Roman Polanski has more than one story to tell. In a lifetime dedicated to storytelling, it is ironic that his own life experiences have been the stuff that good Hollywood films tend to made of. No doubt much will be made of the fact that the Memoir was filmed while Polanski was under house arrest in Switzerland, and indeed the film takes the controversial “American problems” as the director himself refers to them here as the starting point but the documentary is a good deal more than an opportunity to clear the director’s name. Instead it tells the story of his entire life, in which Samantha Geimer is merely one chapter, and – most enticingly for film fans – in Polanski’s own words (and occasionally those of “host” Andrew Braunsberg).
Rather than opt for a narrative-type documentary, director Laurent Bouzereau opts instead for a feature length interview with his subject, presided over by Polanski’s friend and production colleague Braunsberg in the inquisitor’s seat, inter-lacing personal photographs with stock historical footage and sequences taken directly from Polanski’s films.
In honesty, these visual ornaments are only brief distractions, and for the main part the film allows Polanski to merely tell his own story, which was a good decision given his story-telling abilities and his natural charm.
Like never before, the film affords Polanski fans the opportunity to talk about his own body of work – his passion for all of his projects shining through and offering an intriguing insight into how he feels about those films. Such is the nature of the beast however that many will watch Roman Polanski – A Film Memoir simply to hear about the more sensational elements of his life: the fact that his pregnant mother was killed in a Nazi camp, the reality of his own struggles to hide from the Nazis and subsequent adolescent poverty and the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family. And for those looking for that sort of thrill, Polanski speaks with surprising engagement on each of the flashpoint subjects, occasionally breaking down, but mostly relating the facts as clearly as possible.
That is, until it comes to the Geimer affair. Given the opportunity to clear some muddied areas up, such as what actually happened and why, as well as the actual details of the settlement agreement between he and his victim, Polanski fails to act on it, and instead remains comparatively evasive (in contrast with the ease with which he speaks about everything else). This is in no small part down to the protective influence of Braunsberg as his interrogator, who doesn’t probe as much as someone who doesn’t love Polanski might have, and as a result there is still a gaping hole in the director’s story.
Additionally, Braunsberg occasionally lets his personal admiration of his friend get in the way of journalistic integrity (though of course he never claimed to subscribe to that unwritten rule) and when he butts in, or makes his own comments around Polanski’s story-telling, he comes off as sycophantic, particularly when informing the director that Rudyard Kipling’s “If” could well have been written for him.
The fact that Polanski uses the interview to confirm that he is most proud of his work on The Pianist offers some context to how the film actually plays out: it is intriguing to note the similarities between The Pianist and Polanski’s own life events, which this memoir elucidated extremely well, but there is obviously something in Polanski’s mind that preserves his early childhood, which inspired that movie, above all else, because it is given the major burden of focus. Clearly, being involved directly in the Holocaust is not something to be glossed over, but there is plainly not the same devotion given to the relationship between later life events and his other films – like fan favorite Rosemary’s Baby.
Indeed, most of Polanski’s adult life is glossed over and we are rarely offered a real look inside the director’s mind. And when that mind was responsibly for making some of the darkest and most profound films in modern cinema, that is an unfortunate, almost fatally missed opportunity.
The Upside: Polanski’s story is extremely entertaining.
The Downside: Sycophancy is an ugly thing at the best of times, and when the subject is shouldering the story-telling burden without it, it’s even worse.