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Venice 2019: Roman Polanski's J’Accuse

For a minute this morning, I was worried that I would be the first person on the Priority Press line for the new Roman Polanski movie. That wouldn’t look good, maybe.

The competitive inclusion of “J’Accuse,” which is the title as it appears on the film itself (subtitles give the perhaps overly optimistic English-language title, “A Gentleman and A Spy”), has fueled controversy. Polanski, as is well known by now, is a fugitive from American justice on a rape case in the United States from the 1970s. While he has not been charged with any crimes since then, recent years have seen accusations of criminal and unprofessional behavior. While Polanski was awarded a Best Director Oscar for 2003’s “The Pianist,” it was under a cloud of disapprobation, one that has only grown since. To the extent that his last film, 2017’s “Based on a True Story,” was picked up for U.S. distribution and then…not given U.S. distribution.

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The cultural disapproval of Polanski, then, has been deemed, at least in the U.S., a stronger force for any market in Polanski movies. He’s not a stupid man; he knows what time it is in some respects. His last three films, including the new one, have all been international co-productions in the French language. (One of them was an adaptation of an English-language play, David Ives’ “Venus In Furs.”) One doubts he’ll ever make another movie in English.

As for this one, at the press conference opening the Biennale, festival director Albert Barbera said, more or less, that Polanski was a bad guy who’d made a good film (surely a first), while jury head Lucrecia Martel said the film has a right to be there, but she wasn’t gonna congratulate the director on it or anything. Kind of made me feel bad about having voluntarily shared an elevator with Polanski in 2007. (Don’t worry, it was in Europe, he wasn’t sneaking into New York or anything.)

So yes, then, to have been the first in line to see “J’Accuse” this morning might have looked…unseemly. But I can explain. This is my fifth year at the fantastic Biennale. At the invitation of the estimable Peter Cowie, I’ve been participating in a panel assessing the Biennale College films. I’ll be writing about the program and this year’s films early next week. Since I’ve been coming, I and my fellow panelists have been put up in a hotel near the Venice Lido main drag. Which in the last year has been transformed, apparently, into a Super Deluxe lodging that can no longer accommodate a Motley Crew of film critics.

So we have been relocated at a hotel a little more off the beaten path, one in the oldest neighborhood of the Lido. Quiet enough to write “Death In Venice” in, even though it’s several clicks directly south of the Hotel Des Bains. There’s a shuttle from here to the Palazzo of Cinema, but it only gets off at 8:30, just as the First Hot Screening of the day is beginning.

That being the case, today, my first full day at the festival, I decided to get an early start and get the lay of the land. I did not walk fifty minutes; rather, I tried the municipal bus, which got me to the festival grounds in fifteen minutes. Plenty of time to get a croissant, espresso, and get to the line.

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Happily, I was not first. I was seventh.

The film itself is fantastic. The Dreyfus case, which eventually exposed rank anti-Semitism in the French army and government at the turn of the nineteenth century, has long been a passion project for Polanski. Such things sometimes don’t work out, but in this case it has. He and co-screenwriter Robert Harris look at the case from a perspective that hasn’t been common in cinematic treatments of the past. Not only is this not “The Story of Emile Zola,” but Zola doesn’t even show up until 96 minutes or so into this 126-minute film.

Rather, this takes the perspective of officer Georges Picquart, who looked on while Dreyfus was condemned and then, after taking over a section of the Army’s intelligence division, learned how egregiously Dreyfus had been framed. The twist here is that Picquart was personally anti-Semitic, and personally disliked Dreyfus for that reason. In the movie’s opening scenes, when the superb Jean Dujardin, as Picquart, reports to his superiors about watching Dreyfus stripped of the buttons on his uniform as part of his sentences’ “degradation,” he says it was like the Army was being stripped of “a pestilence.”

But Picquart is, outside of that grotesque prejudice, a man of honor, a believer in the truth. Once he discovers it he won’t back down. It will mean ruin to him in many respects.

Polanski came to understood anti-Semitism very well, well before he became a criminal. Telling the story through the lens of Picquart’s experience allows him to draw analogies, and also limn the differences, between personal anti-Semitism and the institutional kind. “J’Accuse” does this very precisely while also handling a suspense narrative with Hitchcockian discipline and style. The proceedings are enlivened by a superb cast; aside from Dujardin, there’s a very low key Louis Garrel as Dreyfus, Emmanuelle Seigner as Picquart’s married mistress, Mathieu Amalric as a frazzled handwriting expert, and more. The fellows playing corrupt French generals look like they could have stepped out of Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.” And in case you were curious as to what Polanski thinks about what other people think of him, he contributes a rather cheeky cameo here, as an attendee of a musical recital.

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The jazz pianist Carla Bley said of Count Basie that he was “the final arbiter of how to play two notes; the distance between them and the volume of them is perfect. I can’t hold myself to that standard, but I can appreciate it.” When he’s really on his game, as he is here, Polanski can be said to be the final arbiter of how to compose a film frame, how to choreograph what moves within it, how to move the frame itself, when to go to another shot. In addition to that, “J’Accuse” has something very real and urgent to say about the world we live in today. It’s kind of a shame you’ll probably never get to see it.            

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