Roman Polanski


Even over a leisurely lunch in an impeccable restaurant on the Champs Élysées, it’s not long before the word “kinky” once again sneaks its way into Roman Polanski’s conversation.

“And what does it mean, zis word ‘kinky’?” Polanski asks in his Parisian-Polish accent as if it were the first time he’d heard it.

As I fumble through a few possible defini¬tions, he intervenes with a flourish: “It means I have imagination.”

Over the years Polanski has exercised his “imagination” with some of the most beautiful women in the world: Sharon Tate, Catherine Deneuve, and, for the last eight years, Emmanuelle Seigner. When asked what these women liked about him, he looks puzzled. “You know, I always wondered that. And at some point, I picked up a very bad reputation.”

Polanski confides this as if he’s imparting something that would be news to me (or any¬one). It’s an explanation that obviously gives him satisfaction. After all, the way he tells it, his bad reputation was not his fault, nor even his in¬tention. It was just his good luck.

When he was seventeen, Polanski had his first sex¬ual experience (with a fourteen-year-old) in a friend’s mother’s bedroom. When Polanski sug¬gested they make love on the floor, he remem¬bers, he “scored a point. She thought I was kinky.” According to Polanski, he only said it because his friend’s mother had died in the bed a few days before.

At other times, of course the presence of death and destiny have combined in Polanski’s life with far graver consequences. In the middle of lunch he leans forward and parts his (still un-ruly) mop of hair to show me his scars. The symbolism is overwhelming: The real scars of his life are the ones he carries inside.

When he was a child, his mother was killed in Auschwitz, and he himself narrowly escaped a German bomb that blew him through a glass door. His wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child were among the victims of the Charles Manson murders. Even the scars on his scalp were the result of an attempted murder. When Polanski was fifteen a stranger smashed him over the head with a rock. The man, a three-time murderer, was later hung. A policeman told him he was lucky to have such a thick skull.

Displacement and unease with the world have always pervaded not only his personality but the edgy psychodramas that made his name: Repulsion, The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby.

Loss and alienation have been his constant themes, no doubt because he has lived most of his life in exile. He arrived in Poland from Paris when he was three. At ten, after the Nazis had taken his mother, Polanski spotted his fa¬ther among a group of prisoners being herded away. He ran after them, but his father hissed at him to “shove off.” He was sent from the Krakow ghetto to live with peasants in the coun¬try, and he did not see his father for six years.

After growing up in Poland, he spent much of his life in Paris. For seventeen years he has lived there in exile from the U.S. after evading sentencing on the charge of having unlawful sex with a minor. Since then, the sumptuous Tess (with Nastassja Kinski, another former girlfriend) was a resounding success, though Pirates (with Walter Matthau) was a disaster. Frantic (with Harrison Ford) began with all the classic Polanski elements of claustrophobia, foreign displacement, and fate, but soon descended into cheap chase-movie cliché.

His newest film, Bitter Moon, is a film noir sex comedy about a stuffy English couple on a cruise, Nigel and Fiona, who are forced to en¬dure an embittered writer called Oscar (Peter Coyote).

Oscar insists on recounting the story of his turbulent power games with his voluptuous wife Mimi, “a walking mantrap” (played by Polanski’s 27-year-old wife Emmanuelle Seigner). The result is rather like a bawdy black farce of 9½ Weeks, with sex that is invariably slapstick.

As the fruity details of their sexual peccadilloes grow, Nigel accuses Oscar (and by associa¬tion Polanski) of using him as a “rubbish dump for his unsavory reminiscences” – something the audience might agree with.

At one point Nigel tells Oscar: “I’m as broad-minded as the next man, but there are limits.”

We find out exactly what those limits are when Oscar recounts how one night Mimi walked up to the TV and pissed on the screen, then gave Oscar a golden show¬er. (This is one of the few flashbacks we don’t see.)

In another scene Oscar licks milk off Mimi’s breasts. Polanski dismisses any sugges¬tion of voyeurism on his part.
“If I want to make a scene using milk or yogurt with my wife, I can do it at home. I don’t need to resort to film.”

Bitter Moon is about sex and love, but critics overlook the fact that, although Oscar and Mimi turn to SM games to try to preserve their passion, Polanski’s message is that such diversions don’t work. “These games are… false and exhaustible,” he says wearily. “I should know. I went through it all.”

This is something of an understatement. At sixty, he still looks like the Oldest Swinger in Town: blue jeans, white shirt, blue wool jacket, and scarf. His hair is long, his blue-gray eyes mischievous yet gentle. He is romantic in a way that is positively old-fashioned.

Do you still flirt ?
“No — I’m married now. I don’t think it would be proper. I can’t say I don’t miss it,” he says with a smile. “You can’t win them all.”

Does your wife trust you?
“Oh, implicitly !” he bridles.

Part of his charm is his disarming openness and his self-defeating bravery. In the past he has said blithely that he liked young girls be¬cause they were “good-looking” and he non-chalantly admits to being a voyeur.
“I think there is always something exciting about watching someone without them knowing it. But it diminishes,” he shrugs. “Everything be¬comes less exciting once you experience it.”

Polanski’s career started at the Lodz Film School in Poland. His first shorts were The Smile (about a voyeur) and Murder. He then made his award-winning feature debut, Knife in the Water (about a tense, oppressive love trian¬gle), and his nightmarish classics Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant (featuring an excellent performance by Polanski himself and a plot not dissimilar to Sliver).

His Chinatown still seems flawless, a mas¬terpiece. But he is uncomfortable with such no¬tions.
“When I watch my old movies I get em¬barrassed. I see mistakes. I liked Cul-de-Sac for its originality, but I haven’t seen it for so long I might be dreadfully disappointed.”

Of course, the scandal with a precocious thirteen-year-old, whom Polanski was photo¬graphing for Vogue, and his ensuing exile derailed his film career. Polanski and the girl ended up back at Jack Nicholson’s house (in the Jacuzzi). He denied drugging or raping her, but did admit to having sex, and five of the six charges against him were dropped.
“Whatever the circumstances, I was to blame,” he says now. “But I think I have paid for it tenfold…”

It’s largely forgotten that he was released on bail and returned from France to undergo psy¬chiatric tests at Chino State Prison. (He came through with flying colors.) But with the media demanding his blood, Polanski deemed the judge’s suggestion of an “indeterminate sen¬tence” (to be reduced at a later, unspecified date) too risky. So he hopped the first flight out. “I was able to work and live here in Paris, but that was not what I was going to do or become.”

When Polanski talks about such events, he seems resigned to being born one of nature’s victims. “I’ve felt persecuted most of my life. But less now.” Not surprisingly, the murder at¬tempt with the rock also left its mark. “For a long time, I was afraid of whispers, because that’s how I heard his voice. And closed spaces with strangers. And showers. The water was like the blood pouring down over my face.”

Many of these incidents would be enough to haunt anyone’s life, but for Polanski the worst was yet to come. The brutality of the Manson killings was so random and horrifying that, in his grief, Polanski began suspecting close friends and colleagues (including Bruce Lee) of being involved. He started bugging conversa¬tions, collecting forensics. Exile, he admits, would be harder “if I had not lived the greatest tragedy man can go through in that country.”

When pressed to elaborate, Polanski seems to become more hunched, as if shirking away from the pain of the memory.
“I try not to dwell on it. It helped me to finally have a relationship with someone like Emmanuelle, and to have a family, something that I was going to have in the late ’60s but which never happened. How can you forget something like that?”

Do you still have nightmares ?
“No. It was so long ago. The wounds leave scars, and you just carry them.”

Of course, Manson is a media star now, feted by the likes of Guns ‘N’ Roses and celebrated with t-shirts declaring CHARLIE DONT SURF. Polanski calls the deification offensive.

“His bunch, on his or¬ders, killed my wife and baby, three of my friends, and three other people. We’re talking about murder here. This guy sooner or later will run free on the streets and I will still be a pariah.”

His life now revolves around his one-year-old daughter Morgane. Financing commercial films like Frantic, he says, is easy, but finding funds for more ambitious projects like Bitter Moon re¬mains tough. After much delay, his next film will be a screen adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s ac¬claimed play Death and the Maiden starring Judy Davis.

One of the morals of such an extraordinary life, he says with dignity, is that “every blow can also be seen as some kind of experience. Also… tolerance has always been one of my most important principles. I was always averse to certainties. Too many people are too certain of too many things.”

He drives me back to my hotel. As he carves his way through the chaotic Paris traffic, eager to get home to his wife and child, it occurs to me that Polanski’s resilience and humor are remarkable. With a mischievous smile he announces he has a joke to tell me.

“This guy goes up to this girl and asks her if she’d like to go back to his place to see a magic trick. ‘Whats the trick ?’ she asks. “I fuck you and you vanish.”

It’s a good one.


Nb: Jim Shelley wants it written on his tombstone that he was called a pervert by Roman Polanski.