It’s been a terrible year for lauded monsters, mostly because they’ve been dying. Notorious alleged nonce Michael Jackson went and got himself killed. Reckless drunken womanslaughterer Ted Kennedy died a hero’s death (he did at least let his crime inspire a lifetime of good intentions, which is the Democrats’ version of good works). And now they’ve only gone and arrested poor long-suffering child molester Roman Polanski, whose only crime was to drug and rape a 13-year-old girl and then skip the country so he wouldn’t go to jail.
The reaction to this arrest of a criminal fugitive has been extraordinary. Normally rational and intelligent people have been crying foul. Polanski’s peers - including Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Mann, Terry Gilliam and, perhaps ill-advisedly, Woody Allen - have signed a petition demanding his release. And I’ve been scratching my head and wondering why. Why do these people want Polanski to evade justice? What have I missed? And I’ve read around, looking for answers, and I haven’t found any that convince me.
Anne Applebaum at the Washington Post gives a particularly peculiar rundown of the justifications, stating that Polanski “has paid for the crime in many, many ways”. She points to notoriety, stigma, lawyers’ fees - none of which seem like an undeserved burden for a man who committed a crime and then fled from justice. Polanski’s ‘punishment’ has seen him living in the land of fine wine and finer cheeses for 30 years and swanning from villa to villa while making a living as a respected and successful director with actors like Johnny Depp, Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford.
Applebaum adds that the victim of Polanski’s rape, “now 45, has said more than once that she forgives him, that she can live with the memory, that she does not want him to be put back in court or in jail, and that a new trial will hurt her husband and children”. That’s interesting to note, but it’s not binding on the law, and most criminals do not get the benefit of a thirty-year time-out to give the victim the time to rebuild his or her life.
Film journalist John Farr at The Huffington Post gives his own wet defence of Polanski, pointing out that he had a tough life. He grew up in the Krakow ghetto; his mother died in a concentration camp; his wife was murdered by followers of Charles Manson. As extraordinary a life as Polanski has lead, what does that justify? It seems that Farr believes one collects pain and misery stamps through life that one can trade in against the right to inflict pain and misery on others. Farr also bizarrely claims that, as a married man of 76, Polanski is “probably reformed by now, don’t you think?” Why would I think that? Do 76-year-old men lose a child-raping instinct that Farr believes is natural and endemic to 44-year-old men? A year after fleeing the US, Polanski claimed that “everyone wants to f— little girls”. Should we take it on faith that he no longer holds this view?
Also on Huffington Post, supposed women’s equality activist Joan Z Shore notes, “Arresting Roman Polanski the other day in Zurich, where he was to receive an honorary award at a film festival, was disgraceful and unjustifiable”. The petition strikes the same wailing chord, stating; “It seems inadmissible … that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary film-makers, is used by police to apprehend him”. Are we really meant to believe that Polanski should not have been arrested as a question of etiquette? The police should not have arrested a child abuser because it was rude?
The Polanski case is being framed by his defenders as philistine America versus art-loving Europe, and that’s scary to me. As a drippy liberal European fagola, I’m an ardent believer in the need to defend creative freedom from the censorious right. I don’t want to have to think that my side has been secretly pro-child abuse all this time. That’s exactly the sort of crazy that the right likes to paint artists as being, and it’s up to the creative community to act as its own conscience. People like Scorsese and Gilliam should not be lining up to defend a man who committed an atrocious crime. (Thank God for Luc Besson, who refused to sign the petition, pointing out that his daughter is the same age as the girl Polanski raped.) Creative freedom does not include the freedom to rape little girls and get away with it.
Inevitably with stories like this, the question is asked, should a man’s art be viewed through the filter of his conduct? I don’t think it should. I think Polanski is a gifted director who has given us many excellent films, and the value of those films is not diminished by his crimes. But if art and conduct should be treated separately, then art and justice should also be treated separately. If we do not condemn the man’s art because of his conduct, we also cannot forgive the man’s conduct because of his art.
I realise that there are complexities to the Polanski case. There are accusations of judicial misconduct. Though Polanski was never sentenced, his lawyers claim that the judge intended to renege on a plea deal that they had agreed to. Even so, if you elect to work in or even visit a country, you consent to abide by its laws and you make yourself subject to its system of justice, and if you feel there has been a miscarriage of justice, you appeal through the courts. You cannot simply elect to place yourself above the law, even if you are brilliant, wealthy and free-spirited.
Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl and ran from the consequences. Now, hopefully, he will be extradited to the US and those consequences will catch up with him. If he has suffered enough, as his defenders insist he has, that will be for the courts to determine, and not Monica fricking Bellucci.