The Dreyfus Affair is chronicled as a turn of the century espionage thriller worthy of le Carré in Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy. There was a good chance that his film could have been withdrawn after the jury head Lucrecia Martel shared her dissatisfaction at the film being included in the competition.
The film itself is utterly uncontroversial, solid, occasionally stolid, and perfectly fine. Of course, the alignment of the persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and his popular vilification invite parallels with Polanski’s own case, a point the Polish director himself makes in an interview in the press materials. We open on an overcast day in Paris with Dreyfus (played by an unrecognisable Louis Garrel) being stripped of his arms and disgraced before the army, before being led away and into exile on Devil’s Island.
One approving witness to his shame is his ex-teacher from the military academy Colonel Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), who expresses the same thoughtless anti-Semitism as his fellow soldiers. However, when he is promoted to the head of the French Secret Service, he also finds himself looking into the possibility that Dreyfus might have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
The headquarters of the ‘Office of Statistics’, as the service is euphemistically known, is a rundown villa full of mud-coloured offices where personal fiefdoms are jealously protected to the whiff of the badly maintained sewers. Georges is a modern Frenchman whose sense of honour and obvious distaste for the murkier aspects of espionage adding to a reformist zeal which soon sets him on a collision course with his superiors, who are themselves implicated by Georges’ revelations. Incidentally, he also sports a moustache that’s somewhat Clousseau-like along, with a pompous seriousness that likewise is reminiscent of that other French detective, but Dujardin’s charisma carries the role off.
The second half of An Officer and a Spy opens up to the public reaction, Dreyfus’ own plight – which is often told in sepia-tinged flashbacks – and a series of court cases. It’s a fascinating moment in French history and the sight of books being burned and anti-Semitic graffiti draws obvious parallels with more recent history. Polanski’s latest also stands as a sobering warning for what society looks like when in the grip of its own enthusiastic hatred.
Garrel renders Dreyfus a priggish, dislikeable man who nevertheless maintains his dignity in the midst of grave injustice, but the focus remains on those fighting for his freedom and our own rigorous detective who soon finds his career and life threatened by his pursuance of the case. Robert Harris, adapting his own book with Polanski, keeps the pace up and doesn’t allow the more complicated aspects of the case to get in the way of the drive of the story. This is the kind of film you can imagine watching on a rainy afternoon in a history class, and as such it perfectly fulfils its function.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty