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.