At the fag end of the nineteenth century, the Dreyfus Affair – think Watergate to the power of Profumo – plunged France into chaos. On a smaller scale, Roman Polanski’s French-language thriller about this historic stitch-up is having pretty much the same effect at the Venice Film Festival. Whether Polanski, still facing charges in America for having unlawful sex with a minor in the ’70s, should be making films – let alone films as self-reflexive as ‘An Officer and a Spy’ – is a question that’s troubled some jury members here. It will continue to raise the temperature on social media until the day he stops doing it. Making a movie about an innocent Jewish man persecuted in the court of public opinion probably won’t lower it anytime soon.
But whatever your views on the man, as a filmmaker he remains an absolute master of his craft. ‘An Officer and a Spy’ is an immaculate piece of period storytelling. It’s going too far to say that it looks like an Auguste Renoir painting and plays like a Jean Renoir movie – but not by much. Each frame is filled with painterly detail; each performance is distinctive. A revitalised Jean Dujardin hogs the limelight as a military investigator, Georges Picquart, forced to chose between his ambition and his humanity, while Louis Garrel (‘Redoubtable’) is impactful in snatches of screentime as the initially cocksure Dreyfus who’s broken by the French army for the crime of being Jewish.
There’s a plethora of engaging supporting turns, too, not least from Emmanuelle Seigner as Picquart’s mercurial mistress and Mathieu Amalric as a handwriting expert who speaks in the anti-Semitic tropes of a Twitter troll. Polanski has always been a fine director of actors and he keeps his French cast marching to the film’s steady but unhurried beat. The tone is weighty but peppered with nicely judged comic moments, most coming from Amalric.
Based on a book by Robert Harris (who also wrote another Polanski thriller, ‘The Ghost’) and co-written by the author himself, ‘An Officer and a Spy’ restructures the novel into cleverly delineated episodes that span the five years after Dreyfus’s espionage charges in 1894. Its stately opening shot captures his forlorn march across the cobbles of Paris’s École Militaire to face trumped-up charges of selling military secrets to the Germans. He’s innocent, as he loudly proclaims to the watching crowds, but because he’s a Jew in an anti-Semitic organisation, it barely matters.
From there, ‘An Officer and a Spy’ becomes a movie of claustrophobic interiors: conspiratorial exchanges in dust-moted chambers, hushed stakeouts in apartments and outrage in packed courtrooms. Its sense of authenticity is spellbinding. Polanski makes hay with the run-down army intelligence HQ that Picquart is soon sent to head up, and where he finds a Dickensian bunch of ne’er-do-wells, mostly about as reliable as his broken office window. In a witty aside, he learns of their differing approaches to mail tampering. Soon he’s sniffing out the general air of moral lassitude and realising that all is not what it seems with the evidence on the now-mothballed Dreyfus case.
What follows for Picquart – complete with eavesdropping, surveillance and some crafty off-the-grid snooping – sparks a crisis of conscience that Dujardin charts in subtle increments. There’s no sudden epiphany for a man who, we learn early on, counts himself as an anti-Semite. He’s a product of a system, and this journey to self-awareness is painful and uncertain: for him and us.
Of course, it’s not nearly as painful as the exiled Dreyfus’s experience. In a sudden melodramatic jolt, Polanski throws in a sepia-coloured cutaway of the forgotten man, chained to a bed on his storm-torn outcrop. Is this the director, in self-imposed exile in France, claiming Dreyfus’s victim status for himself? I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that ‘An Officer and a Spy’ is a bigger film than that. It definitely feels like one.