Kaj Wilson, program director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, heard that I would be on a jury at the Stockholm International Film Festival, where filmmaker Roman Polanski was being given a Lifetime Achievement Award. She had been moved by reading Polanski's autobiographical account of his orphaned boyhood life as a Jew during the Holocaust (his father was departed, his mother was murdered at Auschwitz) and wondered if he might be up for coming to next year's Boston Jewish Film Festival as a guest.
Would I ask him? The problem, of course, was that Polanski skipped out of America in 1982 before a judge's sentencing for his sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl. He's been living abroad ever since, usually in Paris, and still making movies, most recently Bitter Moon (1992), Death and the Maiden (1995), and his new The Ninth Gate, which showed at Stockholm.
At Polanski's press conference for The Ninth Gate, I stood up and repeated Wilson's offer. Would he like to come to Boston? Is there any way that a white flag could be raised so that he might make a special return to America for a Jewish festival?
"I'd have to be in the States for a while to settle my legal problems," Polanski said," and I don't wish to be the toy of the media again, having photographers outside my window. So I think I'll take a raincheck. How's that?"
Is Polanski prickly about journalists? Yes, and with justification. He's never forgotten how he was made a suspect by the media in the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. He's never forgetten that supposedly responsible magazines insinuated connections between the gruesome cult killings (by Manson & Co.) and scenes of violence in his movies.
So when a Swedish journalist asked Polanski about his obsession with the occult, Polanski pounced. "Who told you I'm so interested? All you guys keep asking me the same boring questions, like why I'm so interested in the Devil. But there's nothing about the Devil in Knife in the Water. And there's nothing about the Devil in The Tenant. Or in Tess. Or in Cul-De-Sac. Or in Bitter Moon. So you are the victims of your own opinions. You put in your computer, 'I'm doing an interview with Polanski. Ah, Polanski! The Devil!"
A second reporter asked Polanski if there was a way to salvage his reputation.
"I wish I could rectify it," Polanski sighed, "but it's a pointless effort. Whenever I talk to a journalist and explains that I'm different, he's either angry at me, or just nods, and then writes what he wants anyway. People are either angels or devils for the press, and they have to stick there. Even if you come back to your paper wanting to do a story about me as an angel, an editor will change it...or there will be a newspaper headline."
"And yet you're dependent on the press," another Swede interjected.
"I'm not dependent on the press," Polanski said. "I make movies for audiences. If they like them, they go to them. If they don't like them, I could lay myself in front of the theater and they wouldn't cross over my body."
The Ninth Gate, which should open next year in the USA, could be one of those unfortunate Polanski films which have insurmountable problems finding either an arthouse or popular audience.
Based on Arturo Perez-Reverte's best-selling Club Dumas, The Ninth Gate tells of an unscrupulous rare-book dealer (Jonny Depp) who becomes enmeshed in a bloodbath of wealthy bibliophiles with an avid interest in demonologic esoterica. Their Holy Grail is a 17th century tome, The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, which was penned perhaps by Satan himself. Searching for copies of this book, Depp crosses from New York to Lisbon to Paris, and bodies keel over dead. But the chills are, for Polanski, surprisingly kitschy and pedestrian. Scarey or profound it isn't.
My feeling, from the press conference, is that Polanski himself is not that happy with his new work.
"I wish this film had a deep meaning or deep thoughts," he said of The Ninth Gate. "I think it tells you a little more about human natue or evil, but I don't think it will change humanity. I guess I want two hours of entertainment with something ambiguous at the end. But this film isn't the best example of a struggle against the current of movies which are like fast, predigested food."