Director Laurent Bouzereau is probably a name you’ve never come across. And yet if you are a film buff (and the very fact that you are on this website suggests to me that you are) it’s likely that you’ve seen at least one of his films, probably several. While most of his work is probably unlikely to trouble anyone’s Best Of lists, it’s also likely that you’ve enjoyed Bouzereau’s work very much. You see, Bouzereau makes the kind of film that is almost guaranteed to be enjoyed by movie nerds. That is, the making of documentary, those featurettes that turn up as bonus features on DVDs of your favourite films, themselves often selling points for the new editions of classic movies. Seen those great Indiana Jones: Making the Trilogy documentaries? Bouzereau. How about the Back to the Future: Making the Trilogy featurettes? Bouzereau. And these solidly enjoyable and endlessly rewatchable extras are not the limits of Bouzereau’s skills as director. He has assembled several feature length making-ofs, the most famous being the two-hour-plus Jaws documentary that has been chopped up into shorter featurettes across many editions but was finally released in full on the 30th anniversary Jaws box-set, reason enough to add it to your collection.
It’s great to know that Bouzereau is out there and very much still active, still churning out DVD extras and TV documentaries by the score. But what happens when Bouzereau makes a documentary feature that is intended to be the main feature? Can his work carry the weight of being the first option on your DVD menu, rather than tucked away at the end of a strangled route of extras options? On the evidence of Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, Bouzereau is most suited to remaining in the backrooms of film archives, a hero to the buffs rather than a disappointment to the masses. This is not to say that Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir isn’t an interesting documentary in itself, but the whole time I was watching it I was wondering what separated it from the usual DVD extra fare. And the answer was very little.
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is actually very different from most of Bouzereau’s work in that it’s backbone is one long interview with Polanski, with footage from his films and archival sources merely supporting Polanski’s oration. Another major difference is that, for a film about a director and also by a director so heavily linked with film history, there is comparatively little about Polanski’s work. Though snatches of his features are used illustratively, it is very much his life outside of the film world that is the focus. Of course, Polanski’s is one of the most infamous and controversial of all biographies, incorporating as it does the murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson and his plea of guilty to charges of illegal sex with a minor that lead him to flee America and live for many years in self-imposed exile. The film does not shy away from these inescapable details, and yet it does not seek to emphasise them either. Polanski is, after all, being interviewed by his former producer and long-time friend Andrew Braunsberg, the most sympathetic and, sadly, inept of interviewers. Polanski is often a fascinating interviewee and the film wisely lets him do most of the talking, but Braunsberg’s idea of interviewing him consists of little more than annoying finishing Polanski’s sentences in unison with him, or repeating phrases that Polanski has just used, which Polanski then repeats again in redundant confirmation.
Most of the detractors of Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir have focused on the supposed softness of the interview on Polanski’s indiscretions. However, this seems to be more of a desire in certain viewers to see an equally unbalanced attack on the director, employing the sort of lurid tabloid journalism that has no doubt lead to them feeling he deserves this in the first place. Although I would never count myself as an apologist for Polanski’s crime, there is much to consider when we hear his entire back story and given that his history includes losing family members in the Holocaust (illustrated by way of clips from The Pianist, the Polanski film that the film references most frequently) and losing his wife to a murder that resulted in the most public of mourning periods, it seems brutal that so few people are willing to consider any extenuating circumstances. Like Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary, which focused mainly on Allen as an artist and largely ignored his very public legal issues, Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is eager not to make Polanski’s disgraces the whole story. The fact that the majority of the film takes place during Polanski’s house arrest after his 2009 arrest in Switzerland while travelling to a film festival means that the case is obviously to the forefront, and Bouzereau wisely opens the film by tackling the issue, setting the scene and also relieving the audience of the burden of waiting for the inevitable issue to rear its ugly head and wondering how it will be tackled.
Despite the situation Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir finds the director in surprisingly good humour and his storytelling as he outlines his remarkable life is gripping. Sadly, however, the films themselves are barely touched upon, a major disappointment for film buffs like myself who come to the film hoping for some insight into masterpieces like Repulsion and Chinatown. As if in concession to these hopes, Bouzereau ends the film with Braunsberg asking Polanski to choose his favourite among his films, a strange climax to a study of the man as opposed to the director. For the majority of its runtime then, Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is exactly what the title suggests. This is the life of Roman Polanski, rather than the life and works of Roman Polanski. An enjoyable and fascinating watch as it undoubtedly is, I won’t be returning to Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, unlike Bouzereau’s other more accessible works. This was never meant to be the nostalgic thrill-ride of his Spielberg making-of featurettes but neither does it emerge among the better works of the talking head style of documentary. Although you may think of this as an intrinsically dry approach, the right subject can bring it to life, as Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven or Stuart Samuels’ Midnight Movies show, to name but two. Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir feels more like a one-watch DVD extra and, though it is by the king of DVD extras, it is not among his crown jewels.
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir was released on 2nd June 2014 by Network. There are no special features.