After Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby and Tess, Roman Polanski produced nothing but a string of flops and tabloid headlines. Now his Death and the Maiden (right) is impressing reviewers and audiences. Sheila Johnston underwent a charm offensive

Roman Polanski mulls over what he should recommend as the best films in Paris. "Of course," he says eventually, ever-modest, "you could always see my movie. It's doing rather well here." He leans back and pops a date into his mouth. "Yesterday there was a Metro strike and it passed into first position ahead of the new Jim Carrey movie."

He desperately needs a hit. Polanski can still claim to be a world-class director, but his reputation rests on the superb early psychological thrillers and two huge Hollywood successes, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown: the latter remains a legendary, gilt-edged classic. Throughout these years, he was also the object of envious disapproval for his energetic swinging, then of reluctant pity when his young wife Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with their child, was massacred by the Manson gang in 1969. But at the same time the films were popular and well-regarded. Then, in 1977, the victim turned criminal, accused of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, and Polanski the director was eclipsed by Polanski the rake.

He fled to Paris and, many thought, went to seed. When he was chosen to head the jury at Cannes in 1991, one typical profile sniffed that he had "not produced a respectable film in years". Which was not unfair: Tess (1979) had been politely reviewed, but since then he had only produced one indifferent thriller, Frantic, and two big fat turkeys, Pirates and Bitter Moon.

But now he has made Death and the Maiden, and, apart from briefly thrashing Ace Ventura: Detective Chiens et Chats, it has been widely reviewed as a return to the tight sexual and moral imbroglios at which he excels. An adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play set in a country recovering from a long and vicious military regime, it centres on a woman convinced that the silky stranger her husband brings home is the same man who once tortured and abused her repeatedly. In the long night which follows, we find out whether he is indeed a vile rapist or just the innocent butt of her neurosis.

Polanski prefers to receive the press over lunch at his favourite restaurant. There, he will alternatively schmooze them, charm them with his hospitality (and place them in his debt by picking up the tab), and bamboozle them into submission. He is likely to tell his guests what they should order, and even, in one case, to frogmarch them to the nearest pharmacy to buy them a flu remedy. Careful perusal of all these press cuttings has persuaded me to decline The Lunch.

So now we are sitting in an impersonal hotel suite and Polanski is all charm, pressing hospitality on me ("have a fig, they're very good") with the limited means at his disposal. But I know that at any moment the wind might change. Kenneth Tynan, who worked with him on Macbeth and was himself hardly a shrinking violet, wrote, "You worry whether his response will be a smile or a scowl. You shrink from his scorn andcherish his praise."

You can see this mercurial quality in Polanski's ambiguous persona as an actor: he can just as easily play schlemiel (in The Dance of the Vampires and The Tenant) or slimeball: vide his nose-slashing gangster inChinatown, or his sinister police inspector in Giuseppe Tornatore's A Simple Formality. This recent film (unreleased in Britain) bears a startling similarity to Death and the Maiden: a closed room, a handful of characters, an interrogation that unfurls over a single night, a suspect who may or may not be guilty. "Coincidence," says Polanski with a slight smile. "Maybe all great minds move in the same cesspool."

He proceeds to discuss Death and the Maiden with a smooth professional polish. He talks of how Sigourney Weaver had expressed her interest and how he had responded to her involvement in human rights issues (and her bankability), even though he had intended to choose someone "less physical and moreneurotic". Most striking of all are the film's dense echoes of his own life. Like Roman, who grew up in the Warsaw ghetto and lost his mother to the ovens of Auschwitz, the wife was the prey of totalitarianism; like Polanski, who was in London when Tate was slaughtered in Los Angeles, the husband is wracked by impotent guilt at his wife's suffering; and the stranger, like him, stands accused of abhorrent sexual acts. Polanski is used to people drawing such parallels (most egregiously when the media linked the Manson murders to the satanic concerns of Rosemary's Baby). But there would be no point in pursuing them. That stuff, he will say, is strictly for stamp collectors. What's odd is that his comments about the film sound dutiful and recycled. It's when speaking about himself that he gets excited.

The cesspool of Polanski's mind continues to suck in public attention. He has been the subject of numberless biographies: only last year yet another appeared: Polanski, by John Parker, who painted an unappealing portrait of the artist as an aggressive, abrasive man. Polanski's brow darkens. "You can hardly call them biographies. I would say... books." He gives the innocuous word a measurelessly scornful inflection.

Has he, in fact, read any of them? "No. I did read one, by a man called Kiernan, which was an incredible stack of lies. I was flabbergasted. It was so perverted, so disgusting, it made you puke. That was the main reason why I wrote my own biography," he says, adding, in his eccentric English, "If people are interested in crap they should at least have it from the horse's mouth."

Polanski famously opened his version of events with the statement, "For as far back as I can remember, the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred." And he must be aware that its title, Roman, means "novel" in French. "That is indeed the case, yes," he says. A terse pause and then, sternly: "My autobiography is exact to the last detail. I did a tremendous amount of research and spoke to masses of friends to make sure there were no mistakes."

Even assuming this is true (which is by no means proven), it's difficult to decide whether Polanski is, on the one hand, the victim of prurient slander or, on the other, so desperate to publicise his movies in an increasingly difficult market that he is prepared to milk and whip up his own notoriety to the last drop. Some, like Parker, believe that the gossip columnists have long since moved on; there is, after all, no shortage of fresh bogeymen to occupy them. Even his highly specialised title of Cinema's Dirty Old Man has been usurped by Woody Allen. "Can you imagine the scandal it would create if I were to appear in London?" Polanski insists. It almost sounds like wishful thinking.

Many critics found Roman cold, flat and dispassionate, but it seems to me, when he wrote of losing all self-confidence after Tate's murder, of taking on his father's "ingrained pessimism, his eternal dissatisfaction with life, his profoundly Judaic sense of guilt and his conviction that every joyous experience has its price", and when he wrote, "I know that the spirit of laughter has deserted me," that the suffering he'd been through was beyond contention.

But that was written a decade ago, and since then, like all the other Sixties roaring boys - Nicholson, Beatty - he has found a measure of contentment in late-late fatherhood and the arms of a much younger woman, the actress Emmanuelle Seigner. Would he now wish, therefore, to revise those statements? "It doesn't mean I could have the same joy as in the past. Certain things changed and are irreversible; I can't say that I laugh the same way I used to. At the same time I'm very happy: I've been living with my wife for 10 years, I have a two-year-old daughter. You know, that's more than one can expect."

n `Death and the Maiden' opens next Friday