It’s never easy to talk about Roman Polanski and his films. Remember the old saying about separating the art from the artist? Forget that when it comes to the legendary French-Polish director. His personal history is too controversial to be pushed aside, to be removed. He raped a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977, a moral stain that still chases him wherever he goes. He cannot be condoned for what he did, even if a part of Hollywood did stand by his side during his legal battle with the US justice system. As a reviewer, my job is to analyze and judge his latest film, J’Accuse, presented today at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, and the positive opinion I give this film is strictly related to how I see him as a filmmaker, not as a person.
Yeah, J’Accuse. Polanski has dreamed of making this movie for decades. For a director so interested and almost fixated by stories of persecution, J’Accuse was, on paper, the quintessential Polanski movie, and it has also been speculated for years that a film based on the Affaire Dreyfus would be the director’s cinematic version of his own personal story. But what do we talk about when we talk about the Dreyfus Affair?
France will never forget the name of Alfred Dreyfus, born in Alsatia to Jewish parents. He was an artillery captain in the French army, and he’s the most famous scapegoat in the history of the country. Judged guilty of high treason, without evidence of being in cahoots with Germany, Alfred Dreyfus (Louis Garrel) was exiled on the then criminal colony of Devil’s Island, off the coast of the French Guiana. The country rejoiced: the traitor had been expelled. Only one person in the entire army raised doubts over Dreyfus’s guilt: it was Colonel George Picquart (Jean Dujardin). Promoted to chief of the Statistics Section of the Army’s Secret Service (an equivalent of a counterintelligence office), he starts to uncover the conspiracy that brought Dreyfus in disgrace, provoking an earthquake in the highest spheres of the French Republic.
Roman Polanski has always been obsessed by conspiracies. His movies are about people fighting a system, a society and a world that repel them, that judge them and chew them up only to spit them out. The Dreyfus Affair is the natural conclusion of his body of work. Dreyfus and Picquart are two man against a system that wants to crush them, a country, their own country, that wants to devour them. Like Rosemary Woodhouse or Trelkowski, they fight against dark forces that want to control them, and they do it with such dignity that it’s hard not to root for them.
George Picquart’s biggest weapon in his dangerous investigation is skepticism. He lives in a country where people sing “Vive l’armée” along with the traditional chant of “Vive la République, vive la France”. Blind allegiance is required of army soldiers and officers. As stated by Major Henry in one of the most blood-chilling scenes of the film, it’s not his fault if he’s ordered to shoot the wrong person, as all he has to do is to heed orders from the generals, therefore he has no responsibility in the wrongful conviction of Dreyfus, simply because that’s what he had been told to do. This pervasive mentality in the French army is Picquart’s real enemy, and the toughest to take down: the code of silence is tough to crack, and he knows that spies are always around the corner: he works with them.
Polanski has always been a master of creating tension out of seemingly harmless circumstances, and J’Accuse follows up on his steps. In quite a few scenes, seemingly normal conversations grow increasingly menacing; frames always hide a corner of darkness; Desplat’s beautiful but slightly derivative ominous music erupts all of a sudden; onlooking characters observe from afar. Obsession and paranoia are at the center of Picquart’s daily life, and the character wouldn’t be as effective as it is if it wasn’t for the exceptionally commanding performance given by Jean Dujardin. Firmly standing on the shoulder of truth, Picquart is hellbent on exposing the conspiracy that tainted the French Republic, and he’s ready to go to unspeakable lengths for it. Dujardin’s Picquart is not without flaws, but he is essentially a man on a mission, a man of State against the State: he can move the air with an eyebrow, silence a room with a gesture and a word. In his battle against the corruption of the Republic, he finds his perfect companion in Louis Garrel’s Dreyfus, a figure of profound dignity and decency.
J’Accuse works both as a cautionary tale and as a reminder of a tragic past. Even when it goes occasionally overboard (the Stars of David on shop windows destroyed by stones are not an example of subtlety) with its intentions, and the script exceeds with expository dialog, the film’s fiery passion proves that Roman Polanski still has something to give to the film medium.