The Roman Polanski Retrospective and its Moral Implications

The Roman Polanski Retrospective and its Moral Implications

Hannah Stokes discusses the recent retrospective held for Oscar award-winning director, Roman Polanski, and discusses the possible need to separate art from artist.

This Monday, a retrospective for Roman Polanski opened at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. Polanski is a French-polish director with a long career, his works including famous films Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974) and The Pianist (2002).

Roman Polanski is also a rapist; he is wanted in the United States for the statutory rape of a 13 year old girl in 1977, however fled to France in 1978. In the years following further women have come out of their own stories of sexual abuse as children at the hands of Polanski, and just last week he was also accused of sexually assaulting a 10 year old in 1975.

Many artists have proved to be problematic in varying degrees, but does this mean that we should never look at or show their work?

The decision to host the retrospective appears especially ill-timed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, a powerful Hollywood figure who, like Polanski, has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by many women, yet has managed to live the most part of his life without consequences. Many in the industry knew what Weinstein had allegedly done and continued doing, in the same way that the world knew what Polanski had done, but regardless he was still awarded with a best director Oscar in 2002. It is thus easy to see why the retrospective has caused so much controversy, with Monday night seeing a crowd – formed largely of French feminist groups – protesting outside of the Cinematheque. Many protestors bore placards drawing attention to the crimes and accusations surrounding Polanski as well as banging on the windows of the Cinematheque chanting the words “Polanski, violeur” (‘Polanski, rapist’).

This retrospective raises a question that has plagued art and media history for centuries; can we separate art from its artist? Many artists have proved to be problematic in varying degrees, but does this mean that we should never look at or show their work? It is almost impossible not to contextualise what we look at, not to bring in what we may know about an artist or a subject and let it influence how we view the art piece or film. When a scandal such as that of Polanski or Weinstein comes out, it is difficult to not feel a least slightly uneasy about watching one of their films. However, this does not mean that we should stop watching these films altogether.

I’m not ashamed to admit that Chinatown is a good film, but by saying that it is good, whilst I may be seen as saying that Polanski’s directorial efforts in that particular film were good, I am by no means saying that Polanski is a good person. Watching one Polanski film on Netflix is entirely different to hosting a whole retrospective dedicated to him; retrospectives are celebratory, not only of the works presented but of the artist themselves as they usually include extensive information about the artist, their life, their influences and so on.

Many protestors bore placards drawing attention to the crimes and accusations surrounding Polanski as well as banging on the windows of the Cinematheque chanting the words “Polanski, violeur” (‘Polanski, rapist’).

There is thus a focus on both the work itself and the individual as a whole, and a rapist such as Polanski should not be afforded such positive attention. The same goes for Polanski’s 2002 Oscar, which was an award he could not collect in person because he had fled to France due to his statutory rape charge. When you give someone an award for best director or best actor, you are not only celebrating a person’s work in a film but the individual as a whole; it is not the film that receives the applause but the man or woman that gets up on stage.

Whilst social media campaigns such as the#metoo and the recent petition to ban Casey Affleck – who was sued by two female colleagues for sexual harassment in 2010 yet still received a best actor Oscar earlier this year –  from the upcoming Academy Awards have shown a public urge to increase awareness surrounding sexual assault and those who perpetrate it, especially in the entertainment industry, where there is still much more progress left to make. The reason that the Polanski retrospective is so harmful is that it shows a continued acceptance of a known rapist by the industry; a person with authority and influence in Hollywood, who then used this power to sexually exploit a young girl. He cannot be allowed to maintain his standing without consequence. It is this continued acceptance that prevents sexual assault victims from speaking out, for fear that they will be blamed as victims whilst the perpetrator is never fully condemned.

Hannah Stokes

(Image courtesy of Andreas Rentz/ Getty Images)