Film Review: Roman Polanski’s ‘J’Accuse (An Officer and a Spy)’

Roman Polanski's dramatization of the Dreyfus affair is a grandly mounted film that still feels lacking, maybe because Polanski thinks it's about him.

'J'Accuse (An Officer and a Spy)' Review: Polanski's Dreyfus Affair
Courtesy Playtime

“I don’t separate the man from the art.” So said Lucrecia Martel, the Argentine filmmaker and president of this year’s Venice Film Festival jury, when asked at a press conference about “J’Accuse (An Officer and a Spy),” the new Roman Polanski film. Martel said she wouldn’t attend a gala dinner in honor of the movie, but staunchly defended the Venice Film Festival’s decision to program it. Nevertheless, what she articulated touched a nerve. In general, I tend to be a die-hard believer in separating the man from the art. But Roman Polanski has made it all but impossible to do so with “An Officer and a Spy.”

The movie, adapted from a 2013 historical novel by Robert Harris, who co-wrote the script with Polanski (as he did on “The Ghost Writer,” also adapted from a Harris novel), is a lavishly scaled, grandly mounted, rigorously true-to-the-facts dramatization of the Dreyfus affair — the fabled and scandalous case, starting in 1894, of the French Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of treason in a secret court martial and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.

Dreyfus was, in fact, an innocent man who was railroaded. But the forces against him, which amounted to a conspiracy on the part of the French military, made him, by design, a symbolic figure: a totem of the new wave of anti-Semitism that was beginning to sweep into the new century. As the Dreyfus case played out, in an increasingly fractious and public way, over 12 years, it became a referendum on injustice, anti-Semitism, and the moral identity of France — and, by implication, the larger world of Europe. So why tell that story now?

It seems there are two reasons, only one of them good. In France, the Dreyfus case represents how anti-Semitic fervor could rise up out of the national soil to become policy — and that, in hindsight, carried ominous implications for where Europe was headed. Given the disturbingly explicit rise of anti-Semitism in Europe today, the parallels are all too obvious, and it’s clear why they matter. In that sense, “An Officer and a Spy” feels, at times, like Polanski’s version of Spielberg’s “The Post” — a movie that tells the story of a historical injustice, and an attempt to right that injustice, with an all-too-pointed subtext of topical urgency.

But there’s another layer of meaning to “An Officer and Spy.” Dreyfus, played in the movie by Louis Garrel with the intensity of a stoic bird (in his pince-nez, he looks like a feral-geek James Joyce as played by Steven Soderbergh), is an honorable soul who gets slandered, unfairly convicted, and becomes a martyr. His time on Devil’s Island, which we see all too briefly, is a hellish exile for him, and the whole dramatic momentum of the movie is: How will his persecution end? Can this injustice be overturned?

It might be a leap of conjecture to say that Polanski, dogged by the accusations that resulted in his own trial, and (self-imposed) exile from Hollywood, 42 years ago, now sees himself in the figure of Alfred Dreyfus. But it doesn’t have to be conjecture, because Polanski has been explicit about it. In an interview included in the film’s press notes, he says, “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.” Regarding his own case, and the way it’s now viewed, he says, “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.”

I’m sorry, but that comparison is obscene. We can have a debate, and should, about how Hollywood, and the American legal system, should now treat Roman Polanski. Alfred Dreyfus, however, was an innocent man; there was no substance to the accusations brought against him at trial. They were manufactured. Whereas Polanski, before he fled the United States while awaiting sentencing in 1977, confessed in court that he was guilty of having sex with a 13-year-old girl — and though his victim, Samantha Geimer, has publicly forgiven him, and personally called for any legal action against him to stop, we know from her own description of the crime, quoted in a Vanity Fair investigation, that Polanski drugged and raped her. That’s the reality on which Polanski’s “persecution” rests. So for Polanski to suggest a parallel between his case and the Dreyfus case, based on “things I have not done,” is an outrageous lie.

I don’t generally quote director’s statements. But this one is relevant, because it offers such a direct explanation of why Polanski made the film in the first place. And when you see “An Officer and a Spy,” it may explain even more than Polanski thinks, since the “parallel” — the element of personal obsession in how he views the Dreyfus case — fills in what’s missing from the movie. Simply put: “An Officer and a Spy,” which was made for $28 million (a blockbuster budget by latter-day Polanski standards), has the textured look and atmosphere of a luscious old-fashioned epic, and the first half of the movie sucks you right in, but after a while it starts to play like the dramatized version of a Wikipedia entry.

It’s a meticulous production, made with robust confidence by the 86-year-old director, and I wish I could say it was Polanski working at peak form. (The last time he did that was “The Ghost Writer.”) But it’s a film that tells you things more than it gets you to feel them.

An opening title informs us that “All characters and events depicted in this film are real,” and Polanski stays almost perversely true to that assertion of authenticity. Even the most minute characters are historical, and the film makes no attempt to twist the Dreyfus case into some facile melodramatic shape. The fascination of “An Officer and a Spy” is that it plays like modern history’s first whistleblower drama. But staying true to history, much as I respect that impulse (and tend to argue for it), isn’t the same as bringing history blazingly to life. “An Officer and a Spy” has a this-happened-and-then-this-happened quality. And that’s why the movie, beneath the two-dimensional jauntiness of its acting and the period vividness of its sets and costumes, feels more dutiful than riveting.

The central character isn’t Dreyfus. It’s Lieutenant Col. Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), a French officer who had a hand in the original Dreyfus court martial, but wound up being the one who tried to clear his name. The film opens with Dreyfus, standing before columns of soldiers, being stripped of his medals in disgrace, as Picquart, who’s among the assembled, jokes that Dreyfus looks like “a Jewish tailor weeping for his lost gold.” So he’s as rotely anti-Semitic as the next Frenchman. But Dujardin, as an actor, radiates fellow-feeling and a kind of sly-boots joviality, and that translates here into Picquart’s impulse to do what’s right.

Early on, he gets a promotion, becoming the head of French intelligence. This makes for an arresting depiction of what spying looked like a century ago — because, of course, we now tend to associate espionage with technology. But as Picquart moves into his office in Paris, surrounded by the smell of the sewer, a window that won’t open, and underlings who look at him with hooded glares, as though he were a foreign agent, we’re eager to know how it all works.

The main thing the spy office seems to do is go through people’s mail, retrieving (and taping together) torn up correspondence from wastebaskets. A letter like that, revealing secrets that were sold to a foreign power, is a key piece of evidence in the conviction of Dreyfus, whose trial we see in flashback; aiding the effort is the testimony of a corrupt graphologist (Mathieu Almaric). The Dreyfus letter hangs, in a frame, on Picquart’s office wall (it was there when he arrived), and it stands in for his mission: to catch traitors.

Before long, he gets on the trail of one named Esterhazy, a scuzzy bon vivant with a giant mustache who is photographed, using special new lenses, with a package of documents. He’s a minor operator who’s trading secrets for money. Nevertheless, it’s intriguing to watch the forces of state intelligence circle around him. Then Picquart, in his office, makes the film’s key connection: He notices that the handwriting on one of Esterhazy’s letters is an exact match for the handwriting on the Dreyfus letter.

A true-life suspense movie goes ping! at a moment like that. And up until then, “An Officer and Spy” has a surgical dark intrigue that’s vintage Polanski, an echo of his filmmaking voice in “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” But at this point, we’ve learned that Dreyfus is innocent; how the military convicted him; and who the actual traitor was. And so the suspense, what there is of it, begins to leak away.

The rest of the film is devoted to Picquart’s attempt to free Dreyfus by bringing his revelation to the authorities and getting a new hearing. But here’s where the events could have used more shaping. In the second half of “An Officer and a Spy,” there are meetings, and trials, and more meetings, as well as a briefly exciting sequence in which Émile Zola, the French novelist and journalist, writes his famous “J’accuse!” letter and it gets splashed across the headlines, and we see each of the military and government figures he addresses a “J’accuse!” to reading the letter in the newspaper. But even this just results in Zola getting put on trial for libel. Picquart has a mistress, played with an eager bloom by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, but apart from that there’s not much dimension to him. Jean Dujardin brings the role a charge of nobility, and you can always see him thinking (one sign of a great actor), but he and Polanski never figure out how to give Picquart a dash of mystery.

What we call the Dreyfus affair was, in fact, a series of cover-ups and breakthroughs and setbacks that dragged on and on like a barely moving roller-coaster. It has been an obsession in France for 100 years. (Century-after-the-fact spoiler alert: It ended well!) But if, for a moment, you leave aside that we’re watching a movie about a legendary series of historical events (or an allegory of the persecution of Roman Polanski), what happens isn’t fully satisfying as drama. “An Officer and a Spy” is a whistleblower movie that only completely works if you read it as Polanski blowing his own whistle.

Film Review: Roman Polanski’s ‘J’Accuse (An Officer and a Spy)’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Competition), Aug. 30, 2019. Running time: 132 MIN.

  • Production: A Legende Films, RP Productions, Eliseo Cinema, Rai Cinema, Gaumont, France 2 Cinéma, France 3 Cinéma, Kinoprime Foundation, Kenosis, Horus Movies production. Producer: Alain Goldman. Executive producers: Ivano Fachin, Lukasz Raczynski, Zbigniew John Raczynski.  
  • Crew: Director: Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Robert Harris, Roman Polanski. Camera (color, widescreen): Pawel Edelman. Editor: Hervé Deluze. Music: Alexandre Desplat.
  • With: Jean Dujardin, Louis Garrel, Emmanuelle Seigner, Grégory Gadebois, Mathieu Amalric, Damien Bonnard, Melvil Poupad, Denis Podalydès, Vincent Grass.