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Artillery Row

Polanski Politics

In light of the Césars drama, Christopher Silvester considers crime and censorship in film appreciation

What were they thinking, those 4,313 members of the César Academy, when a majority of them voted for Roman Polanski to receive the César Award for Best Director for his latest film, An Officer and a Spy (2019)? After all, Polanski had been so honoured three times in the past, so it’s not as if he’s gone unrecognised for his talent.

And hadn’t they read the clear instructions from France’s Culture Minister Franck Riester, who had said it would be “symbolically bad” if Polanski were to win the prize for Best Director, “given the stance we must take against sexual and sexist violence”? Or from France’s Equality Minister, Marlène Schiappa, whose reaction to Polanski’s nomination had been to say she found it “impossible that a hall gets up and applauds the film of a man accused of rape several times”?

The obvious cop-out, if you wished to register your admiration not for the man but his art, would have been to vote for An Officer and a Spy as Best Film and deny Polanski the accolade of Best Director.

In the event, the film was beaten in the Best Film category by Les Misérables, from the Malian director Ladj Ly, which, by the way, is not yet another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel but rather a depiction of life in a Parisian banlieue from the perspective of a racist provincial cop.

By voting for Polanski as Best Director, those pesky Academy members, a majority of whom are male (65 per cent) and most likely pale and stale, to use the denigratory epithet, have spit in the eye of those various feminist organisations which signed an open letter, published in Le Parisien a couple of days before the awards ceremony with the title “If Rape Is an Art, Give Polanski All the Césars”. But could it be that the César Academy voters genuinely believed Polanski was the best director under consideration?

By voting for Polanski as Best Director, those pesky Academy members have spit in the eye of those various feminist organisations

Once again, Polanski found himself in the eye of a storm, following the conviction of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein for rape and sexual assault in New York a few days earlier. For as most people know Polanski has been on the run from the US Justice Department since 1972 for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl and that he avoided extradition for this crime in 2011.

Polanski had decided not to attend the Césars event on the grounds that he didn’t want to face a lynching party. As it happened, several actresses walked out when Polanski’s award was announced. One of them, Adèle Haenel, a nominee for Best Actress, was heard to say “Shame!” as she left, and she was followed by Céline Sciamma, her erstwhile lover and director of the film in which she stars, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (released in the UK last week). Haenel claims to have been abused as a child by another French director.

But what of Polanski’s film? An Officer and a Spy (2019), is based on the Robert Harris novel about the Dreyfus affair, in which an Alsatian French officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was sent to the Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana, but after a long campaign and investigation he was brought back to France, given a retrial, convicted again, pardoned and released, and then fully exonerated in 1906. This is the second time Polanski has chosen a Robert Harris novel as the source for a film, the first being The Ghost.

Back in 2012 the British Film Institute mounted a retrospective two-month season of films by the Polish director Roman Polanski. Writing in the New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey felt able to praise his work, in particular The Tenant (1976) and The Pianist (2003), while noting that the director had recently spent time in prison and under house arrest on historic rape charges. I doubt if he or another New Statesman writer would be so relaxed in his treatment of Polanski today.

As soon as the BFI’s 2012-13 Polanski retrospective was announced, a contributor to the online forum Mumsnet, one BelleCurve, asked whether “any MNers want to campaign against it?” There was a predictable flurry of responses volunteering to follow her, but one contributor, FloatyBeatie, refused. “Some of his films are excellent,” she wrote. “I hope that he gets the legal punishment that he ought to have, but I very much dislike the idea of a campaign of censorship against his work. This would be a campaign to pressurise the BFI not to run a retrospective in which his works are shown. I can’t really think of another word for that than censorship.  Of course people can see his works in other ways: censorship is not the same as banning. But you would be pressuring one of the UK’s central bodies for arthouse cinema to exclude a central director from its analytical display of major films.”

This time around, there was a whiff of the censorship to come when Tricia Tuttle, Director of Festivals for the British Film Institute, gave an interview to Screen Daily, soon after An Officer and a Spy received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September. “I didn’t see it,” she said. “I didn’t pursue it to see it. Every single decision that a programmer makes is connected to millions of different things. It’s connected to personal taste, your own ethical positions. I’m a curator, and every decision we [the festival programming team] make, we make together as a group.” It is scandalous that Tuttle should not have included it in last October’s London Film Festival line-up and that she should hidden behind such a mealy-mouthed excuse.

Last November, as the film was released in France, a new accusation was levelled at Polanski. The French actress and photographer Valentine Monnier claimed that he had subjected her to an “extremely violent” sexual assault at his Swiss chalet in 1975 when she was 18. Polanski has denied this claim categorically, but the problem for both parties is that it is non-justiciable because of the statute of limitations.

It is not just men who have defended Polanski’s right to be honoured as a filmmaker. “I see a lot of hypocrisy in Polanski’s case,” his fellow Polish director Agnieszka Holland has said. “All the institutions – like the American Film Academy or the French Film Academy – knew about what he did for many, many years. He was received, distributed and awarded. Then, suddenly, because the social mood changed, the same man became totally rejected and a fugitive not only from the US but from every place. I think it is to clean the dirty conscience of those institutions and to show kind of moral purity.”

Brigitte Bardot has been even more forthright. “We should be thankful that Polanski is alive and saving French cinema from mediocrity,” she has said. “I judge him by his talent, not his private life.”

Despite the statements of his Equality and Culture ministers, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said he will take his children to see the film, which is not surprising since it has been a commercial as well as a critical success, both in France and overseas. It has proved to be one of Polanski’s most lucrative films ever in a country that has embraced him as a cultural icon, with a tally of 1.4 million admissions and $12 million at the box office.

According to Unifrance, it is “the first French title to cross the symbolic threshold of one million admissions outside France in 2020”. Over half a million Italians have seen An Officer and a Spy, as have 115,000 Poles, 75,000 Israelis, 66,00 in Belgium and Luxembourg, and 34,000 in Spain and Greece. It will also be released in Portugal, Germany, Austria, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, and Turkey.

Yet in the Anglo-Saxon world it has been denied any distribution. Neither Curzon Cinemas nor Picturehouse Cinemas in the UK have dared to acquire it, the British Film Institute Southbank has no screenings scheduled, and neither the BBC nor Film Four have snapped up the television rights. A television screening would be hard to boycott, as would DVD distribution.

The United Kingdom is not a country that one associates with severe censorship. The British Board of Film Censors may ask for cuts, but not entire movies tainted by association with a fugitive felon.

Robert Harris, who won the César for Best Adaptation with Polanski last Friday, believes “strongly that people in a free society have a right to see a movie if they want to, regardless of who made it, and I hope they will get the chance to see this one, both here and in America”. Xan Brooks, who wrote a review for the Guardian from the Venice Film Festival described it as “a solid, well-crafted piece of professional carpentry, like a heavy piece of Victorian furniture; built to last; built to be used. The longer you look at it, the more impressive it grows.”

Perhaps the French Institute in London will show the film in due course, once the fuss has died down. Otherwise those of us in the UK shall have to hope that US-based international DVD distributor Criterion, which released both Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac and The Tragedy of Macbeth, will have the courage to release a version with English sub-titles.

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