Roman Polanski has absolutely no intention of asking you to separate the art from the artist. His “Officer and a Spy” — a peevish and self-satisfied procedural that unravels the Dreyfus Affair with all the journalistic doggedness of “Spotlight,” but none of the same integrity — seems determined to remind viewers that it was directed by cinema’s most storied rapist.
The film’s more damning and transparent moments are as nakedly autobiographical as anything Polanski has ever made, as the story’s hero — a reformed anti-Semite fueled by the guilt he carries after condemning an innocent Jewish man to Devil’s Island — arrives in court to ridicule the whole of French society for rushing to judgment and ruining someone’s life. Of course, it might be more accurate to contextualize these scenes as the stuff of unfettered wish fulfillment, as Polanski has no claim on total innocence, and he rather famously neglected to stick around for his own trial.
If nothing else, “An Officer and a Spy” leaves you with the sense that its director might agree with that assessment. While the vast majority of the movie is too defensive and didactic to feel like anything more than a limp retort, its bittersweet final stretch is inflected with some welcome notes of regret. Yes, this is a story of groupthink, and of mob justice, and of a society that prizes the illusion of justice over justice itself. But it’s also a story about someone who had the courage of his convictions, the tenacity to challenge a flawed system, and the faith that his truth would eventually prevail.
In the press notes distributed before the film’s premiere, Polanski himself compared his personal experience to the Dreyfus Affair, saying that “I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done… My work is not therapy. However, I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me.” That may be the case, but he’s clearly unfamiliar with the apparatus of defense required to overturn public opinion. To that end, it’s telling that “An Officer and a Spy” only feels like an honest and well-shaded diagnosis of injustice when it pivots from an obvious missive to a hesitant mea culpa.
From start to finish, however, it’s easily the most robust movie that Polanski has made since “The Ghost Writer.” While the script he co-wrote with Robert Harris is largely confined to stuffy military offices, exquisite production design helps to sustain the impressive scale that’s evident from the very first shots. “An Officer and a Spy” opens in 1895, after the verdict of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’ first trial has already been rendered. Played by a wiry blond Louis Garrel (unrecognizable beneath a mess of sharp angles and a spiked mustache), Dreyfus is dragged out before the entire French army and convicted of treason. Judging by the hateful scuttlebutt we hear from the officers gathered at the scene, it seems more likely that he’s been convicted of being a Jew. Polanski, of course, has a keen understanding of how societies tend to reject outsiders like an immune system resisting a foreign body, though very ungenerous viewers might conclude that he’s trying to blame anti-Semitism for his treatment in Hollywood.
Anyway, Dreyfus is subject to “military degradation,” which is essentially the 19th Century version of being canceled, and he’s banished to Devil’s Island. Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), the army’s youngest colonel — and Dreyfus’ former teacher — is happy enough at the result that he facilitated. He’s even promoted to the head of the army’s intelligence division as a reward for his hard work. But it’s not long after the scrupulous and efficient Picquart assumes his new post (and begins reading intercepted letters from private citizens) that he realizes the real double agent is still at large. While the film repeatedly laughs at the primitive tools of its time, and maintains an unspoken belief the more sophisticated tools of the future will always embarrass the certainty that people maintained in their present (Mathieu Amalric provides light comic relief as a handwriting expert and amateur phrenologist), much of “An Officer and a Spy” has the moldy whiff of “C.S.I.: Belle Époque.”
It doesn’t help that Picquart is portrayed as a dull choirboy with a stiff upper lip; a garden-variety anti-Semite whose prejudices melt away the moment he realizes that Dreyfus is an innocent man. Dujardin’s sedate and cloistered performance makes you wish that we got to spend more time with his character outside the office — at least until a profoundly half-baked romantic subplot between Picquart and a married woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) makes you eager for Polanski to get back on track.
The long and harried process through which Picquart exposes the truth is a chore to watch, as Polanski muddles the action with sleepy flashbacks that do little to complicate the moment at hand. A murderer’s row of strong French actors are wasted on the one-note military characters who Picquart is forced to convince, elude, and/or betray. The system is rotten and self-interested, a point that Polanski belabors for 126 rotten, self-interested minutes. His direction — more fussy in detail than composition — pushes the film along at a fast clip that has little time to do anything but gawk at the cartoonish sycophancy that it sees out the window as it speeds toward vindication.
Picquart may be more of a reformed villain than a genuine hero, but he feels like a saint when contrasted against all the high-powered sheep who would rather he just go away (eventually banished to Africa, Picquart returns to France to claim his justice). It’s only when Picquart manages to collect some allies, including the writer Emile Zola, that his righteousness is at all diluted. That feeling tends to fade during the almost Capra-esque courtroom scenes that dominate the final act, but it returns again for a curious denouement in which Picquart and Dreyfus are finally reunited. In a better film about the Dreyfus Affair — a film that was more interested in the primacy of innocence than the presumption of guilt — there’s a chance this coda might have been moving. Of course, “An Officer and a Spy” isn’t really a film about the Dreyfus Affair at all.
“An Officer and a Spy” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.