Polanski film tops Paris box office despite rape row

Fiachra GIBBONS
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A demonstrator holds a banner reading "I accuse: Polanski Rapist" during a protest against the French-Polish film director's new movie outside a cinema in Paris this week

Roman Polanski's new film topped the Paris box office Thursday despite calls for a boycott after a fresh rape claim against him.

The controversial French-Polish director has come under intense pressure since a French photographer became the latest woman to accuse the 86-year-old of rape days before his award-winning movie on the Dreyfus affair, "An Officer and a Spy", opened in cinemas.

Without naming Polanski, France's culture minister Franck Riester warned that "genius is not a guarantee of impunity" after announcing new measures Thursday to deal with sexual harassment and violence in the country's film industry.

But the furore has had little effect so far on the film, which went straight to the top of the Paris box office, with nearly 50,000 French filmgoers queuing to see it Wednesday on its opening night. Business was also "very brisk" Thursday, a Paris cinema manager told AFP.

Polanski has been a fugitive from US justice since fleeing to France in 1978 after spending 42 days in prison after he admitted the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl at the actor Jack Nicholson's Los Angeles home.

The maker of "Rosemary's Baby" feared that he was about to be tried on far more serious charges, including drugging the girl.

- Art 'does not excuse sins' -

On Friday, former actress Valentine Monnier threw the producers of Polanski's "An Officer and a Spy" -- "J'accuse" in French -- into a tailspin by claiming that the director had raped her in his Swiss chalet in 1975 after beating her "into submission" and attempting to give her a pill.

In an open letter to a French newspaper, she said she was speaking out because of her disgust that Polanski was comparing himself to the hero of the film, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer wrongly persecuted by the French army at the turn of the 20th century.

Polanski has fiercely denied the accusations and has threatened to sue.

With some feminists calling for a boycott of the movie, Riester said that a "work of art, no matter how great, does not excuse the eventual sins of its author".

"Talent is not an extenuating circumstance," he said before warning against convicting anyone in the "courtroom of public opinion".

- 'Film deserved to be made' -

The minister had earlier voiced his support of "all those women who break the silence" by reporting abuse", but refused to support a boycott of the film.

Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye had earlier told reporters that she would not go to the film.

"I think there is something (behind the accusations), even though there hasn't been a conviction, given that this has come out several times, it worries me," she added.

Former women's minister Laurence Rossignol took a harder line, saying "we cannot allow him to wipe this away, and going to see this film is that."

With Polanski already fighting his expulsion from the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the French directors guild, ARP, will decide Monday whether to suspend him.

The French public broadcaster France Televisions has also been forced to defend its financing of the film, which won the Silver Lion and critics' prize at the Venice film festival in September.

Its chief Delphine Ernotte said that there "had not been a big film about the Dreyfus affair and the script deserved to be made.

"I understand the questions and the emotions... I think it is a legitimate and healthy debate," she added.