PARIS—The French cultural establishment has defended, protected, and lauded Roman Polanski. The director fled the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, and has successfully evaded extradition back to the States over the years, most recently in 2016, when Poland rejected the request.
But today, the winds are shifting a bit in France. Polanski’s latest film, An Officer and a Spy (known here as J’Accuse), opened last week, and has been leading the box office. It’s a vivid historical drama about a moment that shaped modern France. The movie is set between 1894, when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was convicted of treason and sentenced to prison on charges of espionage trumped up by his anti-Semitic superiors, and 1906, when Dreyfus was finally pardoned, thanks in large part to the novelist Emile Zola’s legendary letter, “J’Accuse” (or “I accuse”).
A week before the film’s release, another J’accuse letter appeared. On November 8, Valentine Monnier, a French former model and actress, took to the pages of Le Parisien, a Paris daily, to accuse Polanski of raping and beating her until she lost consciousness at his Swiss chalet in 1975, when she was 18 and he was 42. Polanski denies all accusations.
After Monnier came forward, one of the film’s Paris premieres was scrapped because of protests by women’s-rights activists. The hashtag #BoycottPolanski sprang up ahead of the debut, although it’s unclear to what effect. Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife, who appears in An Officer and a Spy, canceled an interview with France’s leading morning radio show during the promotion tour, the show’s host said. And this week, France’s directors’ guild said it planned to introduce a motion to remove Polanski from its ranks, based on a new rule that suspends any members who have been placed under judicial investigation and bans those who have been convicted of crimes of a sexual nature. (In 2018, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled Polanski for ethical violations, and he is suing to get his spot back.)
Monnier is the sixth woman to publicly accuse the director of sexual abuse or rape. Among others, the actress Charlotte Lewis came forward in Britain in 2010. The statute of limitations for Monnier’s claims has long since expired, but she appears to be the first French woman to make her allegations public. Monnier told Le Parisien that she had also taken her story directly to Brigitte Macron, the first lady of France, before publishing it. The French media reported that the first lady had said she could not intervene in judicial matters, but had sent the letter to two members of President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet: the culture minister and the equal-opportunities minister.
The #MeToo movement has only recently and only modestly begun to take root here. In the most vivid case, unrelated to Polanski, the actress Adèle Hanael alleged this month that she was sexually abused for years as a child by the director Christophe Ruggia (he has denied all allegations). But the cultural and political atmosphere in France has begun to change. A mass movement is afoot to call attention to domestic violence and femicides. The Macron government has been encouraging women to libérer la parole, or speak out against harassment, even after the statute of limitations for pressing charges has expired, although it has not made any changes to French legislation on the matter. A government spokeswoman, Sibeth Ndiaye, has repeatedly weighed in on the new Polanski film. She said she personally wouldn’t see it, but that in the name of free expression, she opposed a boycott. “We live in a state of law,” she said in a meeting last week with the Anglo-American Press Association, adding that it was up to the police and the courts to do their work. Even though Polanski hasn’t faced legal action relating to any of the more recent allegations, something about the stories “disturbs me,” she said.
It’s hard to imagine that any of these conversations would be happening had Monnier, who is now 62, not published her letter. She said she was breaking her silence after four decades because she was deeply distressed by an interview Polanski gave to the French writer Pascal Bruckner. Bruckner compared Polanski to Dreyfus, saying the director is “a Jew who was hunted during the war and a filmmaker persecuted by the Stalinists in Poland.” Bruckner, whose novel Bitter Moon Polanski made into a film, asked Polanski how he would survive “the present day neo-feminist McCarthyism.” Polanski answered: “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.” The interview was included in press material for An Officer and a Spy when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, where it took second prize.
And here things become more complicated. Because of the controversy around Polanski, I was wary of seeing An Officer and a Spy. Then I did. And it is excellent. It’s based on Robert Harris’s novel of the same name, and Harris and Polanski collaborated on the watertight screenplay. Jean Dujardin gives an understated, moving performance as Georges Piquart, Dreyfus’s former commanding officer, who later came to believe, despite his own anti-Semitic prejudices, that Dreyfus had been framed. The plot develops swiftly. Visually, each scene is arresting. The officers, in their vermilion trousers and black jackets with gold piping, look as if they stepped out of a painting by Manet. Other scenes evoke Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec.
The film, which has not yet found distribution in the United States, is also timely. The moral questions of the Dreyfus affair still resonate today in France, a country that struggles with its universalist ideals and entrenched prejudices against religious minorities, and where questions of espionage and counter-espionage now play out in the context of terrorism. France was under a state of emergency for two years following the terrorist attacks of 2015, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, prompting an ongoing national debate about the tensions between state surveillance on the grounds of security and civil liberties. (One scene in An Officer and a Spy was filmed in the same historic courtroom where part of Dreyfus’s appeals trial was held, and where I once attended a terrorism trial.)
The film’s opening sequence shows Dreyfus being stripped of his rank and sent off to prison on a remote tropical island, essentially because he is Jewish. It bears noting that Polanski is a Holocaust survivor, and he’s aware of how the anti-Semitic fervor of the Dreyfus affair gained momentum leading up to the Second World War. And yet there is something distasteful, even grotesque, about how Polanski, in interviews, has drawn parallels between himself and Dreyfus, as if there were a moral equivalency between a wrongly accused officer and a film director who admitted to sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.
Monnier grasped that implicit equivalence. Writing of the film in her letter, she accused Polanski of “gross immorality” and “sacrilege” and of “instrumentalizing” history in order to cover up his own ugly past. In an interview with Le Parisien that accompanied her own J’accuse letter, she addressed Polanski, asking, “Is it credible to hear somebody say, ‘I accuse’ when they have branded you and forbidden you, the victim, from accusing him?”
Monnier makes an excellent point. At the same time, An Officer and a Spy is a very good film. It is difficult to keep both those J’accuse letters in my head at the same time, to separate the ethics from the aesthetics. I wonder whether American audiences will be given a chance to try.