When a figure is as fascinating and controversial as filmmaker Roman Polanski, the prospect of a documentary on his life is an enticing one. More so than perhaps any director in the business, his personal and artistic life has been tumultuous, tragic and sometimes downright bizarre. However, rather than being a vast retrospective Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary ‘Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir’ relies entirely on Polanski’s own words to tell his life story, placing the man as both the subject and the star of the film.
This is the premise: Polanski is under house arrest after his run-in with the Swiss police and the threat of being extradited to the U.S. to face his outstanding rape charges. Seeing an opportunity to have a proper sit-down with the man, his friend and colleague Andrew Braunsberg chats with Polanski about his life, from his childhood in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust, through his early successes and Hollywood career, to the tragedies of his wife’s brutal and public murder and his charges of rape after having sex with a minor. It’s a chance for Polanski to tell his story in his own words.
It sounds tremendously appealing, and thankfully, Polanski is as engaging a figure as his stories and his films. He recounts these events with a surprising humour and honesty, nothing seemingly off-limits. Wisely, Bouzereau spends most of the film focused on Polanski, not muddying it with extra interviews from fellow artists and colleagues. By the end, you’re thankful of Polanski’s company, especially as, unfortunately, the documentary is nowhere near as engaging as its subject. Bouzereau made a significant career in the early days of laserdiscs and DVDs creating terrific making-of documentaries, notably on films like ‘Jaws’ and the Universal Hitchcock catalogue. His style, however, has never really changed, and compared to films such as last year’s terrific ‘Woody Allen: A Documentary’, this one just seems a bit undercooked, no change of rhythm or utilisation of all the tools now at the disposal of documentary filmmakers. It clearly has a sensationalist agenda, only focusing on those significant major events, and not delving into his philosophies or artistic practices, or even the films themselves (apart from constant reference to ‘The Pianist’, his Oscar-winning 2002 film, and its personal connections with his childhood). It also doesn’t help that, by comparison to Polanski, Braunsberg just isn’t an engaging host or narrator, and seems too slight to carry the film. Also laying the sentiment on thick is a surprisingly inept score from the usually stellar Alexandre Desplat, which only makes the film feel that bit more trite.
Those hoping for a complete retrospective of this great artist are going to be disappointed by this film memoir. What you do get, however, is an exciting chance to hear Polanski tell his story in his own words, and even though the documentary itself never rises to the level of its star, it generally gets out of the way enough to let us just sit back and listen to his unusual life.