Roman Polanski’s new movie is called Based on a True Story, although it isn’t.
Polanski, now 84, is now capping a lifetime of powerful features, whether he likes it or not, but he’s not an auteur in the traditional sense of the word. The idea of auteur emerged with the French New Wave to describe directors whose films function as extensions of themselves, not studio-driven amalgamations but deeply personal creations that have affected cinema’s structure at all levels. Polanski, old-fashioned in many ways, is of the former variety. He takes pre-existing scripts or stories and works them into consistently high-caliber artistic ventures. His work deserves recognition, of course – especially his game-changing genre work like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Chinatown (1974) – but time and again he’s put on the same pedestal as the truly visionary directors of the twentieth century for a notoriety outside the cinema, which drags him further into the spotlight. It’s hard to say for sure, but I doubt we would recognize and remember Polanski today were it not for the standing criminal case against him, alleging sexual misconduct with a minor in 1977.
This dichotomy – the world of cinema upholding someone they also deeply condemn – makes for interesting duality. At the Cannes Film Festival, for example, Polanski’s new film was treated essentially like Official Selection, shown in the Grand Lumiere Theatre at multiple time slots. But it was actually an out-of-competition Special Screening, the same as retrospective shows like Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames or Agnes Varda’s Visages Villages, which were only shown once and treated more like ceremonies than premieres. This gave the film both a special prestige and a certain removal from ordinary crowds, especially since it premiered on the last Saturday of competition, a de facto day off for the industry before the closing ceremony.
This contradiction of Polanski’s fame also makes him something of an enigma. Having hardly spoken a word to the press since 1977, he is at the same time hounded and revered in the media. With a standing arrest warrant in the United States, Polanski has been living in exile, mostly in France, for thirty-nine years, giving his legacy in the U.S. a nearly posthumous pallor.
I saw Polanski in person at Cannes this summer, which, for an American, has become a feat. He was seated two rows ahead of me in a Classics screening of Man of Iron (1981), directed by Andrzej Wajda, his mentor in Polish cinema, and he nearly bumped into me on the way out of the Salle Buñuel as we left the theater greeted by a wall of photographers and a French fanboy wanting a selfie. After forty years of scandal, Polanski has a preternatural ability to disappear. A corridor of the Palais seemed to open up and swallow him.
The contradiction of Polanski’s fame has made him something of an enigma.
I go into details surrounding his new movie so much because – as is the case with most minor works by major directors – the circumstances outstrip the film. Based on a True Story is the tale of best-selling novelist Delphine (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife) who, in the turmoil of a failed relationship, meets L (Eva Green), an adoring fan and new friend. In a turn of events far clearer to the audience than to Delphine, L becomes bent on taking over her life and becoming the author she has admired for so long. Delphine took L on as her assistant while she attempts a new project but soon finds L. assuming her identity and disguising her own. The plot is a more banal Misery (1990), spinning derivative cautions about the danger of idolatry without really approaching the violence which sets the stakes. There is also a psychosexual aspect to Delphine and L’s relationship which is, again, never fully realized, and so this yarn unspools slowly between love and hate, like a roller coaster that ascends but never drops us.
Abandoning interest in the film at eye level, one finds quite a lot to think about considering its other aspects. For example, a lot of Based on a True Story happens between the character’s screens, an interesting choice for an octogenarian director. Delphine’s emotional state is suspended with her blinking cursor at the top of her laptop, waiting for words to come. She stares longingly onto the blank word document, typing and immediately deleting, the hackneyed trope of writer-in-crisis. Delphine also does quite a lot of communicating through FaceTime. It places us in the contemporary, but at a price; few films have really figured out how to use something like video-chatting elegantly, without it feeling ham-fisted. And the feature was at its worst when Delphine, struggling at her keyboard, suddenly sees L’s face pop out of the laptop with a leering yell, like a 3D movie gag, and then wakes up from this unsuspecting nightmare.
The circumstances behind Based on a True Story outperform the film itself
In his enduring exile, Polanski’s only way to communicate with the world now is through the cinema, and the only way we have of understanding him is by the films he selects for direction. This idea is both beautiful and sad, but I doubt he would see it the same way. Clearly frustrated with global media and the legal system, his manner doesn’t invite sympathy and his work doesn’t invite commentary. Polanski has been reduced to trying to make commercially successful, popular features for a populace he both fears and spurns.
If there is a hallmark of his late period, it’s his characters, usually very successful in their fields, who come to encounter obstacles well outside their expertise. Whether these are artists, like in Based on a True Story or The Pianist (2002), or ordinary business people, as in Carnage (2011) they push against outside forces they have never invited in. Perhaps Polanski sees himself the same way, as an artist stubbornly creating against his storm of notoriety. If so, he can only expect to share their fate, because, in his world, there are no happy endings.