and subsequent deportation, Polanski fled the country. Subsequently, he has very rarely entered a country from which he could be extradited to America.
This took place ver forty years ago, during which Polanski has continued his chosen profession with few, if any, restrictions on his ability to make films, and has continued to live a life unhindered by any monetary problems. He has had several prominent figures from the artistic community defending him, suggesting he should not be pursued in this manner, that his actions should be forgotten. One such defender was the late Clive James, and I think very carefully about disagreeing with him.
So far, the arguments for Polanski being relieved of the outstanding charges against him appear to amount to, on the one hand, his status as a great artist and, on the other the truly terrible tragedies he has already experienced, the loss of one family to the Concentration Camps and the loss of another, his heavily pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, to mass murder by the Charles Manson Family. To these are to be added longevity: what is the point after all these years?
The first of these has always seemed to me to be an extension of George Orwell’s arguments about Salvador Dali, the famous ‘Benefit of Clergy’. Orwell stated that it should be perfectly possible for a thinking mind to accept that one person can be both a great artist and a terrible human being. Polanski can be both: genius is not a guarantee of humanity. The argument seems to be a claim that because of Polanski’s talents he should be granted some form of pass for his actions as a person. The Director is not merely separated from the Man but placed on a pedestal that causes his actions to receive absolution.
As for Polanski’s history, it is truly horrible. Were I still a Solicitor engaged in defending criminals, I would certainly plead it in mitigation, but that would be in relation to my client’s level of punishment, not in relation to his culpability. To claim Polanski should not be charged with crimes is an insult to all those survivors of Auschwitz et al, of murdered relations, who did not themselves go on to inflict damage and pain on others, ‘because of their experiences’.
So far as I am aware Polanski has never expressed any public remorse for his actions. Indeed, in at least one interview he has stated that all men want to fuck underage girls. Speaking as a man who hasn’t wanted to fuck an underage girl since he was an underage boy, I take that as a personal insult. I believe it is a characteristic of paedophiles that they are convinced everyone thinks like them and they are being persecuted by being punished.
So let us return to Polanski’s Cesar Award. There is an argument to say that artistic merit should be regarded in complete isolation, divorced entirely from any other concerns. That is to separate Polanski the Artist from Polanki the Man. Can we do that? Should we do that? I believe, as Orwell put it, that it’s possible to recognise that those such as Polanski can be great artists and terrible human beings at the same time. Others refute this, saying that a person’s artistic ability, his themes, their execution, stem from their person, and thus art cannot be divorced from their life.
In that there are things of great artistic achievement that I like/enjoy/love that have come from what you might call unclean persons, I do lean to the former. But the position becomes more complicated when we ask if we should honour such creations. Should praise them, extol them, reward them. There, I move into the other camp.
In Polanski’s case, things are complicted by the introduction of another, unavoidable aspect: Polanski the Symbol.
Polanski the Director may be entitled to recognition in exclusion of Polanski the Man, the criminal. But Polanski is also the Symbol. He is the unrepentant criminal, who refuses to acknowledge the existence of his crimes. He is the fugitive from Justice, who ran away from the Court established to try his actions, and who has fled justice ever since. And Polanski the Symbol is the Man who Got Away With It. The supporters who say he should no longer be pursued are arguing that all you have to do is wait long enough and, no matter what you’ve done, the slate should be wiped clean. Allow me a moment’s cynicism by suggesting that they wouldn’t be so forgiving to the man who robbed their house and stole all their most cherished property.
Besides, it’s a very dangerous precedent to set, especuially when you can’t agree how long enough is long enough.
It may be possible to separate Polanski the Director from Polanski the Man, but you can’t do that from Polanski the Symbol. Reward the Director and you reward, and justify, the man who told Justice to fuck off, the man who’s played I’m alright Jack half his life, the man who’s plugging the very film you have honoured by saying he knows what it feels like to be accused and imprisoned falsely.
As it stands, Polanski will never answer for his crimes. His words will justify those who think that it’s ok to have sex with a thirteen year old who’s saying no, who’s still asking you to stop even though you’ve got her pissed and you’ve given her drugs and you’re giving it her up the bum, no, there’s no need to listen to her, what right has she got to stop you? This may be a fact of life in this corrupted world that we have to live with, but don’t go around applauding him for his achievements. The award and the nomination was an horrific mistake.