On the 28th February, France celebrated its annual ceremony of the César. Similar to the Oscars, the night was dedicated to rewarding the best films of the year. The most celebrated film of 2020 was ‘Les Miserables’, winning four César awards, which included one for best film. Yet, another notable event marked the evening, overshadowing all other successes. Public opinion was truly divided when Roman Polanski received the award for best director for his film ‘J’accuse’. Although considered to be a genius l’art septième in the eyes of many, the French-Polish film director’s track record with sexual assault cannot go ignored.
Thanks to his critically acclaimed film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, Polanski was already an internationally renowned director by the 1970s. His status in the world of cinema qualified his entry into some of the most exclusive events of the era. Having befriended fellow celebrities in the elite spheres of cinema, Polanski was invited to a photo-shoot for Vogue magazine at Jack Nicholson’s LA home on March 10th 1977. This is where he first met 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. During the event, Polanski offered Gailey champagne and drugs before sexually assaulting her. Following the incident, Gailey told her mother of the violation and her family subsequently filed a complaint against Polanski. After demanding judicial intervention, Polanski was invited to trial in the US on 15th April 1977. He pleaded non-guilty. Despite Gailey’s age – deeming her a minor in the eyes of the law -, Polanski initially affirmed that she consented to the activity. Yet, days later, he changed his strategy and pleaded guilty to the misappropriation of Gailey. It should be made clear that this a less grave crime than rape, and consequently, the director was only condemned to 3 months in prison. What’s worse, Polanski was released after only 1 month and a half on the grounds of good behaviour.
Unsurprisingly, public opinion in the US was scandalised by this affair and by the weakness of the sanction. Due to high levels of criticism, the judge changed his opinion and decided to resend Polanski to prison, but this time indefinitely. Believing that that this condemnation was unfair, Polanski fled the US in the hope of escaping his sentence. Naturally, given his dual nationality, he settled in Paris. Unbeknownst to Gailey at the time, this escape would condemn both of them to live out this episode for the rest of their lives.
Since this event, the US has asked for the extradition of Polanski. Yet, France has refused this request on the premise that the country doesn’t extradite its citizens. To somewhat cover his own back, Polanski later sent a letter of apology to Samantha Gailey, along with a cheque for $200,000. Following his apology, Gailey publicly announced that she forgave him, and that she no longer wanted the legal proceedings to continue. However, despite this request, the American judge refused to drop the trial and requested that Polanski return to the US to be tried. Yet, he never did return, and has thus been a fugitive from the US justice system ever since. So, how is it possible that in the States, Polanski risks imprisonment, whilst in France, he continues to be protected and even celebrated?
Since 2010, a number of other sexual abuse allegations have been made against the film director, accusing Polanski of sexual assaults similar to that to which he subjected Gailey. The victim who has most recently spoken out is French photographer, Valentine Monnier. In a text, published in ‘Le Parisien’ on the 8th November 2019, she claims that Polanski raped her at a Swiss ski resort in 1975, when she was only 18 years old. Monnier writes that Polanski tried to give her a pill and beat her into submission at his chalet, yet Polanski has denied all allegations.
Inevitably, the increasing number of accusations that have surfaced has only heightened the publicity of this affair. However, as the awareness and support of feminism rises, acts that were tolerated in previous eras are now condemned. Societies no longer close their eyes to these kinds of wrongdoings. In fact, increased popularity for the #MeToo movement over previous years has resulted in Polanski’s victims receiving a significant amount of advocacy, to such an extent that feminist organisations chose to boycott the 2020 César ceremony. Due to judicial pressure and fear of a feminist lynching, Polanski no longer attends these types of events.
In fact, at the Venice film festival in 2019, Polanski compared his hounding by feminist groups to the anti-Semitic persecution of Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish army officer at the centre of his most recent release, ‘J’accuse’. The film recounts the events of the Dreyfus Affair, honing in on the power of the judicial system, with Dreyfus being a victim to this regime. In making this comparison, Polanski presents himself like the main character: a victim of judicial persecution. However, he goes one step further, as by choosing to direct ‘J’accuse’, he exploits the parallels between his own life and the story of Dreyfus, using the film for his own defence.
“I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film… I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case.”
There is no doubt that it is Polanski’s success as a director, one of the most distinguished of his generation, which has shielded him from the law. He is highly valued in French society and for that reason France chose to be lenient with his crime. Perhaps, it is unsurprising that a country that was formerly home to the world capital of art and that holds such sentiment to its cultural patrimony didn’t want to tarnish the reputation of one of its own artists. Yet again, a Hollywood celebrity’s actions have been excused. The sacralisation of status within today’s society has led to a sphere of citizens that are untouchable by the state.
Within the film industry, similar taboos have developed in regards to an artist’s private life. Due to the freedom of expression associated with cinema, the artist is often encouraged to experiment in order to unlock his creativity, which explains why society today separates more and more the artist’s work from his private life. In fact, the head of the French Film Academy, Alain Terzian, ignored all criticism, arguing that one should not take moral positions when giving awards. Consequently, the Academy of the César continues to recognise Polanski as a talented director and to celebrate his success. In 2017, the Academy even invited Polanski to preside at the ceremony, which he declined when faced with indignation amongst feminist groups. Yet, the Academy has still not renounced its intention to honour him. The distinction here is pertinent: it is Polanski who is being celebrated, not his work. Even earlier this year at the César ceremony, the award was for best director, not best film. Needless to say, the film ‘J’accuse’ was nominated for 13 Césars, of which it won three – best adaption, best costume design and best director. Yet, it was the latter that caused the most outrage.
In essence, the award was viewed as a slap in the face for sexual abuse victims and #MeToo campaigners who have struggled to gain recognition inFrance. It was enough evidence to prove that nothing had changed in the world of French cinema. How can a country rectify its mentality on sexual assault, when not only are there no consequences for aggressors, but those same aggressors are honoured in such a prestigious way. By praising Polanski, France is merely silencing his victims.