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Polanski's Problem "J'Accuse" in Review

By Alex Deleon

What -- Me worry?

Roman Polanski's latest film, "J'Accuse, (An Officer and a Spy)"  is the work of a master filmmaker at the top of his game at age 85.  

The film was unveiled at Venice 2019 and should easily have walked off with the Golden Lion top film prize except for some hostile behind the scenes political shuffling relating to a minor incident of sexual dalliance in the director's life back in 1977 -- forty two years ago!

The story of the outrageous antisemitic Dreyfus affair in France around the turn of the XX. century has been told on film several times before but never with such force, completeness, and overall mastery of the medium as in the current Polanski review of the subject

As things turned out J'Accuse had to settle for a second tier Silver Lion jury prize at the world premiere in Venice while the Golden Lion was slyly slipped to Joker, also a vety good film but not quite the Masterpiece of the Polanski opus.

From the very first scene in which a troop of soldiers comes marching in out of the extreme distance to place themselves before a French officer accused of treason and about to be shorn of his military insignia ...and then for the full 132 minutes running time following,  Polanski demonstrates complete control of this extremely complex material and undeniable virtuosity as a director every step of the way.

 

The broad outlines of the story are fairly well known.  In 1984  Alfred Dreyfus a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongfully convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.  He served ten horrible years  on infamous Devils Island until the frame-up and coverup of the guilt of the real non-Jewish traitor was given tremendous publicity by French writer Emile Zola's open letter of outrage to the president of France in nationwide news headlines with the one word "J'Accuse" ( I accuse!).  Zola was himself incarcerated for a year as punishment for the unabashed boldness of his  whistle blowing.

Dreyfus, after seemingly endless two-faced machinations, was eventually pardoned and restored to military service, his health however impaired by the long diabolical confinement, and the egregious antisemitism rampant in France at the time was more or less swept under the carpet in the wake if the scandal..

The actors in the film under Polanski's masterful supervision convey total conviction and dedication to the given project of presenting as forcefully as possible this gigantic blot on the collective French conscience which made a mockery of the proud French slogan: Liiberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

Actor Jean Dujardin (Oscar, 2002, for The Artist)  is quietly magnificent as major Georges Piquart, the officer who discovered the forgery of the papers used to convict Dreyfus, then staked his entire reputation and military career on his refusal to cooperate with top ranking military officials to cover up this hideous scandal. A man of incorruptible conscience to say the least.  

Polanski who is of Polish Jewish ancestry pulls no punches in depicting with relentless detail the maddening corruption and antisemitism at the highest and lowest levels in the France of the time.  Louis Garrel is perfect as the victimized Dreyfus, and Emmanuelle Seignier, actress wife of director Polanski, is very strong as Piquart's supportive mistress throughout. The conspiring higher officers are each and every one fully fleshed out and perfectly hateful. 

But this film is far more than a mere attack on antisemitism as such. What makes it a true masterpiece is the meticulous way in which an entire pivotal period of French history is held up for inspection  -- and brought to life as if it were a drama happening in the present before our very eyes. The period detail and decor is so perfectly sewn in that the viewer has the impression of being transported back in time through a time warp, not of viewing the past from the perspective of the present.  Herein lies the artistry of the production and the mastery of the director. 

In a career spanning nearly six decades since his Polish debut feature "Knife in the water", 1962, and featuring such landmark films as Rosemary's Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974), and The Pianist (2002), Polanski has established himself as one of the grand masters of world cinema but "J'Accuse" is the capstone of this career and would be an appropriate swan song were he to hang it up here and make no further pictures.

Let it be noted that Polanski was awarded a best director Oscar for The Pianist but was unable to accept the award in person because in the eyes of the California courts he was, and is still, a fugitive from American justice. Nor was he able to personally accept his Venice Silver Lion for J'Accuse this year for fear of possible extradition from Italy to California.  French actress Catherine Deneuve who starred in Polanski's 1965  thriller Repulsion, summed it all up by saying "That was all a long time ago and most people are not even familiar today with the actual facts of the case against him. This is totally excessive!"  

Second that motion!   Let the world judge the work of the artist, not his pecadillos in the distant past.  Let bygones be bygones and see the artist in the light of his art, not the shadowy darkness of American legal history.


 

Bottom Line:

The work of a master filmmaker at the top of his game

Deneuve and Polanski in Free France
 

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About Mostra Internazionale d Arte Cinematografica Venice


Oldest festival in the world, MOSTRA is Non-specialised competitive event for features and shorts. Two competing sections and three Prizes: the Golden Lion, the Lion of the Year and the Lion of the Future to best director`s debut film.

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