L’affaire Dreyfus et L’affaire Polanski
Editor’s Note: Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy has not been released in any major English-speaking market. However, the film has been released on Blu-ray in some European countries. The Italian edition has three subtitled versions in French, Italian, English on offer. There are no known plans to release the film or for it to screen at any film festival in Australia. The film is apparently also starting to appear on various so-called 'back channel' sites.
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After 42 years avoiding extradition, world cinema’s most famous fugitive director may well have made his most controversial film.
Not for its subject matter – although that is undeniably the case in France – but because he is now #MeToo Roman Polanski (or in France #DenounceYourPig) while still being feted by many in the international industry.
Some months ago, American journalist and author John R MacArthur received an invitation to a “secret screening” of Polanski’s latest, An Officer and a Spy.
“I boarded public transportation to a clandestine destination, somewhere in England…I looked over my shoulder several times to see if anyone was watching me…My emotional reflexes still echo the trip I took to Prague in 1983 to meet dissident writers during which I was followed. But why all the cloak-and-dagger dramatics now? Why can’t I reveal where I went?”
An Officer and a Spyis the third collaboration between novelist Robert Harris and Roman Polanski and tells of the Dreyfus Affair, one of French history’s most notorious political scandals.
First footage from the film was screened at a special “buyer’s” event at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Unnamed distributors from the USA ignored the screening. “No interest”. “It’s just not possible to release the film in the US right now”. But Howard Cohen of Roadside Attractions did say: “People have been releasing his films for years. Now, we are looking at it through a different lens, with good reason. We have to search our souls if it’s the right thing to do.”
This didn’t stop distributers in Japan, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Israel, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland, all of whom stumped up for deals with the Paris-based sales company Playtime. Missing, however, are the English-speaking markets.
The film then premiered in September at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. The President of the Jury, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga; Zama) said:
“I don’t separate the man from the art. I think that important aspects of the work emerge in the man…a man who commits a crime of this size who is then condemned, and the victim considers herself satisfied with the compensation is difficult for me to judge. It is difficult to define what is the right approach we have to take with people who have committed certain acts and were judged for them. I think these questions are part of the debate in our times.”
Martel also publicly announced she would not attend a Festival gala dinner to celebrate the film so as to avoid offending victims of sexual assault. The producers countered by threatening to withdraw An Officer and a Spy from the festival. Martel again:
“According to some reports after today’s press conference, I believe my words were deeply misunderstood. Since I don’t separate the work from the author and I have recognized a lot of humanity in Polanski’s previous films, I am not opposed to the presence of the film in the competition. I don’t have any prejudice towards it…If I had any prejudice, I would have resigned my duty as president of the jury.”
The film won the Grand Jury Prize (Silver Lion), Venice’s second most prestigious accolade.
Five days before the French theatrical release last November, the actress-model-photographer Valentine Monnier accused Polanski in Le Parisienof violently raping her at the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad in 1975. Apparently Le Parisien confirmed the incident with Monnier’s boyfriend at the time as well as a close friend and family members.
(There have been at least five other accusations: Polanski’s conviction for “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor”, 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in 1977; a British actress Charlotte Lewis who accused Polanski of sexually abusing her in 1983 when she was 16; a woman known only as “Robin M” who alleges rape when she was 16 in 1973; actress Renate Langer who alleges he raped her twice in 1972 when she was 15 years-old; and artist Marianne Barnard who says she was sexually abused by Polanski as a 10-year-old in 1972).
France’s Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa declared she would not see the film, as did President Macron’s spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye. The Culture Minister declared a work of art “does not excuse the possible mistakes of its author. Talent is not a mitigating circumstance; genius, not a guarantee of impunity.”
On the first weekend in France, 386,000 tickets were sold on 545 screens. Protesters invaded or blocked cinemas and the film was cancelled in some venues. To date, the film has grossed nearly $US12 million in France.
Next came the César nominations. An Officer and a Spy received 12 of them in virtually every eligible category. The Hollywood Reporterquoted an open letter to the French press: “12 César nominations for Roman Polanski’s J’Accuse [the French title]. 12, like the number of women who accuse him of pedo-criminal rape.”
Polanski decided not to attend the César awards ceremony, releasing a statement that read, in part: “We know how this evening will unfold already. Activists are already threatening me with a public lynching, with some saying they are going to protest outside.”
An Officer and a Spywon three Césars for Best Adaptation, Best Costume Design and Best Director. Nobody accepted the award for Polanski. Few clapped the announcement and writer-director Celine Sciamma and actress Adéle Haenel (who has accused director Christophe Ruggia of abusing her as a 12-year-old) reportedly “walked out in disgust”.
Organisers of the Césars, the Académy des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma, came under fire for the nominations and awards to Polanski and for a letter in Le Monde from 400 filmmakers calling the Académy’s leadership dysfunctional and “a vestige of an era we would like to be over, that of an elitist and closed system.”
In response, the Académy’s entire Board of Directors resigned.
But back to where we left John R MacArthur in The Spectator,attending his “secret screening” of the film in the UK:
“…in the darkened screening room, I got a sample of the contraband. I know the Dreyfus story well, especially from Robert Harris’s historically accurate novel on which the film is based. I wondered how Polanski could improve on Harris’s excellent work, although I realise that novels and films are different species of storytelling. From the breathtaking opening scene…you know that a talented director can do certain things with actors and a camera that we scriveners can’t achieve in words...
…An Officer and a Spy is untouchable in the Anglo-Saxon world. For now, it seems quite likely that the movie will not be shown in the United Kingdom, either in movie theatres or on television. Nor will it illuminate screens in the United States. Polanski, in the parlance of Twitter culture, has been cancelled…”
An Officer and a Spy has been released in 22 countries. Not one of them is English-speaking.