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In late February 1895, the French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus found himself at sea. Several weeks earlier, a military court had found him guilty of treason. Soldiers marched him into the courtyard of the military college, stripped his officer ribbons, and snapped his sword while cries of “Death to the Jew” swept the crowd. He was then shipped for life to Devil’s Island—thus the sea voyage—where he was condemned to solitary imprisonment for life.
Now, 125 years later, the film that boasts the most nominations for the Césars—the French equivalent of the Oscars—including Best Picture and Best Director, is J’accuse, a retelling of the Dreyfus affair. And the movie has ignited a new affaire involving yet another French Jew—the film’s director, Roman Polanski.
Since 1978, when he fled the United States while on trial for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, Polanski has been a fugitive from American justice. During those four decades, Polanski has continued to direct movies—several of them critically esteemed. He has also continued to deny accusations of sexual assault made by a growing number of women. A few months ago, the photographer Valentine Monnier became his sixth accuser, declaring that Polanski had raped her during a ski trip in 1975.
Monnier’s bombshell tested the adage that there is no bad publicity. When J’accuse opened in Paris last November, feminist groups staged protests outside box offices. Though they tried to dissuade theatergoers from buying tickets, they mostly failed. J’accuse quickly became not just a critical but also a commercial success. Just three years earlier, in 2017, similar protests from women’s groups had forced Polanski to retire from the César ceremonies he was listed to host. But the awards are scheduled for this Friday, February 28, and Polanski’s name and film remain on the invitation list. His presence there raises the perennial problem of the relationship between aesthetics and ethics.
There are those who, in principle, agree with T. S. Eliot’s claim that “a work of art is autonomous.” Once a painting or poem, statue or story, is wrought, its creator, regardless of politics or personality, is for naught. The creation stands in splendid isolation from the creator, to be judged on its own merits. Then there are those who, aware of how Eliot’s bigotry bled into his poetry, reject his distinction between art and artists. Finally, there are those—the majority, one suspects—who continue to read and admire Eliot, all the while wondering if they should be reading and admiring him.
In France, a similar confusion reigns over Louis-Ferdinand Céline, author of one of the twentieth century’s towering works of fiction, Journey to the End of the Night. Yet Céline also happens to be the author of Trifles for a Massacre, one of the same century’s terrifying works of anti-Semitism. (Two years ago, when the prestigious publisher Gallimard announced plans to reprint the latter work along with two other equally vile tracts by Céline, widespread criticism forced the publisher to reverse gears.) Yet Céline’s calls for the genocide of French Jewry have never dented the popularity of Journey to the End of the Night: last year, the readers of Le Monde ranked it second—between, yes, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu—on the list of 100 greatest books.
Polanski’s film opens the newest chapter in a tale of sound and fury that actually signifies something important, as hard to identify as it is to ignore. When the controversy over J’accuse first exploded, the film critic for Le Monde, Michel Guerrin, insisted that “once a director’s film reaches the public, it is for the public to decide whether to see it.” While the accusations against Polanski made him uneasy, Guerrin nevertheless argued that the film’s treatment of anti-Semitism was too important not to be seen. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe took the same position, declaring not only that he planned to see the film, whose subject had long “impassioned” him, but that he would take his children with him.
At the same time, other members of his government, including the spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye and Marlène Schiappa, the minister of women’s rights, insisted that Polanski’s appalling treatment of women took precedence over the artistic merit of his film. Yet while both refused to see the film, they also refused to call for a boycott. The former minister of women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, was not as reticent. To see the film, she affirmed, was tantamount to saying that “what happened to these women doesn’t mean very much and that it’s time to move on.” The activist Chloé Medesta was blunter: “Buying a ticket to see ‘J’accuse,’” she asserted, “amounts to a criminal act.”
Polanski’s film opens the newest chapter in a tale of sound and fury that actually signifies something important, as hard to identify as it is to ignore.
Not surprisingly, the director of Chinatown and Repulsion gave the controversy a provocative twist. Polanski contrasted his past as a Polish child who survived the Final Solution in Poland with his present experience confronting a different kind of persecutor. In fact, Polanski claimed that his accusers helped him to better plumb Dreyfus’s plight. Thanks to “aberrant stories of women I never met accusing me of acts that unfolded more than half a century ago,” he declared, he better understood the “mechanisms of persecution” that nearly broke Dreyfus 125 years ago.
Polanski was not alone in tossing verbal Molotovs into the growing firestorm. When asked late last month about the wisdom of nominating J’accuse for Best Picture, the director of l’Académie des César, Alain Terzian, replied: “Unless I’m mistaken, 1.5 million French have seen the movie. Ask them what they think of it.” Better yet, what if we could ask the nineteenth-century historian François Guizot what he thinks about Terzian’s remark? He might repeat his celebrated bon mot for the last Bourbon king, Charles X: “He forgot nothing and learned nothing.”
Having ruled over the academy since 2003, Terzian neither forgot how things once were nor understood how they had since changed. What had been a smoldering rebellion shuddered into a full-fledged revolution. On February 11, several women’s organizations published an open letter in the newspaper Le Parisien, urging the 4,000—overwhelmingly male—members of the academy to vote against Polanski’s nominations. The academy, claimed the signatories, is “celebrating a pedo-criminal on the lam from justice” who was “exploiting the Dreyfus affair to cast himself as the victim, whereas he is the victimizer.” In a word, they concluded, “if rape is an art, give Polanski all of the Césars.”
Hemming and hawing, Terzian then confronted an uprising within his own ranks. In yet another open letter, this time published in Le Monde, 400 members of the academy called for a “complete overhaul” of the institution. Though they did not directly address the Polanski affair, their demand for greater diversity and democracy was clearly aimed at the “opaque” mechanisms that led to his film’s nominations. Two days later, on February 13, the 21 members of the board of directors delivered the coup de grâce: they announced that they were stepping down en masse in order to “pay tribute to those who made cinema great in 2019, to encourage calm and ensure that the film festival remains festive.”
With its collective resignation, the board shredded the traditional script for the award gala. Abandoned by his base, Terzian first retreated into silence, then announced that he, too, would step down. While a “general assembly” is scheduled to take place after the award ceremony, there is now an air of improvisation to the ceremony itself. There are no trailers or sneak previews to suggest if it will be calm, much less festive—especially if, by way of a last hurrah, the old guard rewards Polanski with the César for Best Director. The ceremony’s host, the comedian Florence Foresti, has refused all interviews with the media. But her brand of humor is often compared to that of Ricky Gervais, which suggests that Terzian and the academy will not get off easily.
American audiences, unfortunately, will not have the opportunity to see J’Accuse. Though the film will be released in Europe, no American distributor has shown interest in buying the rights. We might conclude that moral clarity is not what it once was. The novelist Émile Zola channeled such clarity in “J’Accuse . . . !,” the article that not only gives its name to the movie but forced the French government to hold a new trial for Dreyfus in 1889. Seeking to “hasten the explosion of truth and justice,” Zola dissected the lies and fabrications that allowed the army to send Dreyfus to Devil’s Island. “Truth was on the march,” he declared, “and nothing would stop it!”
Is it possible that in the controversy over the Polanski affair, truth—or, at least, the chance to weigh in on truth—has been stopped? That moral clarity offers less light and more heat? Zola left no doubt where he stood on such a question. In a letter he wrote shortly before he published “J’Accuse . . . !,” Zola affirmed: “I am for unlimited liberty of expression, which I claim for myself and strive to tolerate with others.”
Where we should draw the line between bad people and the good art they make will never be clear. But what does seem clear is that truth and justice can coexist only if we teach the contexts for these problematic works and trust audiences to come to their own conclusions.