Pain isn’t penance
How lousy has Roman Polanski’s life been? His mother died at Auschwitz; his pregnant wife was murdered by the Manson family; and in 1978, after pleading guilty to unlawful intercourse and serving an evaluation period in the Chino state prison, he says he learned that a judge who had led him to believe that he would serve no more jail time actually was considering a long sentence, followed by deportation. On the eve of his sentencing, the acclaimed director of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” fled the U.S. and never returned.
OK, that’s pretty lousy. But lousy enough?
Polanski exiled himself to France, where his citizenship protects him from U.S. extradition. When he was arrested in Switzerland en route to the Zurich Film Festival, by request of a suddenly energized Los Angeles justice system, officials in France appeared to chalk up the incident to a uniquely American combination of Puritanism and punitiveness. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the arrest “a bit sinister.” And Frederic Mitterrand, the French culture minister, said he was “dumbfounded” by the arrest and “strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them.”
Also in play is a certain fetishization of artists and artistry -- the kind that lends itself to the notion that when a regular person commits a crime, it’s a crime, but when an artist commits a crime, it’s an act of understandable passion (think Norman Mailer stabbing his wife or Caravaggio fleeing after killing a man in a brawl). Debra Winger, jury president of the 2009 Zurich Film Festival, called Polanski’s case “all but dead” and said “despite the philistine nature of the collusion that has now occurred, we came to honor Roman Polanski as a great artist.” For his part, Kouchner, after the “sinister” remark, added: “A man of such talent, recognized in the entire world, recognized especially in the country that arrested him -- all this just isn’t nice.”
Non, ce n’est pas gentil, but, to put it mildly, neither is illegal sex with a 13-year-old, who testified before a grand jury that Polanski plied her with champagne and part of a Quaalude before sodomizing her over her protests.
Sure, Polanski may be a great artist. He appears to have been living a quiet, non-criminal family life in France all these years (he’s married to actress Emmanuelle Seigner and has two children), and there may be some truth to the theory that he fled his sentencing in the U.S. partly because of residual trauma from the Holocaust.
And yes, Polanski’s victim, Samantha Geimer (formerly Gailey) has publicly said he should serve no more time (after settling her civil suit against him for an unknown sum) and even joined his attorneys in requesting the dismissal of the case. She wrote an Op-Ed article on this page when Polanski received an Oscar nomination for best director in 2003 (for “The Pianist”; he won in absentia) saying “his film should be honored according to the quality of the work. What he does for a living and how good he is at it have nothing to do with me or what he did to me.”
But are personal ordeals tantamount to prison time? Does artistic greatness explain away criminal behavior? Is justice served if the victim is willing to let the whole thing drop?
Part of what makes the Polanski case fascinating -- as well as repugnant -- is that it’s infused with these sorts of existential questions about what evens the scales. The family of a murder victim might ask, isn’t a lifetime of coping with the brutal killing of your pregnant wife penance enough? A certain breed of American might ask, doesn’t being forced to live in France constitute punishment? Geimer has asked, isn’t Polanski’s inability to work in Hollywood sufficient punishment? (Hmm, try that on all the struggling directors out there who’ve never raped anyone but also cannot work in Hollywood.)
No one has suggested Polanski is innocent, but the notion that he paid for his crime, perhaps even before he committed it, somehow sways opinion. (It is this argument, not the possible misconduct of the judge and the prosecutor in the case, that motivates Polanski’s loudest defenders.) Yet as emotionally compelling as his travails may be, they’re simply not relevant from a legal standpoint. Just as our justice system is not designed around victims determining the appropriate punishments for the victimizers -- otherwise, Geimer would have set him free years ago -- it does not substitute a hard time in life for hard time in jail.
No matter what happens in the extradition case, the compassionate exile the U.S. effectively granted Polanski by not pursuing him more forcefully merits review. As for the great man himself, it’s worth noting that his arrest came just before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s hard not to see some justice in that. And -- please -- there is one sin at least that Polanski should be atoning for on American soil.