Review: An Officer and a Spy

Roman Polanski is old and probably doesn’t have many more films left in him. Though he’s considered one of the most important directors of the last 60 years, his output since the turn of the millennium has been riddled with asterisks due to his status as a fugitive from justice, which, based on the spotty distribution of his last several movies, would seem to have rendered him persona non grata in the Anglophone cinematic universe at least. Depending on how you feel about confessed statutory rapists, this informal blackballing could be deemed unfortunate given the quality of his latest feature, a very involving retelling of the infamous Dreyfus Affair that rocked French society at the end of the 19th century and which, reportedly, is a subject Polanski had been keen to tackle for some time. From what I can gather, the only public screenings of An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse is the original French title) with English subtitles have been at festivals. 

Japanese distributors are less squeamish about Polanski’s notoriety, and here the movie is being promoted as a kind of detective thriller, which is about right, though viewers shouldn’t expect anything as delightfully tawdry as Chinatown. Alfred Dreyfus (Louis Garrel) was a captain in the French army who, despite an excellent record and undiminished loyalty, was convicted of selling secret weapons technology to the Germans and exiled to Devil’s Island. What made the trial and subsequent sentencing scandalous is that Dreyfus was scapegoated because he was a Jew during a period when anti-semitism was ascendant in France. Eventually, the writer Emile Zola published an open letter accusing certain officers by name of using dodgy evidence to railroad Dreyfus as a means of covering up army corruption, knowing that it would be easy to stigmatize a Jew. The fallout exposed the institutional anti-semitism of the age and became a basic text for future scholars of institutional discrimination. 

Polanski, working with the writer Robert Harris, who published a novel about the Dreyfus Affair as preparation for the movie, doesn’t center his film on Dreyfus or Zola, but rather on Col. Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), an officer who served above Dreyfus and, following the latter’s conviction, was promoted to the head of military intelligence, where in the course of investigating a suspected double agent realized that the man he was following was the person who actually traded secrets with the Germans, not Dreyfus. Though Picquart himself admits to being an anti-semite, he is also a soldier of honorable disposition and cannot countenance the idea that an earnest and upright officer like Dreyfus was cynically framed in order to cover up the incompetence of the upper ranks. After painstakingly collecting evidence with the help of a detective, he confronts his superiors and they immediately and resentfully not only reject his findings, but banish him to Africa where he will not cause any problems.

But Picquart will not leave the matter alone. He returns to Paris some time later and takes up where he left off, recruiting a sympathetic lawyer to help him rehabilitate Dreyfus along with a group of politicians and Zola, who eventually publishes his essay. This leads to Picquart’s arrest for insubordination and a defamation suit against Zola. Because a good portion of the public also hates Jews, it is easy for both men to be convicted, but a fellow officer who previously gave testimony against Dreyfus succumbs to guilt and confesses his perjury, thus resulting in Picquart’s release and a second trial for Dreyfus.

The real object of Polanski’s attention is the toxic privilege of the French military. The men occupying the highest ranks are no different in temperament and prejudices than their counterparts in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, who blithely sentence men to death for empty principles. To a 21st century viewer these proud men are not just ethically compromised. They embody a class-derived evil that will become a leitmotif for the 20th century. But Polanski plays by their game by focusing on their foil, Picquart, who while opposing them also personifies the noble qualities they claim as their stock in trade. Harris’s suspenseful script and Polanski’s zig-zagging direction—his use of flashbacks and flash-forwards is masterful—make for a police procedural with uncommon depth. More essentially, An Officer and a Spy feels like living history, though I suspect Harris expanded a lot on the record. In any case, if you’re the kind of moviegoer who likes detective stories and detailed historical reenactments, this movie is right up your alley. 

In French. Opens June 3 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

An Officer and a Spy home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Legendaire, R.P. Productions, Gaumont, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Elise O Cinema, Raicinema (c) Guy Fernandis-Tous droits reserves

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