Editor’s note: For a different take, check out the HBO documentary“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.”

Hasn’t Roman Polanski suffered enough? Didn’t he endure all those cool, gray, rainy Paris winters? Wasn’t he forced — well, not forced, but strongly enticed — to subsist all those years on overpriced fare served up by haughty waiters in Michelin-starred restaurants? Didn’t he survive for decades having his vacation options limited, essentially, to the grim monotony of the south of France?

I’ve got a better question: Shouldn’t Polanski and his many apologists give us a break?

I’m a huge fan of Polanski’s work. “Chinatown” is one of my favorite movies of all time, “Rosemary’s Baby” is a masterpiece, and he richly deserved the Oscar he won as best director for “The Pianist.” He’s a great artist. Maybe his next film will be a prison movie.

Brilliant auteur or no, Polanski has been a fugitive from U.S. justice since 1978. And there was certainly no artistic merit in the crime he acknowledged committing: During a photo shoot at the Los Angeles home of his friend and “Chinatown” star Jack Nicholson, Polanski plied a 13-year-old girl with champagne and drugs and had sex with her.

That is grotesque. In general, I agree with the European view that Americans tend to be prudish and hypocritical about sex. But a grown man drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl? That’s not remotely a close call. It’s wrong in any moral universe — and deserves harsher punishment than three decades of gilded exile.

Polanski went on the lam after pleading guilty to the crime. He had a deal with prosecutors under which he would essentially walk out of the courtroom a free man — he had spent 42 days in prison undergoing psychiatric evaluation, and the arrangement was that he would be sentenced to time served. But Polanski got wind that the judge in the case, said to be something of a publicity hound, was going to refuse to honor the plea bargain and instead impose a prison term. So the director skipped town and surfaced in France, where authorities ruled that his crime wasn’t covered by extradition treaties with the United States.

He was arrested Sunday in Zurich, where he had traveled to accept an award — and where the extradition treaty does cover his crime. Assuming that Polanski puts up a legal fight, it could be months or even years before he is sent back to the United States.

The Justice Department was right to have Polanski nabbed at the Zurich airport and should pursue the case to the end. We’ve waited this long; we can wait a little longer.

Polanski has dual French-Polish citizenship, and officials in Paris and Warsaw are outraged. Which makes me outraged. What’s their beef? That Polanski is 76? That he makes great movies? That he only fled to escape what might well have been an unjust sentence? Sorry, mes amis, but none of this matters. If you decide to become a fugitive, you accept the risk that someday you might get caught.

Much has been made of the fact that Polanski’s victim, now 45, has said she no longer feels any anger toward him and does not want to see him jailed. But it’s irrelevant what the victim thinks and feels as a grown woman. What’s important is what she thought and felt at age 13, when the crime was committed. Those who argue that there’s something unjust about Polanski’s arrest are essentially accepting his argument that it’s possible for a 13-year-old girl, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, to “consent” to sex with a man in his 40s. Or maybe his defenders are saying that drugging and raping a child is simply not such a big deal.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a huge deal. Even in France, it should be a big deal. This isn’t about a genius who is being hounded for flouting society’s hidebound conventions. It’s about a rich and powerful man who used his fame and position to assault — in every sense, to violate — an innocent child.

And it’s about a man who ran away rather than face the consequences of his actions. Before any sentence could be imposed, he absconded like a weasel to live a princely life in France.

That’s the sort of protagonist, a great director like Polanski must realize, who doesn’t deserve a happy ending.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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