By Steven G. Kellman
The César, France’s equivalent of the Oscar, is presented in a glamorous, eagerly anticipated ceremony. At its 45th annual gala, held in Paris in February, one film led with 12 nominations. An historical drama, J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy, in English) dramatizes the most notorious scandal in modern French history, the Dreyfus Affair. The film itself created another scandal.
Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery captain who was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island for allegedly passing military secrets to the German embassy. Georges Picquart, head of army intelligence, became suspicious of the case and uncovered evidence that Dreyfus had been framed by the actual spy, Major Ferdinand Esterhazy. Courts refused to believe Picquart, who was himself prosecuted for allegedly forging the documents that incriminated Esterhazy. After all, Dreyfus was Jewish, and a Jew’s loyalty to France could not be trusted. When, in an open letter headlined “J’accuse . . . !” (from which the film borrows its title), Emile Zola accused French authorities of a blatant miscarriage of justice, he was forced to flee the country. The Dreyfus Affair divided the nation and inspired effusions of anti-Semitism. Even some who became convinced that Dreyfus was innocent concluded that it was better to imprison an innocent Jew than tarnish the honor of the French military.
The César for best director went to the director of J’accuse. When his name, Roman Polanski, was read out, Adèle Haenel, nominated as best actress for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, stormed out of the Salle Pleyel, followed by her co-star, Noemie Merlant, her director, Céline Sciamma, and others. The nomination of Polanski for the honor had mustered a cluster of protesters outside the theater. Polanski had told an interviewer that: “Activists are threatening me with a public lynching” and did not attend the ceremony.
What angered protesters was the fact that the director had been convicted of statutory rape in California in 1978, before fleeing the United States. He has also been accused of other acts of sexual harassment. Admirers of Polanski’s work can point to a filmography that includes Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Tess, Death and the Maiden, and The Pianist. At issue is the old question of whether it is possible or desirable to separate the artist from the art. Does it matter that Caravaggio was a murderer?
A Holocaust survivor, Polanski has suggested that Dreyfus’s plight resonates with his own life. That life is certainly imperfect, and he should be prosecuted for any crimes he commits. But are his films culpable? Should the cast and crew be penalized for a director’s alleged misdeeds? American distributors have thus far declined to make J’accuse available in the United States, a country more responsive than France to #MeToo. Alberto Barbero, director of the Venice International Film Festival, where Polanski’s film won the Grand Jury Prize, justified its inclusion thus: “We are here to see works of art, not to judge the person behind it.” Americans ought to be allowed to make up their own minds about J’accuse.
Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.