The Cannes Film Festival has long been a friendly home to Roman Polanski. It’s a place where he still occasionally shows up, assured that he won’t be bombarded by the kind of hanging-judge hostility that will inevitably be expressed in the comments at the end of this post. I’m tempted — oh, how I’m tempted! — to leave the He’s a great artist!/He’s a child rapist! debates to all of you, but the interesting and troublesome new documentary Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir inevitably calls up all the old tidbits and scandals and moral questions once again. The last time a documentary did that, it was the meticulous and deeply revealing Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and I was — and remain — a staunch defender of that film’s exhumation of the intense legal complexities surrounding Polanski’s struggle. After that, do we really need another Polanski documentary? The one we don’t need is Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, which tries to show us the “human” side of Polanski but comes off as a biographical portrait whitewashed in crocodile tears.
The film was shot, by director Laurent Bozereau, in 2009, during the eight months that Polanski spent under house arrest in a very nice house in the green mountains of Switzerland. The entire movie, aside from some pretty amazing photographs and clips, consists of the director nestled inside that rustic ski-lodge coziness, speaking to his friend and associate of nearly 50 years, Andrew Braunsberg, who as an interviewer shows all the penetrating journalistic rigor of Barbara Walters crossed with James Lipton. (Yes, at one point, Polanski cries.) In this setting, the director goes through his life story again, and some of the details he comes up with are fascinating, especially when he discusses growing up right in the middle of the Holocaust. He saw his parents bullied, then taken away; the unfathomable cruelty of the Krakow Ghetto flowed like a bloody river through his childhood.
I have no problem with Polanski reliving these devastating memories, except that what he does is to use them, in a borderline unseemly fashion, to set up a mythology of victimhood that is then sustained throughout the movie. He was a victim of the Nazis; then the Polish Communists; then the Manson killers, who murdered his wife and destroyed his happiness; then the scurrilous media outlets who implied that he might in some ineffable way be connected to the Manson horror; then the legal system that went after him, with sometimes questionable legality, after he had struck a plea bargain by pleading guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor; then the press that had their own feeding frenzy with that story.
I listened to this litany of victimhood, and I thought, quite honestly: In each case, Polanski has a point. He was, to a degree, victimized by the press and by the legal system. (Even though, yes, he was guilty as sin. He has admitted that. The fact is, he struck a deal.) But what bothers me about A Film Memoir is what it so carefully leaves out — that Roman Polanski, quite apart from any illegalities, was a happy scoundrel, and that he courted sensation as much as he avoided it. The movie includes some startling, never-before-seen photographs of the young Polanski (as a boy and as a film student), and it offers a once-over-lightly chronology of his career that, at times, makes it seem as if we’re watching an expatriate episode of PBS American Masters. For Polanski fanatics, there will be little here that they don’t already know.
One thing, though, that even the movie doesn’t seem to know is that Polanski, more than just a great filmmaker, has proved at various times to be a great actor — notably in his fantastically creepy and barely-on-the-radar cult movie The Tenant (1976). His skill in that film at playing a victim with nearly masochistic devotion is astonishing to behold, and in Roman Polanski: A Film Portrait, he’s doing the same thing. He’s not just narrating his life story; he’s enacting a role — Roman the world-class artist and would-be family man whose happiness kept being sabotaged by the big bad world. As a look at Roman Polanski, the movie is hagiography, but as a testament to Polanski the performer of his own life, it’s at once clueless and, in a perverse way, peerless.
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We’ve all seen the technique — probably first used in Forrest Gump, then later with eerie digital realism — by which an actor is made to look like a person with an amputated limb. In Rust and Bone, the French director Jacques Audiard takes this queasy eye-popping stunt and pushes it to newly disturbing and authentic prominence. Marion Cotillard, the brilliant actress from La Vie en Rose and Inception, plays a killer-whale trainer/co-performer at a Marineland near Antibes who becomes the victim of a horrifying accident when one of the whales bites off both her legs just above the knee. Her despair, rehabilitation, and slow rediscovery of herself takes place in communion with an ultimate-fighting bruiser (Matthias Schoenaerts) who’s a thuggish yet sensitive screwup. Audiard gives us endless shots — too many of them — of Cotillard with leg stumps naked and out there and in your face. Sometimes the rest of her is naked, too. There is more than one tender, cut-off-legs-flailing love scene.
I linger on this humanely audacious use of special effects because it’s the only thing with any dramatic life in the movie. One could easily imagine Rust and Bone as a piece of Hollywood claptrap (plucky victim of accident learns to live again!), and frankly, that movie would have been preferable to the one that Audiard has made. It surprises me to write that, since Audiard, director of The Beat That My Heart Skipped and the power-packed 2009 Cannes-prize-winning prison saga A Prophet, has always had a vivid sense of what plays. But he hasn’t located the inner lives of these two characters. Cotillard, looking so contemporary that she’s like an actress you haven’t seen before, with stringy long hair and a coal fire of severity in her eyes, has what it takes to play a woman who feels like she’s lost everything. But she’s forced to flail and mood-swing from scene to scene, without much rhyme or reason. In a kind of insult to the disfigured, there’s never anything to her but her hellacious injury. And Schoenaerts, who’s supposed to be playing some sort of poetic French loser-stud Rocky, never reveals much beneath his soft-edged stolidity. Rust and Bone, despite its sentimental design, is as uninvitingly remote as its empty, abstract title.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes:
Cannes 2012: The Americans take over, starting with Wes Anderson
Cannes: Matteo Garrone’s ‘Reality’ skewers reality TV through a contempo Fellini lens
Cannes: ‘Beyond the Hills’ wants to the art-house ‘Exorcist.’ Plus, Tom Hardy in ‘Lawless’
Cannes: Can ‘Amour’ really be a Michael Haneke film? It’s a tenderly devastating portrait of old age
Cannes: Horror stalks the Croisette in ‘Dario Argento’s Dracula’ and an amazing documentary about ‘The Shining’
Cannes: Brad Pitt is menacingly good in the scuzzy, snazzy underworld movie ‘Killing Them Softly’