In 1977, the director Roman Polanski was indicted on six criminal charges related to drugging and raping a 13-year-old. He pleaded guilty to unlawful intercourse with a minor and fled the US in 1978 before he could be sentenced. He has been making films in Europe ever since. The essential facts of this case are not disputed.
In 1992, the director Woody Allen was accused of molesting his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, then seven years old. Two investigations concluded that there was no merit to the allegations and authorities declined to press charges. A bitterly difficult and complicated war of words has been waged ever since, by multiple people connected and unconnected with the case. Allen has long denied wrongdoing, and as far as the law is concerned, he is innocent. From the perspective of Farrow’s supporters, it’s a disgrace that he’s still thriving.
Both directors have just premiered films at the 80th Venice Film Festival, and the inclusion of both Polanski’s The Palace and Allen’s Coup de Chance has been protested in Venice, with signs glued to the Lido reading, “Island of Rapists,” “Polanski Wanted,” and “Coupe de Chance: La justice ne fait pas son travail [Coup de Chance: Justice does not do its job].” One banner asked, “Will the Golden Lion go to a rapist?”
The answer to this last question, at least, is a resounding no. Polanski’s The Palace was so disastrous that it would appear to rule out any possibility of honors, and regardless, both Polanski’s and Allen’s films were shown out of competition. Notionally a comedy, The Palace is set in a luxury hotel on the eve of the new millennium, and plays as if someone had unearthed a dreadful script written around the same time. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and thank goodness.
The Palace is the kind of film in which a dog voiding its bowels after being fed caviar is supposed to be richly comic. At one point, the same pampered pooch finds a vibrator in Fanny Ardant’s character’s luggage and drops it on her bed in front of a sexy plumber—again, this is meant to play as the height of hilarity. Mickey Rourke shows up as a Donald Trump–meets–Hulk Hogan asshole called Mr. Crush, whose wig flies off when he opens some Champagne. John Cleese appears as a Texas billionaire with a much younger wife, leading to further would-be LOLs when she is unable to decouple from him after sex. There are various Russian models, Russian gangsters, and older women with highly visible cosmetic surgery along for the ride too. A penguin wanders about aimlessly. This probably all makes it sound more interesting than it is.
The reviews have been uncompromising. The Times declared it “an eye-scorching atrocity.” Variety despaired, “Nothing in the movie is funny,” while The Telegraph noted that “the humour certainly feels at least 23 years past its sell-by date, though less in the sense of ‘you can’t tell these jokes anymore’ than ‘why would you want to?’”
The Palace feels like someone saw The White Lotus and decided to remake it in the vein of a dated sex comedy. The old chestnut about whether it is possible to separate the art from the artist doesn’t apply here, because, well…what art? Where? Before the film was actually unveiled, critics fretted that if Polanski had made a masterpiece, they would be faced with a moral dilemma: whether, or how, to write about the work of a child rapist, without becoming part of an insidious and tacit laundering of the man’s reputation.
As it turns out, by programming Polanski’s utterly unwatchable attempt at comedy, the Venice Film Festival has been instrumental in allowing Polanski to thoroughly cancel himself on artistic as well as moral grounds.
Could this have been the Biennale bosses’ game plan all along? Having seen the film, you’re left clutching these kinds of straws when seeking a rationale for the decision to program it. It all feels like a joke, and a much better joke than anything in The Palace.