A word to the wise

Yes! I’ve finally managed to see Polanski’s J’ACCUSE with English subtitles, something our capitalist system has not chosen to make commercially available. Thanks to the subs I could recognise the faint allusion to CHINATOWN above.

J’ACCUSE is excellent — after the lacklustre D’APRES UNE HISTOIRE VRAI, a thriller without thrills, and the fair-to-middlebrow CARNAGE (Polanski has his middlebrow side), this one is really absorbing. As script collaborator, Robert Harris brings much of the same solid craft that made THE GHOST / THE GHOST WRITER a success (and here we again have a choice of titles, with the leaden AN OFFICER AND A SPY for those to whom Zola’s celebrated title means nothing; wasted effort since the film doesn’t seem to have screened in any anglophone territories).

It has only a few of the keen, imaginative flourishes I love in this filmmaker’s work, only a few things only his peculiar mind would think of — for instance, there’s no mysterious squeaking that resolves into a man cleaning a limo with chamois leather — but it finds its own way into the familiar story and takes you there and holds you.

I wasn’t hugely keen on the transitions into flashback, a little fancy and digital for such a classical piece of storytelling. But there are other things that are more powerful. Right after Polanski does a CGI-assisted zoom into a finger pointing out Devil’s Island on the globe, he shows Dreyfus being locked in his cell; looking out the window; his view; a reverse angle showing his prison; the same, from further away, showing the whole island; further again, the island diminished to a speck; further still more, the island vanished completely in the limitless blue.

Astute, precise, merciless.

5 Responses to “A word to the wise”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Astute, precise, merciless” describes Roman perfectly. Greatly looking forward to this as you should well expect

    “Carnage” is minor but not without interest a it unfolds in a very small setting (something he’s adored since “Knife in the Water”) Those stills look lovely. I am most interested in how the film’s coverage of the Dreyfus case intersects with Proust’s “a la recherche du temps perdu” in which it’s covered in great detail and shown to reverberate through every level of French society

  2. By concentrating on the case from one point of view – though a sprawling story, the film concentrates on its main character’s experience almost as intently as Repulsion or The Tenant – the film inevitably leaves out much of the social ripple effect, but we see meaningful glimpses and then the atmosphere of mob fury crashing into the story at key points. I do think it’ll be seen as a major late work by its director.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The Pianist” is another “One Person POV” Roman masterpiece.

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Polanski’s film on Dreyfus was criticized by some for centering the film on Picquart, the gentile investigator (who starts out as an anti-semite himself) rather than Dreyfuss himself, who despite being played well by Louis Garrel, doesn’t appear often in the film. So that makes An officer and a gentleman feel stodgy because it has an old-fashioned insider-turns-against-system narrative. And it also makes what seems like a very personal story for Polanski into something that registers as impersonal.

    I think generally Polanski’s purely fictional films are better than his historical works because he’s hampered in the case of the Dreyfuss Affair by the fact that he was ultimately exonerated whereas his own instincts would be towards showing failure and tragedy. The best parts in the film are the ones that show the paranoia of the anti-Dreyfussard right-wingers (including the one who assassinates one of the people working on the case).

    Either way, the film is quite methodical and accurate in showing the entire Dreyfuss case from start to end…how it happened, how it was uncovered, and how it became a major scandal, but generally speaking it doesn’t center to any extent the experiences and trials of French and European Jews in the goings on.

  5. Looking at Dieterle’s The Life of Emile Zola now. Now THAT’S stodgy.

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