Chinatown (1974) is, unarguably, one of the greatest movies in 20th century US film, and it’s routinely listed as one of the finest examples of 20th century filmmaking worldwide. It’s a brilliantly executed, wonderfully realised, fantastic, complex, elegant film revealing a director, and a cast, at their pinnacle. Unsurprisingly, the film was nominated for, and won, a number of prestigious awards, including both Golden Globes and Academy Awards — and its critical acclaim was nearly universal. Everyone loved Chinatown when it came out, and it’s perennially popular to this day, a film that’s stood the test of time in a way that is almost deeply surprising, considering the very specific genre and subject matter, about which more in a moment.
It was also directed by Roman ‘Child Rapist’ Polanski. It was, in fact, his last film in the US — three years later, he drugged and raped a young woman and then fled the country rather than face sentencing. He spent over three decades floating around Europe from palatial home to palatial home, making films, marrying and having children, receiving endless positive critical reception for his work, earning lifetime achievement awards, and being told by the entire filmmaking community that his body of work far outweighed anything he might have done, back then, in the day.
Relying on that, Polanski filed multiple times for a dismissal of his case, a request that was denied each time in spite of his defenders. The list of names backing Polanski is long and, at times, deeply shocking — it’s not just that the director had a huge base of supporters, but that some of the same people you might expect to be outspoken about sexual assault in Hollywood, like Tilda Swinton, were in fact right there behind Polanski, arguing that he’d done his time. Critics condemned Polanski’s continued ‘persecution’ as though he were an innocent man being hounded to death by a malicious district attorney, almost like a plot from Chinatown itself. Evidently, making beautiful things earns one a free pass on prior crimes, no matter how heinous.
Chinatown represents an era of neo-noir, films made in the noir style long after the era was over. Not all films in the genre were successful, but Polanski was able to capture the spirit of noir, with all its layers, complexities, and darkness. The film was a hit because it resonated so strongly, and because it was so artfully done — and the subject was a fascinating one. California’s early water wars haven’t been exploited nearly as much as they should be in film and literature; they offer a truly bizarre cast of characters, an almost unbelievable series of events, a look into a cruel, wicked, sometimes even vindictive world where it was impossible to trust anyone and nothing was as it seemed. It was a setting that almost begged for inclusion in the noir canon, and Polanski played it to the hilt.
It is a fantastic film. But it was produced by a very bad man. Polanski was 42 when he raped a 13-year-old girl, and while he may have agreed to a plea bargain to avoid serious charges, the nature of his crime is indisputable. Plea bargains involve an admission of guilt in exchange for a lighter sentence, something Polanski knew would be to his advantage given the severity of the charges. Drugging and raping children is not favoured by most judges, and in a case involving five separate charges, there’s a potential for serious jail time.
There’s something else troubling here too. Many rapists are serial rapists, and Polanski, like other directors of his time, was in a position of unique access and power. While no one has stepped forward to say so, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to theorise that other young women were sexually assaulted, or manipulated, by Polanski — the circumstances may have varied, but in all cases, they would have been caught in the same swirl of fear and pressure that his known victim was. No surprise if he has other victims and they haven’t said anything when we look at the case of his known victim. Some attempted to smear her with victim blaming and slut shaming, but we know the truth: she was a scared girl who was raped by someone who abused his power, size, age, and position to rape her.
A man who rapes a 13-year-old girl isn’t in it for a one-time event. Men who rape children tend to be repeat rapists, and Polanski may have assaulted other children as well. Hollywood is an environment where men are almost expected to seek younger partners and to trade out as they age, with notable examples like Woody Allen being particularly disgusting, but Polanski takes it to a new and terrible level.
Whether he raped once or ten or one hundred times, Polanski committed a violating and awful act against someone who was not of an age, or in a position, to consent. His industry support is galling, but it leaves us with a deeper issue: the fact that, even though Polanski is not a good person, he made some beautiful things. Chinatown, objectively, is an extremely fine film. It’s also one I can never really watch, because it’s overshadowed for me by the crimes of its creator.
Others feel differently — this was a particularly robust debate in 2009, during one of his high-profile requests for a dismissal of charges — but the matter remains that we need to acknowledge that bad people can do good things, and vice versa. Roman Polanski is a rapist. Roman Polanski is a talented filmmaker. It would be nice if these things could be mutually exclusive and there could be a clear dividing line, but there’s not, and as long as there isn’t, we can’t pretend otherwise.
These things are complicated, forcing us to engage with them from a nuanced position. When we talk about Polanski’s work we have to acknowledge Polanski as a person, because these things don’t occur in a vacuum — and one thing that troubles me is the thought of how many young women and children there were on his sets, and what happened to them.
Photo: Film Forum, Flickr