Since it was first announced, Roman Polanski’s new film about the Dreyfus Affair, his first since the #MeToo movement began, has been raising eyebrows.
“An Officer and a Spy (J’Accuse),” retells the story of French army officer Alfred Dreyfus, whose wrongful 1894 conviction for treason sparked a decade-long controversy that became a flashpoint of French anti-Semitism. Many who heard of the project feared Polanski, who fled the United States for Europe in 1978 to escape sentencing for a statutory rape conviction — to which he pled guilty — would attempt to conflate his plight with Dreyfus’s own.
Early reviews of the “An Officer and a Spy,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on August 30 to a standing ovation, seem to both confirm and confound the worst fears surrounding the film.
Two major reviews, from Owen Gleiberman in Variety and David Ehrlich in Indiewire, argue that the film’s context is inseparable from Polanski’s own infamous legal battle and regular claims of victimhood. “In general, I tend to be a die-hard believer in separating the man from the art,” Gleiberman wrote. “But Roman Polanski has made it all but impossible to do so with ‘An Officer and a Spy.’” Ehrlich, who gave the film a C-minus, was blunter; “Roman Polanski has absolutely no intention of asking you to separate the art from the artist.”
The reasons Polanski’s background can’t be overlooked lies less in the film’s direct content, which nearly all reviews agree sticks very rigidly to the details of the Dreyfus Affair. Rather, it has to do with Polanski offering critics a huge and damning window into his intent courtesy of a director’s note.
“I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me,” Polanski said in an interview included in the press packet for “An Officer and a Spy” that was quoted by both Gleiberman and Ehrlich.
Polanski does know about anti-Semitic persecution, having lived in hiding in Poland during World War II. But that doesn’t appear to be the kind of persecution he has in mind, as he adds, “I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case.”
“That comparison is obscene,” wrote Gleiberman, noting that “for Polanski to suggest a parallel between his case and the Dreyfus case, based on ‘things I have not done,’ is an outrageous lie.” And Ehrlich concludes “the film’s more damning and transparent moments are as nakedly autobiographical as anything Polanski has ever made.”
Thematically, Polanski’s film, based on the historical novel of the same name by Robert Harris, who co-wrote the screenplay, appears to address issues familiar both to historians of the infamous Dreyfus Affair and those familiar with Polanski’s own gripes about his purported mistreatment by the media.
“[T]his is a story of groupthink, and of mob justice, and of a society that prizes the illusion of justice over justice itself,” Ehrlich writes. “But it’s also a story about someone who had the courage of his convictions, the tenacity to challenge a flawed system, and the faith that his truth would eventually prevail.” That someone is not Dreyfus (Louis Garrel), who spends the bulk of the film serving a prison sentence on Devil’s Island, but his unlikely champion, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin). Picquart, Dreyfus’ former teacher at the military academy, is an unrepentant anti-Semite who initially helped to court martial Dreyfus. It’s only when, as the head of French Intelligence, he stumbles on incontrovertible proof that Dreyfus is innocent that he moves to clear him. (His now-quaint methods apparently include a lot of reading letters and analyzing handwriting.)
Per Ehrlich, in a climactic scene Picquart “arrives in court to ridicule the whole of French society for rushing to judgment and ruining someone’s life,” a convenient set piece for the director, who, while welcome in France — where he has lived for some time as a fugitive — is a pariah in Hollywood, a place where he can’t return lest he be arrested. “[I]t might be more accurate to contextualize these scenes as the stuff of unfettered wish fulfillment, as Polanski has no claim on total innocence, and he rather famously neglected to stick around for his own trial,” Ehrlich adds.
One could argue that these sequences might appear in any treatment of the material that hews close to the facts, and that Polanski simply got in his own way by choosing this project to relitigate —however feebly — his own conviction.
The film reportedly has its selling points; Ehrlich calls it Polanski’s most “robust” movie since “Ghostwriter.” Echoing Ehrlich, Gleiberman cited the “robust confidence” of Polanski’s direction. Xan Brooks of The Guardian praised the film for its “subtly devastating portrait of the French general staff, with a stench of establishment sulphur that recalls ‘Chinatown.’” Nearly all of the early reviews – even the pans – make mention of the movie’s lavish production design and meticulous attention to period detail and atmosphere.
“One couldn’t wish for a more painstakingly researched or beautifully rendered account of the infamous Dreyfus affair than Roman Polanski’s ‘An Officer and a Spy (J’Accuse),’” wrote Deborah Young in The Hollywood Reporter, in a positive writeup.
The overall takeaway from this first clutch of reviews is that Polanski has made a technically-accomplished film that sags a bit in suspense and can’t escape the cloud of the director’s wrongheaded identification with this episode in history. Even the good notices have a mention of his past; that, rightly, adulterates any pure analysis of the film’s critical value.
It’s a shame, because the concerns of the Dreyfus Affair, as noted by Gleiberman in his review, are urgent and topical. At the core of the cause celebre, which went on for 12 years, was the issue of dual loyalty. That concept, recently perpetuated by President Trump, is one that deserves a closer look.
As a historical lesson, Alfred Dreyfus’s monstrous treatment is a no-brainer for our current moment. By seizing that moment for himself, it appears Polanski may have packed in one too many controversies.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at email@example.com