Roman Polanski’s new film tackles the real life case and scandal of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain wrongly convicted at the end of the 19th century in France.
It is impossible to talk about Polanski’s new historical drama without addressing the director’s own conviction and subsequent flight from the U.S. criminal justice system. The inclusion of J’Accuse in the 76th edition of the Venice film festival caused controversy in light of Polanski’s alleged statutory rape of a minor.
The choice of the Dreyfus scandal as subject for his last film is no coincidence for the director. Polanski himself mentioned a parallel between the story of Dreyfus’ persecution and his own exile from the US after the 1977 scandal which, nevertheless, did not stop his career until only last year — during the time he was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though I am not going to delve into neither this comparison nor any controversy, suffice to say that Dreyfus was never found guilty of a sexual assault case involving a 13-year-old.
J’Accuse opens with young Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus (played by an unrecognisable Louis Garrel) as he is stripped of his rank in front of the army and shouts his innocence. It is 1895 in France and Dreyfus is condemned as a spy and sent to the French penal colony known as “Devil’s Island”. Because the young officer is a Jew, the case quickly becomes a scandal in Paris and all over France.
We follow the story from the perspective of Colonel Picquart (Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin from The Artist) –who was one of Dreyfus’s teachers at military school– as he is named new head of secret services. Picquart inherits the disaster left behind by his predecessor (a dying soldier sick with syphilis) and shadowy officers who seem devoted to everything but the uncovering of the truth. When Picquart stumbles upon hints that lead to another potential spy (a French soldier named Esterhazy selling military secrets to an Italian officer), the film follows the steps that make Picquart realise Dreyfus’s innocence. The turning point occurs when Picquart notices the similarities between Esterhazy’s letters and one that was considered to be a key evidence of Dreyfus’ crime in his trial, even though Dreyfus claimed never to have written it. Picquart thinks he has solved a huge misunderstanding, but his biggest challenge comes when the army refuses to admit its mistake. Fuelled by hatred for the Jewish people, each officer keeps turning Picquart down, eventually framing and arresting him. Before being taken away, Picquart decides to risk everything and fight for the justice he believes in: he secretly meets with pro-Dreyfus supporters, including novelist Emile Zola and the editor of the newspaper Aurora.
The scandal becomes even bigger. Zola’s front-page article (J’accuse) becomes viral and the evidence that Picquart has gathered to prove Dreyfus’s innocence is exposed, together with the names of the army officers that obstructed the protagonist and his fight for justice. Zola is put on trial but eventually the truth comes out and Dreyfus is repatriated and (after seven more years) granted a pardon.
The film creates a perfect rendition of 19th-century France, reconstructing the crowded cafès, misty cobblestone streets but also the atmosphere of spreading anti-Semitism with impressive technical work. The story exposes an entire pack of powerful men who refuse to fight for justice in name of their own foolish pride and racist values, and the extent they are willing to go to. In a way, it makes us reflect upon how men too often repel the truth –especially when it is about the innocence of an individual with a different religion, gender or skin colour– even when it is right in front of their eyes.
As with many others of his masterpieces (Chinatown, The Pianist, Carnage) Polanski’s talent for storytelling cannot be questioned in this film, but whether his inclusion in the festival competition is right remains questionable.
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