The Polanski affair: Should we differentiate the artist from his work?

A big debate is back in France raising the question: “should we separate the man from the artist?”. In fact, Roman Polanski, the famous director, is accused of multiple rapes of minors. On 8 November 2019, the photographer Valentine Monnier accused Polanski to have raped and beaten her in 1975 which he disputes. However, she is the fifth woman to officially declare having been raped by the director since the Samantha Geimer case in 1977. To the case of this 13-year-old girl who Polanski allegedly drugged and raped during a photo shoot for Vogue magazine were added the more recent accusations of three actresses in the end of 2017.

The accusation of Valentine Monnier appeared only a few days before the release of the new movie of Polanski, aptly named “J’accuse”. So the question arises, can we go see this artistic work of an alleged rapist, repeat offender? 

While Roman Polanski has been exclude by the Academy of Oscars in the United States, the French cinema community is regularly suspected of protecting. In fact, he was convicted by the American courts in a case of sexual abuse of a minor in 1977. Roman Polanski is considered by Interpol as a fugitive: following his conviction, after having served his first sentence in the United States, he fled the country before being sentenced again in the same case. 

This is why some feminists have decided to boycott his movie, and some have mobilized to block the access to the film’s preview at the “Champollion” cinema in Paris. Polanski is protected by the state because he appears as a man of power and a great artist which is not acceptable. The boycott of his film is then the only weapon that the population has to campaign against this injustice and show their dissatisfaction with the French justice.

This problem has already arisen in France with Louis-Ferdinand Céline, notably known for his work “Journey to the end of the night”. But this famous writer was a racist and wrote antisemitic works.

The problem is quite recent because indeed before, it was a taboo and was considered as normal. So those artists, that we know to have done some criminal activity can no longer be tried and can no longer defend themselves in face of these accusations, recalling the presumption of innocence which says that “everyone charged with a penal offense is presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.

Understanding is not forgiving

If Polanski is a rapist, I think that as with every criminal, we need to interest ourselves for his history for a better understanding, but to understand is not to forgive. 

Polanski was born in Paris in 1933, to a Jewish Polish father and a Russian mother. He lived in France for three years, but his family left for Poland after the German invasion of Poland. There, he was forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto where he escaped deportation but his parents and sister did not. His mother died in Auschwitz. He was interested in cinema since his childhood, he notably made one of his greatest successes with “The Pianist” which is adapted from the homonymous autobiographical novel by Władysław Szpilman in which he tells how he survived in the Warsaw ghetto, then after its liquidation, until the insurrection of the Polish resistance, and the Soviet invasion. His childhood story therefore strongly inspired Polanski to make this film.

In 1969, Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski, was assassinated by repeated stabbing in their house in Los Angeles while she was pregnant. The murder was organized by Charles Manson and perpetrated by his “family”, the name of the sect that the serial killer had founded.

So if we judge the artist in relation to his work it is important to look at and judge it in relation to his childhood and the traumatic elements that he himself suffered. Several artists have been accused of mistreatment like Chris Brown or paedophilia like Michael Jackson … You are free to boycott their works or not according to your convictions.

by Aimée Niau Lacordaire

Photo credits

Devant l’affiche de “J’accuse” (Polanski), Jeanne Menjoulet, CC BY 2.0

Roman Polanski, Jean-Louis Lacordaire, All Rights Reserved

missing bricks, Warsaw ghetto wall, Nina Childish, CC BY-ND 2.0