Roman Polanksi is a film maker of genius, and I've always had the highest regard for his work. But obviously there is a shadow across his life and career, and anyone who is a Polanski advocate — or even an admirer — has to somehow deal with the fact that he was guilty of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13 year old girl, after plying her with the fashionable drugs of the day.
There's no shortage of books on Polanski. Along with Stanley Kubrick he is probably the most written-about film director in history. But arguably the best account of those troubling events has remained Polanski's autobiography. Until now... when Samantha Geimer — "the girl" in the case — has finally published her own autobiography.
The Girl, by Geimer and Judith Newman, is a well written and gripping book. Its disturbing, touching and often — surprise — darkly funny. What comes across most strongly, as in almost all the other versions of the story (and particularly forcefully in Marina Zenovich's excellent documentary film on the subject) is that, as reprehensible as Polanski's behaviour unquestionably is, the real villain of the piece is the judge who tried the case. The dishonourable Laurence J. Rittenband was a sleazy fame-seeking publicity hound who threw justice in the nearest trash receptacle so he could promote his own image.
Geimer's story is full of unforgettable moments. And the most compelling thing is that however awful her experience with Polanksi, it was nothing compared to the legal process which then swallowed her life. She says, "If I had to chose between reliving the rape or the grand jury testimony, I would chose the rape."
And then there's the striking description of how she felt when the other kids at her school found out that she was the girl in the case: "You know that recurring dream we all have where we forget to put on our clothes, and go out in public naked? This felt like walking around school naked."
Or her remarks about attending the glittering bash for the HBO premiere of Zenovich's documentary, decades later. "I was uncomfortable... the thought that I was at this party with all those celebrities and other luminaries simply because I'd been raped by some old goat seemed kind of mortifying."
And, most startling of all, her reaction when Polanski won the Oscar for The Pianist. "I was quietly thrilled for his victory."
In the end, the portrait of Polanski at the time of the assault which emerges is one of a callous, arrogant and selfish man. It's quite possible to be a great film maker, and that too. Geimer's own summary of his motivation: "Roman Polanski was a man who was horny and high on March 10, 1977. That's it."
Perhaps the only unjust note in this otherwise remarkably fair and even-handed book is when Geimer denigrates the quality of the pictures that Polanksi took of her (they were supposed to be doing a fashion shoot when "the incident" occurred). It's apparently not enough that he's a rapist. He has to be a bad photographer, too. Actually the quality of the images speak for themselves. Some are reprinted in the book, and a particularly striking one is used on the cover.
(Image credits: the cover of the book is from the Hollywood Reporter. The black and white photo of Polanski is from the New York Times. The black and white photo by Polanski is from Stern. The colour photo is from the Daily Mail. The reprint edition of the book, with type over the image, is from Amazon.)