Roman Polanski arrives for our interview with a smile. Which is a relief. The last time we met, around the time he made his 1999 satanic thriller The Ninth Gate, I asked him about his “notorious” reputation in the media and he near-enough boiled over. “How can you ask such a question?” he steamed. “What is ‘notorious?’ I think you’re too much a victim of the media, and I would rather be known by my work than my notoriety.”
Polanski will always be known for his work. Films like Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and more recently The Pianist – which won him the Palme d’Or in Cannes and an Oscar for Best Director – are undeniably high-water marks of modern cinema. But his private life has been one of horror, tragedy and scandal – events so dramatic they’ve been on a par with anything depicted in his films. As critic David Thomson put it, “Polanski was famous as a survivor”.
For those around him, however, it was a different story. Polish-born, his mother died in Auschwitz, while Polanski escaped the Krakow ghetto and roamed the German-occupied countryside, living hand-to-mouth. Upon his arrival in Hollywood, in the wake of the huge success of Rosemary’s Baby, his second wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson’s “family” of acolytes. And, most famously, there was his arrest in Los Angeles for the alleged sexual assault of the 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in 1977.
With Polanski indicted on six counts of criminal behaviour – including rape – he fled the US hours before sentencing, never to return. I’m under strict instructions to not broach his personal issues – which came to a head in 2009 when he was arrested in Switzerland and faced extradition to the US. Eventually released, he survived once again. Offering a private apology to Geimer by email, two years later, in 2011, he made it public, in the documentary Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir. “She is a double victim,” he said, “my victim and a victim of the press.” Today, dressed in blue jeans, a white jacket and grey V-neck, Polanski looks unscathed by all his troubles. He may be 80 now, but aside from a small hearing aid in his ear, he seems tip-top. Partly, he’s been energised by his work of late. The Ghost – the film he made shortly before his 2009 arrest – won Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. Then it was Carnage, an energetic (if sometimes puerile) adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play about two Manhattan couples locked in a war of words.
Now comes Venus in Fur, an adroit two-hander starring Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric. It is his first film in French – all have been in English, except his Polish-language 1962 debut Knife in the Water – and he seems delighted by the warm critical response. “This is my greatest satisfaction – to do what I can, what I’m allowed to do. The lower the budget, the more freedom I had. Here I had total and absolute freedom. On every point. If something is screwed up, you can only blame me.”
Another stage adaptation, this time from David Ives’s Tony-winning 2010 play, it’s a nimble backstage comedy. Amalric’s weary playwright/director Thomas comes face-to-face with Seigner’s leather-clad actress, Vanda, as she arrives in a deserted theatre to audition for his latest show, which is based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs. What follows is an intricate battle of the sexes and study of identity that recalls much of Polanski’s early work from Cul de Sac to The Tenant.
As much as the film deals with male-female power-play, Polanski is swift to underline where his tastes begin and end. “I’ve seen one or two films involving sado-masochism and that’s one area that I’m completely disinterested in,” he says. Well, that’s cleared that up. For him, the difficulty was to “not bore the audience” in such a confined space with only two actors. “I need some kind of challenge on each film,” he says, “not to be bored.”
Unlike Thomas, Polanski claims he’s not the sort of director to clash with his cast (though Faye Dunaway, his Chinatown star, might disagree with this).
“You never have this with actors. You can explode because something’s not there or something’s done wrong or something is stupidly broken. But for those reasons, you can explode – like people do at home. I explode if there is a general fuck-up! But not because an actor does something incorrectly.”
For Polanski, this return to the theatre takes him back to his childhood when, aged 14, he took to the stage to act.
“That started my artistic life,” he says. Across his whole career, he’s directed plays and opera – everything from Verdi’s Rigoletto to Peter Shaffer’s Mozart tale Amadeus. “I have a sentiment and nostalgia for the theatre. I like the smell of the theatre. I like everything about it… so to film a subject of which the action entirely plays in a run-down theatre to me was a joy.”
It runs in the family too. He and Seigner’s eldest child, 21 year-old Morgane, is studying acting at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Then there’s Seigner’s past; her grandfather Louis Seigner and her aunt Françoise Seigner both performed at the Comédie Française. “This theatrical background for her, which she knew from childhood, helped her to do the part. But in life, she’s much more like the other part – which is why I thought it was an interesting role for her to do. “Polanski met Seigner in 1985, before they made Frantic, when he was casting for Pirates. By 1989, they were married.
“As a director, he hasn’t changed,” she tells me. “He always was so good and talented… he’s almost a legend. For me it’s hard to tell because he’s my husband, but he’s such a legend and a great director, and there are not so many of them left.” But how has he changed as a person? She pauses for thought. “I think he became more vulnerable, which is really nice. He didn’t change. But he just became more vulnerable.”
Seigner, 47, is more forthcoming than her husband about their life in Paris. “People recognise us but they’re nice. It’s not like being in America, I guess,” she says. What about when Polanski was put under house arrest – did life change then?
“Yeah, that was just that moment, where it was a problem, but before and after it was normal.” How was it to deal with that? “Yeah, well, it was not the best moment. But everyone has his moments; it’s life.” Being incarcerated at his home in Gstaad, the Swiss ski town high in the Alps where he has lived on and off since just after the murder of Sharon Tate, must’ve felt like living in one of his own movies at times. From Catherine Deneuve’s meltdown in Repulsion to the tale of a captor and captive in Death and the Maiden, the best Polanski films are rife with claustrophobia. Ask him what freedom means to him, however, and he senses where this is going.
“I don’t know what freedom is! Let’s not get into too philosophical considerations here.”
Still, it leads into a discussion towards the social mores of today, and just how different it is to the Sixties and Seventies. “Puritanism is over-taking the globe, on all sides of it,” he says. “Certain hypocrisy of media is the illustration of it.” In particular, attitudes to swearing: “In television now, you can’t use ‘bitch’, ‘son of a bitch’, you can’t even use ‘witch’ because it looks like ‘bitch’! You can’t say ‘orgasm’, you can’t say ‘masturbation’.” He seems to be enjoying himself. “America is almost half the market. You can’t say ‘69’!”
How would his career have fared if he’d stayed in the US? “That’s like asking: ‘If you had a brother, do you think he would like cheese?’ It’s possible, but I can’t go further, because it’s a guess. Maybe I would go more for commercial stuff.” He shrugs at the idea.
“I like sports, I like ski-ing. I was competing in ski-ing when I was a kid. But the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is film-making, and being on the set: that means also making things that you want to do.” Polanski is now working on an adaptation of An Officer and a Spy, the book by Robert Harris (who has worked with the director twice before, on Pompeii – a project that collapsed – and on The Ghost). This time, Harris was inspired to write the book by Polanski’s interest in the Dreyfus affair – a political scandal that divided France at the turn of the 20th century, dealing with a young French artillery officer who was wrongly convicted of treason. Currently titled D, Polanski hopes to shoot it later in the year – in what will be the 21st feature of an extraordinary career. Does he consider it a dream project?
“Every project I do is a dream,” he says. “Once you start getting involved, you want to do it to your best.” The only thing he’s not doing, as he enters his ninth decade, is catering to the consumer. “I do these things spontaneously,” he smiles. “I don’t really care what people think.”
Whether he cares what people think about the crime that has cast a shadow over his career is something he is keeping to himself.
‘Venus in Fur’ opens on 30 May