Those hoping that Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired might exonerate the acclaimed director from 30-year-old charges that he raped a 13-year-old girl are going to be disappointed, as Marina Zenovich’s in-depth film—while unable to convincingly verify whether the coupling (and accompanying ingestion of Quaaludes and bubbly) was forced or consensual—makes clear that relations of a highly improper sort certainly occurred. Yet compassion for the Chinatown auteur is nonetheless in considerable supply throughout this engaging, if less than even-handed, documentary, as Zenovich stingingly condemns Polanski’s treatment by presiding Santa Monica Superior Court judge Laurence J. Rittenband as a travesty of justice.
Her argument amounts to this: Rittenband was a media whore obsessed with getting his name in the papers who perverted the law to excessively punish the director, and Polanski was unjustly vilified by newspapers as a scary monster because he was a short foreigner who’d made Rosemary’s Baby and had potentially played a role in the slaying of his wife by the Manson Family. The case against the egotistic, deceitful Rittenband, bolstered by criticisms from both district attorney Roger Gunson and defense attorney Douglas Dalton, seems conclusive, but despite this fact, Zenovich goes overboard courting sympathy for Polanski, putting great energy into recapping his difficult-beyond-belief early years—which included surviving the Holocaust (which claimed both his parents) and the murder of love-of-his-life Sharon Tate—through interviews that are heavily skewed in his favor.
While Polanski has been brutally wracked by tragedy, these traumas don’t excuse his conduct, which the film tacitly admits did take place but still attempts to mitigate with the very types of irrelevant contentions (such as that in Europe, Polanski wasn’t castigated for screwing teenage photo subject Nastassia Kinski, or that Parisian artists love him) it censures the domestic press for making. As a portrait of the justice system’s penchant for embracing media-circus hype at the expense of performing its duty, and of journalists’ preference for tabloid scandal rather than truth, Wanted and Desired is reasonably damning. Its indictment, though, ultimately feels like a secondary issue to Polanski’s apparently incontrovertible guilt, which makes him—in this instance—still more victimizer than victim.