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  • Writer's pictureS.K. Chishty

An Officer and a Spy (J'accuse) (2019)

Polanski's formalism is perfect for this sobering account.

The title of Polanski's last film "Based On a True Story" can very well be a tagline of this one. An Officer and a Spy (or J'accuse as it is called in France) is based on Robert Harris's excellent account of the shameful true incident that exposed malignant anti-semitism in the French army. Thanks to Hollywood and its depiction, this theme has been predominantly confined to Nazi Germany, as if anti-semitism was born there and immediately perished with a despot blowing his brains in a tunnel.

It is interesting that Hollywood, even filmmakers who are proud of their heritage such as Steven Spielberg, have not bothered to take into account the racism that the Jews had to face in America after WWII. Anti-semitism in Hollywood has become a prestigious club where Academy Award hopefuls try their luck. Something which either modern filmmakers exploit to either offer entertaining alternate fictions or a cinematic race to see who recreates the Holocaust more 'realistically.'

Without implicating anyone and with just the virtue of narrating an important incident, this film offers a corrective to the above.

The irony, of course, is that it will never be released in the US.

Roman Polanski is banned from entering the US because he drugged and raped a minor. There has always been a resistance to his films getting released on moral grounds, but in the light of the #MeToo movement and, the people just being more aware, this resistance has found more strength. Carnage (2011) did not only release in the US, but it also had Hollywood actors headlining it and his last film, marketed by Sony Pictures, starred Eva Green.

It is interestingly fertile, if fetid, ground that this film is built on. Its French title is translated into English as "I Accuse". Though this phrase is taken from Emile Zola's passionate open letter to the French Army and government, where famously accused all the top brass of bigotry, in the light of the events involving the filmmaker here, the title can also be seen as Polanski pointing out the American hypocrisy (as he sees it). The director makes a rather cheeky appearance while listening to a musical performance. Whatever you think of this backstory and however it affects your decision of watching the film, Polanski certainly knows what he is doing.

There is hardly any time wasted before we are introduced to the main theme of the film:

Captain Alfred Dreyfus (an almost unrecognizable Louis Garrel) is publicly court-martialed for high treason. His loud protestations of innocence and love for his country are drowned out by anti-semitic slogans from the audience.

Part of the audience is also Colonel Picquart (Jean Dujardin) who dismisses the man's assertions as "screams of a Jew losing his gold". (The soldier is being shorn of the brass buttons on his dress). This casual comment is treated with mirth and probably even goes a long way to his being promoted to the Secret Service.

Once there, Picquart reveals himself to be an attentive and diligent personality, And this is where Polanski's mastery lies. He makes us fall in line with this personality whom we found obnoxious just minutes before. Picquart is himself an anti-semitic and that is why his internal journey matters. This is also a reminder of the way the director's perennial classic Chinatown was built too. We know as much about what's going on as the lead character and we discover everything alongside.

Soon, Picquart starts making major changes in the way things have been operating and is on to a potential spy in Esterhazy. It is while investigating this man that Picquart realizes that a grave injustice has been done and there have been serious lapses in the case that has prosecuted Dreyfuss and sent him to a life of isolation on Devil's Island.

As expected, everyone from the writing expert Bertillion, a harassed looking Mathieu Amalric to Picquart's superiors, reveal themselves as indifferent and ask him to drop the case and focus on Esterhazy.

The more resistance he meets, the more determined Picquart gets to find out the truth. This is again reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's character in Chinatown. In that, he does not start finding out the truth because of the goodness of the heart but because of ego. Like him, Picquart also discovers a capacity inside him that he was earlier unaware of.

Picquart only has the sympathetic ear of his married mistress Pauline Monnier (Emmanuelle Seigner, a worldly-wise and bracing presence) but he is soon joined by others, perhaps most important out of these is the French literary giant Emile Zola (Andre Marcon). It is his clear-eyed understanding and razor-sharp power with words through a newspaper article that makes the entire nation notice the case.

The cinematography is excellent. Polanski regular Pawel Edelman keeps the contrast high yet things, like Picquart's vision of justice, are crystal clear. There appears to be a deliberate restraint by the makers to not push the film too much into a thriller or court-room drama territory. The story is treated as an account with many necessary ellipses.

This is a sly corrective to Hollywood's narrow treatment of anti-semitism, it is rich because it is born from a fertile, if fetid ground, that includes Polanski's own conduct.

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