'An Officer and a Spy': Film Review | Venice 2019

Venice Film Festival
A beautifully told story that feels a bit soulless.

Roman Polanski’s reconstruction of the Dreyfus affair, based on Robert Harris’ novel, stars 'The Artist' Oscar winner Jean Dujardin and Louis Garrel.

One couldn’t wish for a more painstakingly researched or beautifully rendered account of the infamous Dreyfus affair than Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (J’Accuse). A watershed for French society that challenged its reverential attitude to the army and the ingrained anti-Semitism of the time, it is a story well worth telling, and Polanski, co-screenwriter Robert Harris (The Ghost Writer) and star Jean Dujardin (The Artist) do it with meticulously researched grace and ease. Yet the result is oddly lacking in heart and soul, almost as though a mask of military discipline held it in check.

It is the director’s first time competing at a major festival since Cannes showed Venus in Fur in 2013 and the film’s selection for Venice competition has not been a walk in the park. Jury president Lucrecia Martel said she would watch the film but not attend the gala celebration, to avoid offending the victims of sexual assault. In the film’s press notes, Polanski himself drew a tentative parallel with his own press harassment over charges he raped a 13-year-old girl in 1977, saying, “I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution in the film.” To what extent this controversy may affect the audience’s attitude to the film is hard to predict.

In 1895, the Dreyfus affair saw the young Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus condemned as a spy, stripped of his rank and imprisoned on faraway Devil’s Island. But not all were convinced of his guilt. With its overtones of anti-Semitism, the case swept over France and almost plunged it into a civil war. Regardless of whether this film refreshes viewers’ memories or tells the story for the first time, it is one for the record, a classic reminder of a particularly appalling historical event.

The story is told from the point of view of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart (Dujardin), who is present at Dreyfus’ public humiliation in the opening scene where he is stripped of his rank in front of the army regiments looking on contemptuously. He has been court-martialed for high treason for passing secrets to the enemy and sentenced to life imprisonment. Even in this tense moment, Dreyfus (Louis Garrel) shouts out his innocence.

Then young Picquart, who was one of Dreyfus’ teachers in military school, is named the new head of the Secret Services, and destiny brings their lives together once more. He takes charge of a musty old building that smells of sewage and where the windows don’t open to relieve the stifling heat. The personnel he inherits isn’t any friendlier than the surroundings. His predecessor’s right-hand man, Col. Henry (Gregory Gadebois), is antagonistic from the start, begrudging him access to secret papers and files.

The first intrigue he stumbles across involves another case of espionage: A certain Esterhazy has been divulging military info to an Italian officer with whom he is romantically involved. The story shifts to the rhythm of a riveting detective story as Picquart launches a Sherlockian investigation. He meets a contact in a music hall where dancers are performing a cancan. In the silence of a great cathedral, he picks up a package of letters left by an officer’s maidservant. He hires a modern detective to follow Esterhazy and, when that proves too obvious, they rent an adjoining apartment where a team of sleuths take photos and use newfangled listening devices to overhear conversations.

The turning point comes unexpectedly. Examining a purloined letter written by Esterhazy, Picquart is suddenly struck by its similarity to the “bordereau” letter, a key piece of evidence in the Dreyfus affair that nailed him as a spy. Instead, Picquart realizes with dismay, all evidence now points to Esterhazy, not Dreyfus.

Bound by duty and loyalty to the army, yet ruled by his conscience, the young head of the Secret Services takes his doubts up the ladder, from one general to another. They are of one mind: let the matter drop. Dreyfus has been sentenced and the army can’t admit it made a mistake. This means that Esterhazy will have to go free, to avoid complicating matters.

It is when Picquart is ordered to forget Dreyfus that he steps out of military obedience mode and things start to heat up. Dujardin’s stiffly controlled face, so concentrated he seems almost devoid of outward emotion, is still amazingly expressive, and the audience is behind him all the way. One intuits rather than sees the repressed fury with which he puts aside his professed dislike of Jews to follow the truth, though it leads him into major trouble.

Back to the wall, he risks everything to attend a secret meeting of pro-Dreyfus supporters, who include the great novelist Emile Zola, the future prime minister of France Georges Clemenceau, and the editor of the newspaper Aurora. Later, as Picquart is being carted off to prison in a paddy wagon, the streets of Paris are abuzz with Zola’s famous front page article entitled “J’Accuse," exposing the evidence Picquart has gathered that proves Dreyfus’ innocence and points the finger at the massive cover-up of the army generals. But this exhilarating moment is hardly the end of the film — there are still many turnarounds to come, and truth to tell the twists do begin to drag in the last hour.

Standing out of a large cast of supporting actors is a graceful Emmanuelle Seigner as Picquart’s married mistress who, though certainly not central to the story, rounds out his character as the kind of confirmed bachelor who prioritizes work over his private life. Mathieu Amalric is eye-catching as an arrogant graphologist who swears the handwriting on the incriminating bordereau letter is Dreyfus’, when it patently is not.

As the disgraced Jewish captain, Garrel has the most enigmatic role. The bravery he shows before the court is admirable, as is his refusal to die before he can clear his name and his honor. Yet the final confrontation between Dreyfus and Picquart has nothing to do with a happy, self-congratulatory ending, but is more a truce between moral survivors. In the end there is no emotional release to the story’s torment, only a sense that truth and justice have been served, at least this time around.

One of the great pleasures of watching An Officer and a Spy is its masterful technical work, which sweeps the viewer into a packed music hall, a colorful café, down misty cobblestone streets or into the white marble of the Louvre sculpture garden. Polanski’s regular D.P. Pawel Edelman, in tandem with production designer Jean Rabasse, create an oppressive atmosphere that is like stepping inside a dark painting in need of cleaning. At other times, the light-hearted release of Paris’ off-white streets are complemented by composer Alexandre Desplat’s melodies.
 
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Louis Garrel, Emmanuelle Seigner, Gregory Gadebois, Herve Pierre, Wladimir Yordanoff, Didier Sandre, Melvil Poupaud, Eric Ruf, Mathieu Almaric, Laurent Stocker, Vincent Perez Production companies: Legende, R.P. Productions, Eliseo, Rai Cinema in association with Gaumont
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Robert Harris, Roman Polanski, based on Harris’ novel
Producer: Alain Goldman
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Production designer: Jean Rabasse
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Herve Deluze
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Casting director: Michael Laguens
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Playtime
132 minutes