J'Accuse, Me Too: France And The Polanski Morality Play
New sexual assault accusations surfaced in France before the release of Roman Polanski's new film (titled 'J'Accuse' in French) about the Dreyfus affair of a false accusation against a French-Jewish army officer. Who is accusing who here?
PARIS — So, do I go see An Officer and A Spy? This is the kind of question friends might ask each other based on whether a film is good or not. But in this case it's about whether doing so is "moral" given that over the past 40 years, the film's director, Roman Polanski, has been accused of sexual abuse by six different women.
Just five days before the release of the film, called J'accuse in French, a former photographer named Valentine Monnier told the daily Le Parisien that in 1975, Polanski beat and raped her at his Swiss chalet. She was 18 at the time. Polanski denies the events in question, events that, if they're true, occurred two years before he drugged, raped and sodomized Samantha Geimer, a 13-year-old girl in California.
All of this brings up the classic argument about distinguishing the man from the artist. There is a crazy amount of literature on this question, which is as old as art itself. In France, the land of creative freedom, artwork has an aura that makes it feel separate, provided of course that it's allowed, which is the case for Polanski's film. In other words, it's up to everyone individually to decide what they want to do with the artist's work.
But now, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, accusations made by French actress Adèle Haenel, and those of Valentine Monnier, that line between artist and man is blurrier than ever.
Roman Polanski at the 70th International Cannes Film Festival — Photo: Degun-Paoli/ZUMA
Polanski, who continues to be a fugitive from justice in the United States, is a case in point. In 2002, his film The Pianist — truly a masterpiece — received the Palme d'Or in Cannes. It also won Oscars. Since then, though, things have shifted: His work isn't censored, but it's not being celebrated as much either.
In 2017, for example, uproar over Polanski's invitation to preside over the César awards ceremony forced the filmmaker to eventually back out. The following year he was expelled from Hollywood's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Pressure has mounted another notch with the release of An Officer and A Spy, the promotion of which was chaotic to say the least. On Nov. 12, a group of about 40 women managed to cancel a screening at the Le Champo cinema in Paris. "Polanski is a rapist," they shouted. "The cinema is guilty. The public is an accomplice."
Who is making the accusation: Zola or Polanski?
Their argument is that when it comes to Polanski, everyone in the entire film chain is guilty — from the producer and actors, to the audience. "Purchasing a seat to see An Officer and A Spy is a criminal act," says feminist activist Chloé Madesta. Laurence Rossignol, a senator with the Socialist Party, agrees. And Marlene Schiappa, France's state secretary for gender equality, insisted she wouldn't see the film.
The hashtag #boycottpolanski, in the meantime, has been trending on social media. But Coralie Miller, a spokeswoman for the organization "Osez le féminisme!" and someone on the forefront of the fight against Polanski, calls the film "necessary."
The subject of An Officer and A Spy is the Dreyfus affair, making the line between the man and the artist even more difficult to distinguish. And if Valentine Monnier has broken 40 years of silence, it's because the film's theme and French title — J'accuse ("I accuse"), also the title of an open letter penned in 1898 by writer Émile Zola — is something she just can't stomach. Who, she wants to know, is the person making the accusations? Is it Zola or Polanski?
Samantha Geimer, Polanski's sexual assault victim, at Los Angeles Superior Court on June 9, 2017. — Photo: Paul Buck/ZUMA
"Is this acceptable, under the pretext of a film with a historical subject, to hear the words "I accuse" from the person who branded you with a hot iron, while you, the victim, are forbidden from accusing him?" she asked in her Le Parisien interview.
Adding to the controversy is the way Polanski, in promoting the film, drew a parallel between the tragic fate of Dreyfus and his own story. The filmmaker recalled that he was a child survivor of the Krakow ghetto, that his mother died at Auschwitz, that his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 and that he was suspected of being involved.
But then, during a promotional appearance in Venice, answering questions from French novelist and essayist Pascal Bruckner, he made a mistake. "As a Jew chased during the war and a filmmaker persecuted by the Stalinists in Poland, will you survive today's neo-feminist McCarthyism?" Bruckner asked.
"Working, making a film like this helps me a lot," Polanski answered. "I sometimes think of moments I myself have experienced. I see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I did not do."
The public doesn't like being told what to think.
Later, promoting the film in France, Polanski tried to backtrack. But the damage was done: He'd already admitted, it seems, what many accuse him of doing: donning Dreyfus's coat to answer the rape charges.
And it's too bad, because An Officer and A Spy is a carefully crafted film, an excellent film even, and delivers a valuable message regarding anti-Semitism, which was strong at the turn of the century and is again on the rise in France today. It's one of the most political works we've seen for a long time and should be shown in the schools of France, and yet all of that is compromised in part because of who Polanski is and how he's handled himself.
Audiences, of course, can make up their own mind about the film, and based on ticket sales, reception has been positive. Some 55,000 people turned out out to see An Officer and A Spy on Nov. 13, its first day in theaters. It was Polanski's best opening day since Pirates, in 1986, and better than The Pianist.
No doubt the film's powerful subject is part of the reason why. The public surely doesn't see Polanski as a saint. But it also doesn't like being told what to do or think, and that's good news.