STEPHEN GLOVER: Why boycott Roman Polanski’s new film? It’s a sad truth that wicked men can make great art
Famous Polish film director Roman Polanski is a very wicked man. Or, to be more precise, 43 years ago he did a very wicked thing.
By his own admission, he engaged in unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Jane Gailey, now Geimer, in Los Angeles. She claimed in court that she had been drugged, raped, and forced to submit to various sexual perversions.
Polanski denied he had done these things but, following a plea bargain, confessed to unlawful sexual intercourse. When he feared he was about to be flung into jail, he fled the U.S. He has not returned there for fear of arrest.
Famous Polish film director Roman Polanski is a very wicked man. Or, to be more precise, 43 years ago he did a very wicked thing
This is the background to a huge furore over a film he has directed, An Officer And A Spy, which is based on a novel by the distinguished British author Robert Harris.
It tells the true story of the treatment of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was persecuted by the French authorities towards the end of the 19th century.
By most accounts, it is a brilliant film. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Last week, Polanski, who is 86, was awarded the prize for best director at the Cesars, the French ‘Oscars’.
Whereupon leading actresses walked out in protest, and the ceremony’s female host refused to continue. One star, Adele Haenel, who is known as the face of the French #MeToo movement, sarcastically shouted ‘Long live paedophilia, bravo paedophilia’ before storming out.
Polanski did not go to Venice to accept the award, as he may have been arrested, extradited back to the US and jailed for his statutory rape conviction. His wife who stars in the film, Emmanuelle Seigner, collected the award on his behalf
My sympathies are entirely with those who couldn’t stomach the feting of Polanksi. They were being asked to celebrate the success of a convicted — plus absconding and seemingly unrepentant — rapist. I think I might have walked out too.
But expressing one’s personal feelings is one thing. Trying to have a film banned is another. That is effectively what has happened to An Officer And A Spy as a result of pressure from movements such as #MeToo.
Although the film has been seen by more than 1.5 million people in France, and by many others throughout Europe, it will not be shown in Britain, America, Ireland or anywhere else in the English-speaking world.
Its distributors apparently fear a backlash if it is shown in these countries, where feminist lobby groups are more powerful than they are on the Continent. One could justly say that the film has been boycotted.
Polanski (pictured with Sharon Tate) was struck by tragedy in 1969 when his then pregnant wife was murder along with four friends by members of the Manson family at the couple’s Hollywood home
Is this right? I don’t think so. It seems to me there is a distinction between on the one hand expressing personal distaste for Polanski and electing not to see his film, and on the other hand stopping everyone else from watching it.
The sins of an artist should not be confused with the work of art which he or she produces. It is a hard truth to swallow that many proficient, and even great, artists are bad people — sometimes very bad.
Let me offer some examples. About two decades ago, there was a huge controversy about the artist Eric Gill, and in particular his beautifully wrought Stations Of The Cross, which adorn the nave of the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral in London.
Gill, who died in 1940, was a devout Catholic. But long after his death he was outed as a serial paedophile who sexually abused two of his daughters and had an incestuous relationship with one of his sisters. He even experimented with bestiality.
How, it was asked, could Gill be celebrated by the Church? The uncomfortable fact was that a man who was indubitably a dangerous sexual deviant had, in his stone carvings of Christ’s Passion, movingly portrayed the Divine.
Polanski did not go to Venice to accept the award, as he may have been arrested, extradited back to the US and jailed for his statutory rape conviction
During the controversy I went along to Westminster Cathedral. I found, admittedly after something of a struggle, that I was able to put the enormous human failings of Eric Gill out of my mind and appreciate his wonderful carvings as works of high religious art.
If the works of bad men — they are usually men — were banned, there would be many vacant spaces in our art galleries, and a lot of empty shelves in our remaining public libraries.
The wonderful Italian painter Caravaggio was often violent, and, in 1606, killed a man in a brawl. He fled after being convicted of murder. Like Eric Gill, he produced works of great religious art.
Paul Gauguin, the 19th-century French post-impressionist whose fine portraits were exhibited recently at the National Gallery in London, took three under-age wives in Tahiti, and infected them all with syphilis. He eventually died from syphilitic complications at the age of 54.
Writers are sometimes no better. The 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe was frequently in trouble with the law before being stabbed to death in a brawl in a Deptford pub.
Charles Dickens anatomised unforgettable rogues in his magnificent novels. In his own life he dumped his wife Catherine (who had borne him ten children) to take up with the young actress Ellen Ternan. He even publicly accused Catherine of having a ‘mental disorder’.
And so it goes on. The American novelist Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a penknife in 1960, and nearly killed her. His compatriot, the great modernist poet Ezra Pound, was a fascist and a supporter of Mussolini, as well as an anti-Semite.
Nor are composers exempt from moral failings. German Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite whose views influenced Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Is his music any less sublime?
Whether a wholly wicked person could produce a great work of art may be seriously doubted since art demands a high degree of human empathy, of which very bad people seem incapable.
But it is surely incontrovertible that many great artists, whose works we revere, have been no better than the rest of us, and sometimes a lot worse.
And yet I suspect that most people can see that we should try to appreciate a work of art without dwelling on the moral imperfections of the person who produced it.
So why boycott Polanski’s film? I admit there is a difficulty in that he is still on this earth. The sins of dead artists inevitably recede into history, and are bound to bother us less than those of living ones.
The fact that Roman Polanski has not paid any legal penalty for his crime, and that his victim is alive and presumably still affected by the attack (though she says she has forgiven him) is undoubtedly troubling.
I certainly think he should return to the U.S. and finally accept his punishment. But I should be astounded if he did. After all these years, he appears to have convinced himself that his crime was less heinous than it was — if a crime at all.
Attempts by him to compare his own treatment with the terrible punishments meted out to Dreyfus, the hero of his film — the poor man spent five years on Devil’s Island in French Guiana and another seven trying to clear his name — have understandably infuriated Polanski’s critics.
Abominate the man, or his act, but let Roman Polanski’s film be watched — that is my message. It is simply one of the mysteries of life that bad men can produce good, sometimes great, art.
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