Video: Commentary: When Roman Polanski wins a directing award, does an entire #MeToo movement lose?

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Toxic as it sounds, imagine the inside of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein’s head. Imagine what he’s thinking, now that his rampant sexual predation has come to a presumptive close, and with his life’s third act plodding along in less glamorous circumstances than the Oscar-winning movie producer surely imagined for himself.

If Weinstein has Roman Polanski on the brain, is he interior-muttering six little words, over and over?

Some guys have all the luck.

On Friday at the César Awards, France’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, the 86-year-old Polanski — convicted decades ago on charges of statutory rape of a 13-year-old in the United States and still a fugitive from justice — won the best director prize for his latest film, “An Officer and a Spy.”

A beautifully crafted historical drama, it concerns the late 19th-century political scandal involving Alsatian French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, wrongly accused of selling secrets to the Germans. The charge of treason, fed by the glaring anti-Semitism behind the Dreyfus affair, was taken up by novelist Emile Zola. The famous newspaper editorial of the day — titled “J’Accuse!” — gives Polanski’s docudrama its French release title.

Protests raged outside the Paris auditorium on Friday long before the Césars began. An activism group called Osez le Feminisme, or “Dare to Be Feminist,” viewed the inclusion of Polanski among the nominees, and his film’s 12 nominations in all, as a cold rebuke to France’s late-starting #MeToo movement. Polanski has been dogged by several accusations of sexual assault across the decades since his 1977 Los Angeles arrest.

“For women who have had the courage to speak out about the abuse they suffered,” protest organizer Ursula Le Menn told the press Saturday, “there is an enormous pain seeing this man distinguished.”

At the announcement Friday of Polanski’s win, several audience members stormed out, notably the star of the superb French drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Adèle Haenel, and the film’s writer-director, Celine Sciamma. Sciamma’s movie, conspicuously overlooked in many key categories Friday, continues its international success on the art-house circuit.

Fearing what he called “a feminist lynching,” Polanski and other nominees affiliated with “An Officer and a Spy” declined to attend. They did not, therefore, hear in person Haenel’s farewell cries of “Shame!” and “Bravo, pedophilia!”

There are so many issues packed into this single moment. With France playing cultural catch-up with the #MeToo movement, the ongoing, naggingly persistent question regarding what it means to have a known criminal, Polanski, rewarded for his latest screen effort, takes on extra baggage.

Controversy erupted after 86-year-old Roman Polanski — convicted decades ago on charges of statutory rape of a 13-year-old in the United States and still a fugitive from justice — won the César Awards best director prize for his latest film, “An Officer and a Spy.”

Controversy erupted after 86-year-old Roman Polanski — convicted decades ago on charges of statutory rape of a 13-year-old in the United States and still a fugitive from justice — won the César Awards best director prize for his latest film, “An Officer and a Spy.” (Jarek Praszkiewicz/AP Photo)

From Michael Jackson to Woody Allen, in widely varying degrees of verifiable offense, how much can we separate the behavior, criminal or otherwise, of the artist from the nature and quality of the art?

Like many, Chicago-based filmmaker and University of Illinois-Chicago professor Jennifer Reeder wrestles with the implications of the Polanski win and the César walkouts.

“It’s a combination of things,” Reeder says. “The protests (at the Césars) related to a sense that ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ was ignored, by and large. So that’s the context for watching a man considered an auteur, with a history of abusing his power, awarded yet again.”

On the other hand, she says, “it’s important not to ignore the work itself. It’s important we look at Polanski’s work in a more complicated way. Scrutinize it! Examine it!” If Polanski’s film, which currently has no distribution deal in the United States either for theatrical or streaming release, ever becomes legally available, she plans on seeing it.

Reeder has shown earlier Polanski films in her classes, from “Rosemary’s Baby” to “Chinatown.” She also devotes classroom time, she says, “to talk about why Roman Polanski doesn’t live in this country anymore.”

Polanski’s recent on-screen incarnation may well be the last time he ever comes off like a hero in the eyes of popular culture. In Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” we catch glimpses of Polanski as he tools around the Hollywood Hills with his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, two timeless, stylish emblems of industry cool in Tarantino’s eyes.

At the Venice Film Festival last September, “An Officer and a Spy” received the Silver Lion (second place, effectively) from a jury headed by Argentinian director Lucretia Martel. There, too, the inclusion of Polanski’s film in festival competition provoked great controversy. Prior to opening, festival director Alberto Barbera defended the overwhelmingly male-directed feature competition slate as well as the inclusion of Polanski’s drama.

“I am convinced,” he said during the opening press conference, “that we have to distinguish between the artist and the man.”

Not long afterward, jury president Martel countered: “I don’t separate the work from the author,” adding that she has “recognized a lot of humanity in Polanski’s previous films.”

Cinema scholar and historian Kristin Thompson, honorary fellow in University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts, attended the Venice festival and caught the world premiere of Polanski’s film.

“I have to say: very well-directed,” she says, acknowledging that for countless moviegoers, activists and abuse victims appalled by Polanski’s fugitive status, quality remains a non-issue.

Thompson, who runs the sterling film website “Observations on Film Art” with her husband, David Bordwell, says she “completely sympathizes” with the women who walked out at the Césars Friday. “What bothers me,” she adds, “is that a lot of other people besides Polanski worked on Polanski’s film. Hundreds of people. I don’t see how you can condemn the entire film on the basis of the director … . (W)ould some protesters go so far as to say that nobody should’ve taken a job on the film? That nobody should’ve worked on it? That’s going pretty far. And I think we shouldn’t go that far in judgment.”

The worldwide #MeToo movement hasn’t moved at the same rate of speed or enlightenment, country to country, person to person. So many sharp, well-intentioned minds have changed so quickly on so many personal fronts. Kate Winslet worked with Polanski on the 2011 film “Carnage.” She co-starred in Woody Allen’s 2017 film “Wonder Wheel.” Polanski’s rap sheet was well known; Allen was a different matter, having been accused (though never charged) of child sexual abuse by his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow.

In 2017, Winslet told The New York Times: “Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person. Woody Allen is an incredible director. So is Roman Polanski. I had an extraordinary working experience with both of those men, and that’s the truth.”

Four months later, Winslet recanted, acknowledging an internal reckoning and the “bitter regrets I have at (my) poor decision to work with individuals with whom I wish I had not. Sexual abuse is a crime. It lies with all of us to listen to the smallest of voices.”

For Reeder, recently praised by “Parasite” Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho as one of 20 directors worldwide paving the cinematic way forward, the Allen conundrum is relatively easy. “I’ve never been a big fan of his, so it’s easier for me to turn away from his work,” she says. As for Polanski, she says, she plans on seeing “An Officer and a Spy” if it ever becomes available.

“Seeing, critiquing, arguing over that film, and others like it,” she says, “is important. But that doesn’t mean I’m forgiving. Or forgetting.”

“An Officer and a Spy” currently has no U.S. distribution or streaming plans.


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