Roman Polanski’s Based On A True Story had its cinematic debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017, then got released in France on Nov. 1 2017. An adaptation of the novel by Delphine de Vigan, the film also attracted an American distributor when Sony Pictures Classics acquired the North American rights to this French-language thriller.
At the time of that announcement, Sony released a statement noting, “ ‘Based on a True Story’ is the kind of thriller audiences are hungering for, as exceptional and fresh as ‘Repulsion’ and ‘The Tenant’ were in their day. Polanski’s new film promises to be his very best.”
What the film hasn’t received, though, is a release date for North American cinemas. And while the movie has been released on DVD in France, Spain and Germany, there’s been no DVD version released in either the U.S. or Great Britain, meaning anyone who doesn’t speak French is unable to watch and understand the movie.
And yet I did watch the film this weekend. So how was I able to do that, and why has the film not been released in the U.S.?
What Happened to this Roman Polanski Movie?
A haunting, ghostly thriller that has echoes of Polanski’s highly acclaimed Apartment Trilogy from the 1960s and 1970s, Based On A True Story follows a novelist, Delphine (played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner), whose debut book about her mother is a huge hit, prompting her publisher to push her to write a new one. Delphine, though, is struggling with writer’s block, and even more problematic, she starts getting anonymous letters by someone accusing her of stealing information from their life, cruelly exploiting it for Delphine’s own fame.
So when Delphine meets a fan of her work at a book signing, she begins a friendship with the woman, Elle (played by Eva Green), who offers to help Delphine get her career, and life, back on track.
If the subject matter doesn’t sound particularly controversial, why has the film been in limbo in the U.S.? The answer is the Me Too movement, which exploded in October 2017 as a hashtag on social media to highlight the prevelance of sexual assault and harassment against women in the workplace, following the sexual-abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. The movement also brought controversy to Polanski, who had fled the United States for France in 1978 while being prosecuted for sexual assaulting a 13-year-old girl.
The reaction was swift: Polanski had been slated to preside over the César film awards in France that year, but had to step down after his honorary role sparked backlash and resulted in 61,000 signatures on a petition against it.
Then in May 2018, the organization that bestows the Academy Awards voted to expel Polanski and actor Bill Cosby, two members convicted of sexual offences, from its membership, even though in Polanski’s case, the expulsion happened more than 40 years after he fled the U.S. and 15 years after he won a best director Oscar for his 2002 film The Pianist.
And that happened even though Samantha Geimer, the woman who was 13 when the director sexually assaulted her in 1977, sharply criticized the Academy’s decision, saying “It is an ugly and cruel action which serves only appearance. It does nothing to change the sexist culture in Hollywood today and simply proves that they will eat their own to survive. I say to Roman, good riddance to bad rubbish, the Academy has no true honor, it’s all just P.R.” Geimer, who has said she forgives the director, has also urged the courts in Los Angeles to allow Polanski to re-enter the U.S. and continue working in the film industry.
Sony has been silent, though, and it seems likely that the Me Too movement could permanently delay the release of Based On A True Story in the U.S., the first Polanski film to have its release date delayed since his 1992 movie Bitter Moon, which was also made in France (although that film was in English), which finally got released in the states in March 1994.
But as Sony waits, anyone interested in seeing Based On A True Story may not have to wait any longer. What I discovered is that another DVD version has been released, this time in Hong Kong, with optional subtitles in Chinese — or English. And sure enough, having purchased the DVD through Amazon, I found myself finally watching Polanski’s latest film, at home.
How is This Latest Polanski Film?
Controversy aside, the film got mixed reviews after it was shown at Cannes, with a typical “Well, it’s not Chinatown” approach by several of the critics. But I’m also surprised at how little the film matches up with those critics’ descriptions of it.
At the beginning, Delphine’s success seems to overwhelm her. Under intense pressure to quickly bang out a new book, she finds herself alone in her Paris apartment, staring at a blank computer screen, struggling to find inspiration. When her boyfriend Francois (Vincent Perez) goes off on an extended trip, Delphone finds herself even more isolated.
So it makes sense that her growing friendship with Elle, a ghost writer who strongly admires Delphine’s book, starts to blossom. Elle not only encourages Delphine to write only when inspiration comes to her, but also provides moral and emotional support as those anonymous letters keep coming, or when someone creates a fake Facebook page for Delphine, using it to post harsh attacks on her character. When Elle’s landlord asks her to vacate her apartment, she checks to see if Delphine will let her move in for a while. Delphine quickly agrees.
Based On A True Story has frequently been described as a cross between Single White Female and Stephen King’s Misery, about obsessed fans who eventually terrorize the person they’re living with. They’re wrong. This film has nothing whatsoever to do with those two horror films, and frankly, one of the biggest surprises I got watching Based On A True Story is recognizing how off the mark those comparisons were.
Elle, superbly played by Green, does seem at first to take over Delphine’s life. At one point, when Delphine is scheduled to speak to a group of school students and can’t bring herself to do it, Elle dies her hair, borrows Delphine’s outfits, and agrees to go in her place, pretending to be her. Delphine also discovers that Elle may have gone through her old notebooks dating back to high school, containing her most intimate thoughts (and which were partly used in her writing), and she resents the intrusion into her privacy.
But that’s about as far as the comparison gets. One of the fascinating things about Elle’s character is, in a sense, what a cypher she is. Elle has a blank expression for much of the film, with an occasional smile or frown breaking out, but she moves through much of the movie like she’s on autopilot. She seems more like a motherly figure to Delphine than a threat. And she’s a sharp contrast to Delphine, but seems more and more like an emotional wreck.
In fact, while a lot of critics focused on the notion that the mysterious and enigmatic Elle might become a dangerous threat to Delphine, I’d recommend watching the film from the opposite perspective. Watch Delphine’s actions once Elle moves in.
Delphine is a walking disaster, neurotic and withdrawn from life. Her inspiration is gone, and she’s painfully lonely. Her boyfriend is away, and her two children have moved out and rarely call her. And several times when Elle suggests that she’s no longer wanted there, Delphine insists that she stay.
Why? The answer comes when Delphine slips on the stairs outside her apartment and breaks her leg. Elle convinces her to get away from the city and recuperate at her country home in the middle of nowhere. It’s there that Delphine starts to get very sick from a stomach bug, one that mysteriously happens right after Elle insists they purchase rat poison because she saw two mice in the cabin and has an extreme phobia about them. One of the film’s scariest moments has Delphine opening a trap door that leads to the dark, spooky cellar and going down there to toss rat poison around.
But something else is going on here besides a predictable by-the-numbers Misery rehash. The key to that comes when Elle and Delphine are driving to the country home on a rainy night. When Elle stops at a gas station, another motorist notices Delphine in the car. It turns out to be the school teacher in Lyon who invited Delphine to address her students. She’s infuriated that Delphine never bothered to show up, and never even contacted her to cancel.
At the same time, Delphine begins inquiring about Elle’s life, asking her increasingly intimate questions about her childhood, parents, and first marriage. Elle admits that she got through it with the help of a childhood friend named Kiki. She also admits that Kiki was an imaginary friend ….
And that’s when Delphine discovers she has the ideal material for a new book: to secretly write about Elle’s far more dramatic and gripping life.
Based On A True Story (Polanski co-wrote the script with French director/writer Olivier Assayas) is superbly acted and filmed by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, and so many scenes recall earlier Polanski films: the neighbors who peer out at Delphine in the hall, similar to scenes in Repulsion; the intrusive “friend” who keeps pushing herself into Delphine’s life, like Minnie Castavet does to Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby; and in a particularly eerie moment, Delphine alone in her Paris apartment, going out on the balcony and looking down at the street below, as if ready to jump — a moment that recalls the window suicide in Polanski’s film The Tenant. The scene where Delphine recovers in a hospital with a broken leg and Elle shows up, recalls the very similar moment in Bitter Moon.
Based On A True Story stands on its own, though, as it creates a portrait of the extreme lengths that artists will go to find material dramatic enough to satisfy the needs of today’s demanding audiences. It’s a haunting film, that hopefully will find an American audience one of these days.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.