When I heard that Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski had been arrested in Switzerland on the way to a film festival regarding a 1978 U.S. arrest warrant for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, I didn’t know what to think of it and like most people in France didn’t actually think much of it at all afterwards.
Then I heard the French Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterand
(the nephew of François Mitterand) say this, in very emotional tone of voice :
"Seeing him alone, imprisoned while he was heading to an event that was due to offer him praise and recognition is awful, he was trapped. In the same way there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has just shown its face."
Then I thought, oh boy, here we go again….
Followed more support, notably from no less than the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.
I guess I expected the usual iconoclastic reaction from the self-proclaimed Left-Bank intellectuals à-la Bernard Henry-Lévy
(and was not disappointed) but certainly not support from members of the French government immediately upon hearing the news without even knowing the details of the case.
As for Mitterand’s statementit was was dumb and arrogant : 1) Obviously every country has a generous and a “scary” side… including France. 2) the “scary” side of America certainly exists but this hardly qualifies (if you want "scary", I'll give you "scary" but not just in America). 3) Who does Frédéric Mitterand think he is to give good and bad points about another democratic country?
And for the French Foreign minister to imply that he is somewhat special because of his talent is where the injustice lies:
"This affair is frankly a bit sinister. Here is a man of such talent, recognized worldwide, recognized especially in the country where he was arrested. This is not nice [sympathique] at all," (here in French)
Pas très sympathique? This has nothing to do with being nice and even less to do with his talent.
This is somewhat typical of the way the French (mostly Parisian) artistic and intellectual circles tend to believe that art and talent allow for some leeway in morals. But morals is one thing, justice is another.
Our readers should also remember that the French artists and intellectuals may be revered for their work by the French, but certainly not followed in this cultism of the poor damned artist.
In some ways, it does put things somewhat into perspective as the words "rape" and "13 year old" sound like one of the worse offenses. The victim who was 13 at the time says in an interview that she had sex before meeting Polanski, drank alcohol and had used Quaaludes [a sedative used as a recreational drug in the 70s] when she was real little. (Yet she refuses to blame her mother for all that).
More interestingly, it shows in details how the Judge, Lawrence Rittenband, violated judicial ethics on multiple occasions. (although the prosecutor, David Wells, who said in the documentary he colluded with the judge to increase his jail sentence now says he lied
At the end of the documentary, there’s a powerful interview of Roger Gunson, the now-retired deputy district attorney who was one of the prosecutors against Polanski and says if he had been in the director’s position, he would have fled as well.
So in addition to the fact that Polanski has suffered many terrible events in his life (which has been put forth by many of his defenders), like his mother's death at Nazi hands or the murder of Sharon Tate, his pregnant wife, in 1969, or the fact that he was certainly trapped, there are also mitigating factors in the legal case.
That being said the fact remains that he gave a 13 year old drugs and alcohol, and had sex with her knowingly. And that was hardly an “erreur de jeunesse
” (“a youthful error”) as Bernard Henry Levy puts it. Polanski was over 30 at the time.
So is he the victim of some monstrous injustice or persecution? Given all the daily injustices in our world, I would think if there is any injustice at all here, it is a minor one - certainly not worth the uproar.
In the case of Polanski, it seems the big uproar has actually divided the French. And as the NYTimes put it, it says something about French popular opinion that President Nicolas Sarkozy, the ministers’ boss, has so far declined to take up Mr. Polanski’s case
in a pointed article
Meanwhile, a popular French cable television satire, “Les Guignols de l’Info,” ridiculed Mr. Mitterrand. Recalling Chris Rock’s joke that O. J. Simpson would have been in jail years earlier if he had been “Orenthal the Bus Driving Murderer,” a puppet on the show depicting the French culture minister referred to “the Beast of the Bastille,” Guy Georges, who raped and murdered perhaps as many as 10 young women in the early 1990s. “If Guy Georges had directed ‘Citizen Kane,’ ” the minister-puppet said, “I would have let him out.” (NYTimes)
And as Charles Bremmer has noted at the end of his post :
The Socialist opposition finally came down against the government for criticising the Polanski arrest. Several eminent figures in Sarkozy's UMP party are also unhappy with the way Mitterrand and Kouchner jumped to take sides against the USA. A few from the film world, including Luc Besson, are also unhappy with the rush to defend Polanski. (Timesonline)
What to conclude? Well, first, the same old wise conclusion that whatever French officials may say should be taken with a grain of salt and does not reflect what the rest of the people think or believe. (The divide between the elite and the people is certainly wide in France.)
Then, as Meghan Daum concludes in the LATimes
, we may conclude that pain is not penance and talent not a substitute for justice.
That being said, some questions remain. Is the money to extradite and prosecute Roman Polanski over a 30 year old case in which the victim says she has forgiven him and doesn’t want to hear about it worth being spent? Doesn’t the state of California have better ways to use its money these days? Would justice act the same way if Roman Polanski was not a cause célèbre?
And then there’s the Swiss…… Why did they act so suddenly after letting Polanski come and go as he pleased for decades….? That, like other things in Switzerland, even today, secrets are well kept.