Roman Polanski retraces the Dreyfus affair in an ambiguous and powerful film.
Review originally published in Première n°501, released on October 30, 2019.
France 2 will program Sunday evening, for the first time in light, I accuseof Roman Polansky. A historical film carried by Jean Dujardin, Louis Garrel And Emmanuelle Seignerwhich had led to a scandal during the Césars the following year, when the filmmaker accused of rape had been awarded the prize for best director.
César 2020: the Polanski malaise
Where is Roman Polanski hiding in I accusee ? What echoes of his own ” affair “ do we hear in his account of the Dreyfus affair? We would like to be able to watch this film avoiding risky parallels, “separating the man from the artist” (as the saying goes). But the task is made difficult by the press kit, in which Pascal Bruckner, interviewing Polanski, allows himself a lamentable comparison between the Nazi and then Stalinist persecutions suffered by the filmmaker in the past and the neo-feminist McCarthyism (sic) who “chases around the world” Today. In response, Polanski says he knows some of the “cogs in the system of persecution” who were at work in the Dreyfus affair.
If we wanted to see I accuse without the author’s face being superimposed on the images, it’s a failure. Especially since Polanski himself appears without warning at the heart of the film, via a Hitchcockian cameo, a striking signature effect: appearing for the blink of an eye in an anti-Dreyfusard salon where we sip champagne, the looking satisfied and sated, dressed as an academician. Is it a movie costume, by the way, or his own habit as a member of the Academy of Fine Arts? The plan works in any case as a reminder of the first scene (brilliant) of the film, the degradation of Dreyfus, where the soldier accused of treason sees his insignia of officer removed in the courtyard of the Military School. The sky is threatening, but the humiliated man holds his head high. It’s impossible not to think about the fact that Polanski was recently fired from the Academy Awards – a decision he is challenging in court. Definitely, no, we don’t get out of it…
BACK TO EFFICIENCY
However, Polanski, who has never been very inclined to look for traces of his life in his work (the rest of the world takes care of that for him), does not focus so much on I accuse on Dreyfus (Louis Garrel), the Jewish scapegoat condemned by the blind crowd, than on Picquart, the lieutenant-colonel who denounced the plot and helped bring the truth to light. A fascinating, gruff and obstinate character, portrayed in a very powerful way by a massive Jean Dujardin, with drawn features, a worthy descendant of JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) of Chinatown. In an exceptional setting, where Polanski’s cinema regains an efficiency lost since The Ghost Writer, we are in a delectable detective film, supremely Polanskian: a man, guided by his conscience, evolves in a rotten, sick universe, reeking of the sewers, where state plots are cobbled together in dark and stinking corridors. Pawel Edelman’s photo assumes a form of aggressive ugliness, criss-crossing a metallic, cold, bad world. A dying world.
It skates a little more in the second part, when we move on to another genre (the trial film) and the parade of mustachioed supporting roles accelerated by well-known actors (Melvil Poupaud, Denis Podalydès, Vincent Perez.. .). The director and his co-screenwriter, Robert Harris, have a considerable amount of information to brew here, and don’t quite escape the stiffness of historical re-enactment. J’accuse seems torn between the two faces of Polanski’s cinema: devious and twisted on one side, more academic and mainstream on the other. But even in its hollow moments, the film is innervated by such acerbic and cutting vision of human nature that the interest never wanes. It ends with the least comforting conclusion possible, a false happy ending devoured by bitterness. A good Polanski film, as we know, is a labyrinth in which our mind remains prisoner. This one is full of pitfalls and gray areas, and we are far from having found the key.
The exclusion of Roman Polanski from the Oscars is confirmed by justice