Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 17, 2023 4:32 pm 
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JEAN DUJARDIN, LOUIS GARREL IN J'ACCUSE

Watching Polanski's film at last

This film's French blurb (translated below) shows the momentousness of the subject matter.

"During the 12 years that it lasted, the Dreyfus Affair tore France apart, causing a real earthquake throughout the world.
In this immense scandal, without doubt the biggest of the late 19th century, judicial error, denial of justice and anti-Semitism combine. The case is told from the point of view of Colonel Picquart who, once placed in charge of counter-espionage, discovered that the evidence against Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been fabricated.
From that moment on, at the risk of his career and then his life, he will never stop trying to identify the real culprits and rehabilitate Alfred Dreyfus. "


This stunning French film about the Dreyfus case, which rediscovers it through a different point of view, features the impressive lead performance of Jean Dujardin as officer Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, who discovers that the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus of treason was false. Controversial in France and effectively banned in the US, this is nonetheless a much-awarded film, one of Polanski's best, and recipient of the FIPRESCI award and Silver Lion at Venice and 12 César nominations in France and Césars for Best Director, Best Adaptation and Best Costumes. It has not been released in the US and cannot be watched on streaming here. I've finally been able to watch the film. I will report on and review An Officer and a Spy now. Along with Dujardin it features Louis Garrel as Alfred Dreyfus and Emmanuelle Seigner as Picquart's mistress Pauline Monnier.

The complicated but ultimately plsitive French reaction to the film can be seen in the opening of the review by film critic Mathieu Macheret in France's journal of record Le Monde (please excuse the stiffness of my DeepL-aided translation):

"Despite winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Roman Polanski's latest film did not fail to arouse a certain unease at the time of its release. It shows the director, caught up in his own affairs, presenting his own variation on the Dreyfus affair, one of the most resounding political earthquakes of the late 19th century. The prospect that the figure of Dreyfus, the scapegoat par excellence, could give rise to a kind of personal justification and lend itself to all kinds of confusion, was indeed enough to arouse distrust. This was all it took to make this new film, which appeared in a context of profound questioning of French cinema, the most "eagerly awaited" of its author.

"However, J'accuse turns out to be something quite different from the self-serving narrative one might have feared. Adapted from the novel D. by the British writer Robert Harris, with whom the filmmaker had already made the ambitious The Ghost Writer (2009), the film focuses less on the figure of Dreyfus, relegated to the background, than on that of Colonel Marie-Georges Picquart, chief of counter-espionage who uncovered the irregularities of the conviction. By following his footsteps, the story adheres to his counter-investigation and carries out a gripping plunge into the murky and tortuous arcana of the Affair, retraced here with a bias toward cool distance."


Cool distance with a white-hot core no doubt, because behind this meticulous recounting of slowly uncovered truth of injustice indeed no doubt lies Polanski's sense of decades of mistreatment and scapegoating and being a lifelong victim of anti-Semitism. As a child, separated from his parents, he survived Poland under the Nazis on his own. He was 85 when he directed this film and is now 89.

This is a slow, methodical legal procedural, and a portrait of the institutional anti-Semitism of the late nineteenth century in France, a world dominated by stuffy, bigoted, heavy smoking white men in uniforms with identical walrus mustaches. Colonel Picquart (The Artist’s Jean Dujardin) comes in as director of counter intelligence, taking over from a man wracked with the final stages of syphilis. The department is rotten, as shown by men like the devious Major Henry (Grégory Gadebois) and the dishonest Bertillon (Mathieu Amalric), a graphologist and phrenologist. Picquart has watched passively as Dreyfus gets framed and sent to a lonely island to rot; he is no fan of the Jews himself.

But then he discovers, in a low-key Eureka! moment, that a document attributed to Dreyfus is actually in the handwriting of a man named Esterhazy (shades of John LeCarré!) and that Esterhazy is a spy for the Germans.

The film is rich in varied scenes. The ones of Paris streets, and café terraces like those of today yet oh-so-different, are memorable. You may choke on the walrus-mustached men smoking in scarlet-trousered military uniforms. But you will remember back to the opening scene in the grand courtyard when Alfred Dreyfus is stripped of his rank, including the stripes down the trousers, and his sword is broken in two and you know all those epaulettes and kepis really mean something. So does Col. Picquart's stolid, indomitable openness to decency and truth. Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner plays a lovely mellow bittersweet role as Picquart's mistress, Pauline Monnier, whom events and the ruthless enemies of the truth will strip of status too.

It's incredible what Picquart and Dreyfus go through, and it's only in a sequence of elegant French screen captions at the end that vindication comes. The thing is, not only is the anti-Semitism that ruled Dreyfus' railroading a society-wide force at this time (and destined to be for a lot longer, assuming it's less today), but there was just too much face to be lost in the government and the court's admitting it had sent an innocent man into humiliation and exile.

It's not only interesting to see the usually light, bland, and playful Jean Dujardin as the quietly dedicated Picquart, but likewise surprising to see the often flamboyant and witty Louis Garrel (nearly) unrecognizable as the meek, pathetic, but strongly protesting Dreyfus. Polanski believes a good performance is one where the actor forgets and transcends himself, and he brings that out of his leads.

In his Guardian review Xan Brooks notes Picquart takes a break in a church because he "could do with some quiet," and the film "could do with some too," and this is true: the flaw of J'accuse/An Officer and a Spy is that it's too relentless, too rhythmical. To the very neat ending there could have beem added a few more surprises and shocks and pauses. One of the Césars was for costumes and sometimes it's the physicality and the clothes that keep us fascinated in this film while the most important incident in late nineteenth-century French history may seem a little slow to unreel. But there is a fervor as well as a rigor in the steady unfolding. A minimalist but intense Alexandre Desplat score helps with that. And the look is wonderful. This is a film that's overwhelmingly attention-holding and suspenseful as it's ever-so-slightly numbing, but when it's over, you feel you've seen a classic, and you can't understand why American moviegoers have been deprived it. That's a crime. Sometimes great artists aren't nice people. Get over it.

One wonders at the spinelessness - but it's just being American, I guess - of the excellent Glenn Kenny, writing for AV Club, worrying that it would be "Unseemly" to be first in line to see this film at the Biennale. And then after saying Polanski is, at 85, at the top of his game, better than anybody at composing the frame, choreographing movement within it, moving the frame itself, and going on to the next shot - the basics of filmmaking, in short; then adding that this movie depicts something real and urgent to the world of today; he can simply close with: "It’s kind of a shame you’ll probably never get to see it." Has a prominent critic no more need than this to protest such a state of affairs and do something about it? But the very low Anglophone rating of this film reflects English-speaking reviewers' extreme skittishness around anything to do with POlanski these days, even a fine film, one of his career best. This is. not just "kind of a shame." It's an outrage.

(For an overview of the film see the Wikipedia article.)

J'Accuse/An Officer and a Spy, 132 mins., debuted at the Biennale, Venice Aug. 30, 2019, also shown at festivals in Bulgaria and Poland, opening in Belgium and France Nov. 19, 2019. AlloCiné press rating: 4.0: 80% (based on 38 reviews). Metascore: 56% (based on only 9 reviews).

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