My mother, when she learnt I was going to meet Roman Polanski, warned me to “be careful” – as though I were about to stray into range of some vast corrupting influence. His reputation has had a long time to brew – it is now 30 years since Repulsion did for wardrobe mirrors what Psycho did for shower curtains, 27 since Mia Farrow was raped by the devil in Rosemary’s Baby and 22 since Faye Dunaway’s immaculate Chinatown make-up launched me on an eternal quest for the perfect red lipstick.
Even so, it’s hard to believe that Roman Polanski is now 61. As he saunters into the restaurant where we’ve arranged to meet, a stone’s throw from his apartment on Avenue Montaigne, he looks more like a student than a rich and successful film director – an impression intensified not so much by his diminutive stature (he’s roughly on a par with me, at 5ft 4in) as by the way he wears his scarf with one end looped over his shoulder. His hair is longer than I’ve seen it in films or photographs, giving him a faintly dashing air that is nowhere to be seen in the nebbish figure he cuts on screen.
My mother needn’t have worried. Polanski is on his best behaviour these days. I was informed in advance by people who’d met him that he was courteous, charming, funny and not in the least debauched. And they were right. “We killed a litre of San Pellegrino here,” he points out as he orders a second bottle. “Living dangerously, huh?”
Due to a private life that has been splashed all over the tabloids on more than one occasion, as well as to numerous appearances as an actor on stage and screen, Polanski has become one of the highest-profile film directors since Alfred Hitchcock. Among his contemporaries, only Woody Allen has appeared more often in front of the camera and inspired a comparable feeding frenzy in the press for reasons unconnected with his work. Indeed, the revelations about Allen’s romance with Soon-Yi have probably taken some of the heat off Polanski, who in 1978 fled the United States while awaiting trial on a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a13-year-old girl and has yet to go back to face the music.
This may have been one occasion when Polanski forgot that his adventure-playground approach to life has its limits. As an nine-year-old child, he escaped, alone, when the Germans liquidated the Cracow ghetto. But meeting him, you realise that his childhood wasn’t so much prematurely truncated as forced underground, with the result that it has managed to survive intact through most of adulthood’s rites of passage. Polanski retains a child’s curiosity, and the childlike knack for effortlessly being the centre of attention. His conversation is full of the sort of quasi-scientific facts reminiscent of the believe-it-or-not data once found in magazines such as Look and Learn. It is as though the world for him is full of things to find out, toys and people to play with. Once, in a restaurant, he talked both his sound recordist and a stranger at the next table into surrendering their belts, and lay down on the floor – all to illustrate a point he was making about the size of the universe.
Paris has heralded the three acts of Polanski’s life. It was here that he was born to Polish parents, the year that Hitler came to power. It was also to Paris that he returned with his first wife, the Polish actress Barbara Kwiatkowska, to scrape together a living after he had graduated from the State Film College in Lodz and before his directing career took off. Now, as a venerable artist and responsible family man, he lives here with his third wife Emmanuelle Seigner (the French actress who starred in Frantic and Bitter Moon) and their two-year-old daughter Morgane. When asked if being a father has changed him, Polanski considers the question as if no one has ever asked it before. “To a certain extent it has, yes. I’m much more content with being home with my family. Deep inside, probably, too – more of a conviction that there is life after movies.”
That may be so, but the filmmaker in him can’t stop directing the action. At the beginning of the interview, he pounces on my microphone and repositions it in what he reckons is the best possible place to pick up our conversation. And a little later, as I fiddle with the cassette recorder, he grabs it from me and, with the doggedness of a true gadget addict, insists on demonstrating how the auto-reverse facility works. I express anxiety that the entire interview will be wiped out, but Polanski shows no such nervousness about modern technology. Half an hour later, he has me crossing my arms, interlinking my fingers and turning my ulnae inside out to illustrate his point that one side of the body always takes precedence over the other. “Also this – do like this – you see? This one is on top! And now try to do it the other way? You see? Hah heh heh!”
There is a tendency in some circles to assume that Polanski lost his filmmaking touch when he left the US. But he made only two films in Hollywood, and his work since then, though uneven, has never been less than fascinating. Moreover, it’s as well to bear in mind that Polanski films tend to improve with age. If Dance of the Vampires, which flopped back in 1967, now looks like a witty, unnerving and endlessly inventive fairy tale, what are the chances that more recent bombs such as Pirates and Bitter Moon will be reassessed and hailed as classics in a decade or so?
His latest film is shot through with themes darker than any he has tackled for some time. Had the screen version of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden been directed by anyone else, it would probably have rated no more than a shrugged shoulder and a token, guilt-salving donation to Amnesty International. But this is a film which confronts the possibility of coming face to face with someone who has done you a great evil. How many directors could tackle that and mean it? When Steven Spielberg invited him to direct Schindler’s List, Polanski refused on the grounds that he was too close to its subject. For a man whose mother died in Auschwitz and whose second wife and unborn child were murdered in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson, this time, surely, it’s personal.
Death and the Maiden takes place in “a nameless South American country” (Chile would seem a good bet, since that’s where Dorfman comes from) which is still finding its feet after the collapse of a brutal dictatorship and the restoration of fragile democracy. Paulina (Sigourney Weaver) is convinced that the Good Samaritan (Ben Kingsley) who has just given her husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson) a lift home in a torrential rainstorm is the doctor who repeatedly raped and tortured her 15 years previously when she was imprisoned by the military regime. She clobbers the stranger over the head, lashes him to a chair and, when he protests his innocence, forces the appalled Gerardo to act as defence lawyer in an impromptu trial. Is the doctor guilty? Or is Paulina simply unhinged by her experiences? It’s not until the very end of the film that we learn what really took place.
“I like many aspects of Dorfman’s play,” says Polanski, “but mainly the one that deals with the relativity of truth. I always was attracted by a subject that could either dispute the truth, or show the different sides of it, like Rashomon, for example, or Citizen Kane.” What also attracted him, he says, was the suspense, which has been pumped up many notches higher than in the play. “It’s kind of a whodunit,” he says. But it’s a whodunit with a single suspect, and the action takes place on a single night in a single location – an isolated cliff-top house. “There was also the challenge,” he says, “of making a film with three people only in one interior, and not being stagey or theatrical, and not being boring.”
As for his vicious streak, while shock-horror moments such as Catherine Deneuve attacking Patrick Wymark with a razor in Repulsion, or Jack Nicholson having his nostril slit in Chinatown, imprint themselves indelibly on the memory, the terror in Polanski’s films comes more usually from a nonspecific nastiness lurking in the wings, waiting to happen. Death and the Maiden has this sort of terror, in spades.
Despite his lifelong passion for the cinema, Polanski’s films have never been derivative. It’s almost impossible to watch anything made by today’s hot young directors without spotting a homage here, a quotation there, a nod and a wink and a rip-off just about everywhere. “They make movies about movies,” says Polanski. “I think most of those films don’t relate to real life at all, maybe with the exception of those black directors, like Boyz N the Hood, you know?” You get the impression that a lot of these young directors have never gained much experience of life outside their film schools or their video-rental stores. You don’t have to look much further than the implausible fantasy females they occasionally insert into their films. Sometimes you wonder whether Quentin Tarantino and his contemporaries have ever met a woman, let alone had a relationship with one.
Death and the Maiden, of course, is another film with a rip-roaring female lead. Fine though Kingsley and Wilson’s performances are, it’s definitely Weaver who is running the show, conducting the improvised trial and winding up, as she began, attending a Schubert chamber concert of a piece which formed the leitmotiv of her torture. Polanski’s characters, snared by fate, always end up back where they started. “I just like this type of form,” he says. “It’s neat, it’s a roundel.” But Death and the Maiden is more optimistic than Polanski roundels of old. The director may identify with all three characters in the film (“I think everybody does, no?”) but it’s Paulina’s predicament which hits hardest. I ask him how he would react if he found himself face to face with those responsible for some of the bad things that have happened to him, or to people he loved?
“I have this initial surge of wrath, of desire for some kind of physical vengeance,” he says, “but that wanes very fast, and when I imagine being confronted by these people I feel nothing. I believe in justice – I think that justice can take care of it. To talk specifically of Manson and his gang, I was very satisfied with the fact that they were put behind bars, and I thought they should stay there. When at that time the press was asking me how I felt about capital punishment, I kept saying that althought I have some visceral desire for retribution, my intellect tells me it’s wrong.”
Polanski’s way of dealing with things is not to dwell on them but to forget and move on to the next project; an adaptation of Les misérables and an erotic adventure based on an adult comic strip are two possibilities for the future. Unlike his characters, he refuses to be trapped by destiny, and if anyone wants clues as to how he has lived and what he has been through, they’re all there in his films, therapy transformed by genius into art, and then left behind.
Postscript: some things I thought were quite interesting but which for various reasons didn’t make it into the final transcript: 1) When I asked Polanksi how he decided where to put the camera, he told me it was obvious – there was only ever one place it could possibly be. (I wish now I’d asked where that place was!) 2) He regretted throwing the camera out of the window in The Tenant, considering the effect too gimmicky. 3) When I said I’d just come from the swimming-pool, we started talking about exercise, which I clearly remember him referring to as necessary since it was a form of “hygiene”.
4) I showed him two Editions Yellow Now film books I’d just bought in the Champs Elysées branch of Fnac – one about Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part and the other Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. Polanski completely ignored the Godard – it was as though it didn’t exist – and homed in on Night of the Hunter. It reminded me of the decisive moment near the start of Lone Wolf and Cub, in which the baby has to choose between a toy and a sword, and moves unerringly towards the weapon – a statement of intent.