Review: An Officer and a Spy
by Kaleem Aftab
- VENICE 2019: Roman Polanski has made a handsome film about the Dreyfus affair, containing another superb performance from Jean Dujardin as a man determined that the truth will out
Roman Polanski is not even at the Venice Film Festival and he has proven to be the centre of attention. His new film, An Officer and a Spy [+see also:
film profile], about the Dreyfus affair, is playing in Official Competition. When his participation in the competition was announced, it led to complaints. Some feel that Polanski should have pariah status because he fled the USA in 1978, hours before he was due to be sentenced on sex charges. The temperature rose even further when jury chair Lucrecia Martel said that she wouldn't attend the gala screening of the film. There's been so much claim and counter-claim about Polanksi and what happened to him in America that it's hard to know truth from fiction.
Thus, in terms of winning the Golden Lion, it might be a moot point that this is the best film by the Polish-born director in years. Robert Harris, with whom Polanski worked with on the frankly poor The Ghost Writer [+see also:
film profile], has written a superb screenplay, which begins with the sentencing of Dreyfus, before revolving around the investigation that would eventually clear the French captain's name.
Jean Dujardin is arguably having his greatest year on screen. Here, he follows up his brilliant turn as a wannabe filmmaker obsessed with fashion in Deerskin [+see also:
interview: Quentin Dupieux
film profile] with a very different but equally astute performance as Georges Picquart, the head of the military counter-intelligence unit in France at the end of the 19th century. It's a physical performance where he uses his weight to give his newly promoted officer some gravitas. His footsteps are loud when we first see him, but as the film develops, they get lighter and lighter. The sets are immaculate. It's a movie with a classic structure, where the money is on the screen.
Picquart arrives at his new job in counter-intelligence curious about taking a look at the file of Jew Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Louis Garrel). In January 1895, he had been sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, found guilty of selling military secrets to Germany. Picquart soon discovers that the checks and balances in his department are poor and the file used to incriminate Dreyfus is flimsy. Picquart fights to prove the innocence of Dreyfus but discovers that many in the French administration prefer the lie.
The battle of one man against the system is a favourite of filmmakers. In An Officer and a Spy, Picquart comes up against men who want to protect their own reputations, a country that must appear unblemished and an administration that must outwardly appear “holier than thou”. The desire to look untarnished is so strong because the degree of corruption and cronyism is high. Picquart wanders around the offices, through the courtrooms and into the churches, finding that truth is an illusion.
Polanski directs all of this with sure-footedness. The courtroom scenes are particularly impressive. The relationship of the unmarried Picquart with Pauline Monnier, who is married to a high-ranking state official, provides high stakes without overpowering the main story. Polanski is well versed in how tales of private lives and personal indiscretions can be turned into evidence against someone's reputation. It's used particularly effectively here to show how a popular spy tactic is blackmail. Garrel gives a mature performance as Dreyfus, even though he remains largely in the background.
It's a well-told film that occasionally gets bogged down by a sense of its own importance, but it's well made, and Dujardin is magnificent.
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