Amid César Award win and #MeToo backlash, an analysis of Roman Polanski's An Officer and a Spy

MK Raghavendra

Mar 16, 2020 09:34:59 IST

Roman Polanski’s latest offering An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse) has created a controversy of sorts although not so much for its content as for Polanski’s own past sexual misconduct for which he has evaded punishment in the US, since he has dual French and Polish citizenship. Polanski has been accused of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl since the 1970s and another actress also spoke out recently with a #MeToo allegation against him. What was particularly galling to many people was that Polanski’s film received 12 César Award nominations, the César being the French Oscar. He won the Best Director César and this prompted a walk-out by various attendees including actress Adèle Haenel, who had herself spoken of being molested by a director when she was still a minor. As a director Polanski rarely disappoints, and An Officer and a Spy is easily one of the best international films of the last year. It is certainly a better film than the one that won the Best Film César — Les Misérables by Ladj Ly. Polanski and his crew boycotted the Césars since, as Polanski said, they feared a public lynching.

An Officer and a Spy is a painstaking retelling of the Dreyfus affair, impeccable in its recreation of period detail and acting, and invaluable for its political insights. To readers who are not conversant, the events of the Dreyfus affair revolved around a Jewish officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, tried for espionage in 1894, sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, and incarcerated on Devil’s Island in French Guyana, where he spent nearly five years. A key investigator involved in Dreyfus’s conviction was Georges Picquart,, who was quickly made head of counter-espionage thereafter. In the film, Dreyfus (Louis Garrel) accuses Picquart (Jean Dujardin) of being anti-Semitic and the latter admits it, also adding that it would nonetheless not make the smallest difference to his treatment of Dreyfus, since that would need to be completely fair. Dreyfus was convicted of treason primarily on the testimony of a handwriting expert Bertillon (Mathieu Amalric) and, as head of counter-espionage, Picquart discovers that the traitor was actually another officer named Esterhazy and that Dreyfus was innocent. A key factor in the Dreyfus affair was the involvement of French literary giant Emile Zola who, when he discovered the miscarriage of justice that Dreyfus had been the victim of, wrote extensively in the press, and it was the pressure thus brought upon the government that saw Dreyfus’s final acquittal and reinstatement.

 Amid César Award win and #MeToo backlash, an analysis of Roman Polanskis An Officer and a Spy

Still from An Officer and a Spy

What makes An Officer and a Spy a marvellous film is the way it brings history to life, emphasising the way the military was placed above justice for ‘patriotic’ reasons, erring generals being let off lightly by the judges when they gave false testimony, not even being severely cross-examined for the discrepancies in their statements. But Picquart and Zola are themselves found guilty and sentenced, the former of forging a note and the latter of criminal libel, although both are eventually acquitted along with Dreyfus. The story of the film does not bear retelling since it is true to familiar history, but a major factor making it an important cinematic work is its structuring. The Dreyfus story is well-known and telling it in linear fashion would be counterproductive – implying suspense when there can be none.

The film therefore begins with Dreyfus’s humiliation and then goes on to Georges Picqart discovering the cover-up and acting to get Dreyfus justice, when the military only wants the matter closed; Zola, who was a key figure in history, gets only a small role in the film. When the government falls and Picquart becomes War Minister under Clemenceau, the reinstated Dreyfus visits him and demands that his period of incarceration be treated as ‘service’, and that he be given the promotion due to him; Dreyfus does not seem grateful that the man he is speaking to exerted himself to prove his innocence. This is an ironic ending reiterating that the reasons for Picquart’s dislike of Dreyfus remain. The fact that Dreyfus’s ways were irksome cannot mean that he does not deserve justice, is its apparent purport.

Roman Polanski is generally considered an unpleasant person in real life and, given his short stature, a detractor once remarked that he was ‘the original five-foot Pole you wouldn’t want to touch anything with!’ I suspect that Polanski is implying his own story alongside Dreyfus’s in An Officer and a Spy. The primary meaning of the film pertains to justice being denied to someone for ‘reasons of state’ and the fact that the military is held unimpeachable in times of great enmity between neighbours (France and Germany here) finds parallels in many other situations, some familiar to us. It is as though acts inexcusable at other times suddenly become acceptable in times of military tension. As an instance, Indian audiences took the wife’s murder of innocents in her household in Raazi as justified by anti-Pakistani patriotism. The secondary meaning of An Officer and a Spy is the parallel Polanski is drawing between Dreyfus and himself.

An Officer and a Spy shows us how, in times of crisis, the public loses its capacity for judgment and supports ridiculous propositions violently

An Officer and a Spy shows us how, in times of crisis, the public loses its capacity for judgment and supports ridiculous propositions violently

Polanski has not submitted to justice in the US for statutory rape and he perhaps has little faith in it. He is implying in the film that justice is largely influenced by the attitude of the unthinking majority, which is not impartial or reasonable. One could take it that he sees correspondence in his own life although we need not share his sense of personal innocence - since he has consistently evaded prosecution. An Officer and a Spy shows us how, in times of crisis, the public loses its capacity for judgment and supports ridiculous propositions violently. I propose that the response to Polanski’s film winning an award points to the same kind of unthinking public mindset. It is not that sexual misconduct is not a serious crime deserving fitting punishment, but being the perpetrator of such a crime cannot undo someone’s contribution in an important field of endeavour like science or culture. What a key scientist or a cultural figure produces does not simply advance his or her career, but can be termed an advance for humankind as a whole.  What generally happens, however, is that those with limited understanding of the contribution take comfort in not engaging. An instance would be the way some people have responded to Pablo Picasso after his sexual misconduct became publicised. Modern art is unimaginable without Picasso but some people are inclined to annul his work in the field, as though it did not matter. To draw a parallel, if it became known that Albert Einstein had engaged in similar improprieties, would humankind (in the interests of ‘political correctness’) collectively go back to Newtonian physics? Or, if a religious leader of the past is similarly known to have engaged in misconduct by today’s standards, would the religion be globally proscribed?

Political correctness is the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalise, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against and is unexceptionable on these terms; but it has become a kind of creed with the liberal public, perhaps comforted by the small intellectual demands it makes. Radical thought is part of political philosophy and not easy to comprehend for the lay person but ‘political correctness’ is trivial in its pronouncements, helping a large section of the lay public bask in the sense that it is radically-motivated. My own disquiet with ‘political correctness’ stems from how it is reduced to personal opinion and its articulation. If it rails against public evils, it is not the much greater evils perpetrated by nation-states where political correctness thrives as a notion that it is against. When depleted uranium shells are dropped on civilian populations in Iraq — contaminating the milieu for centuries — most liberals in the West do not even flinch. Judged in this light, ‘political correctness’ is perhaps a kind of flimsy distraction from truly radical thought and action.  To conclude, Roman Polanski may deserve punishment for his doings but as cinema, An Officer and a Spy cannot be justly dismissed. Polanski himself, even if convicted, will always find a place in film history, since it would be incomplete without him.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

Updated Date: Mar 17, 2020 10:46:14 IST

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