Roman Polanski’s ‘An Officer and a Spy’ drew mixed reactions from critics Friday at its Venice premiere, hailed as ‘handsome and involving’ by one but ‘lacking’ by another who said parallels drawn by the director between his life and his art were ‘obscene’.
The 86-year-old, a fugitive from the US since he was convicted for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old in 1978, did not attend the red carpet event for his film about French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus.
But its stars, including ‘The Artist’ Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin and fellow French actor Louis Garrel, cracked smiles as they signed autographs for fans.
Campaigners have said the mired-in-controversy Polanski’s inclusion in the running for the top prize is out of touch in the era of #MeToo movement.
Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, president of the judging panel for this year’s Golden Lion top award, told the festival’s opening news conference that the inclusion of Polanski had made her ‘uncomfortable’, but later released a statement stressing that she had no ‘prejudice’ against his film.
‘An Officer and a Spy’ tells the powerful story of the Dreyfus case, a miscarriage of justice against a backdrop of virulent anti-Semitism that shook France to its core in the late 1800s and continued to reverberate for years.
The Oscar-winning director of ‘The Pianist’ and ‘Chinatown’, Polanski spent part of his childhood in Poland’s Krakow ghetto with his Polish-Jewish parents.
‘The film must be allowed to speak,’ said one of the producers, Luca Barbareschi, at the press conference for the movie Friday, adding that the festival was not a ‘moral trial’.
But Polanski seemed to undermine that aim, with the release of an interview with French writer Pascal Bruckner in the press notes for the Venice premiere that appeared to draw a link between Dreyfus case and his own life.
‘In the story, I sometimes find moments I have experienced myself, I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case,’ Polanski said.
Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman described that comparison as ‘obscene’, adding that the film is ‘grandly mounted’ but ‘still feels lacking, maybe because Polanski thinks it’s about him’.
‘The first half of the movie sucks you right in, but after a while it starts to play like the dramatised version of a Wikipedia entry,’ he added.
The Guardian’s Xan Brooks also balked at suggested parallels, but said the film was ‘handsome and involving’.
Screen called it ‘procedural’ but predicted it would be a ‘sturdy international performer’, while Le Figaro termed it a ‘message film’ and praised Dujardin for his ‘bold and nuanced’ performance.
‘An Officer and a Spy’ is based on the book of the same name by British novelist Robert Harris but is filmed in French.
It stars Dujardin as the counter-espionage officer who proved that Dreyfus had been wrongly accused of spying for Germany.
The Dreyfus scandal sent shockwaves through France when it burst into the open with explosive newspaper revelations by the writer Emile Zola published under the headline ‘J’accuse’ (I accuse), which is the film’s title in French.
The case divided France for more than a decade from 1894 and exposed an establishment laced with prejudice and hellbent on protecting itself at the expense of the truth.
In his 1977 case, Polanski was accused of drugging a 13-year-old girl before raping her at film star Jack Nicholson’s house in Los Angeles.
He admitted a lesser charge of statutory rape and spent an initial 42 days in jail before getting out on bail ahead of his trial.
Polanski fled to France in 1978, convinced a judge was going to scrap his plea deal and send him to prison for decades.
The director, who told Bruckner that new abuse claims against him were ‘absurd’, said he had been hounded since the horrific murder of his wife Sharon Tate, who was killed by members of the Manson family cult in 1969.
Polanski’s wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner who stars in the film, told reporters Friday that his experiences had coloured his filmmaking.
‘The feeling of persecution, I think is quite simple to understand. It is enough to see his life,’ she said.
The case has had renewed resonance in the wake of the #MeToo movement and Polanski is suing the Academy of Motion Pictures for stripping him of his membership.
Venice festival organisers have been forced to defend the decision to include ‘An Officer and a Spy’ among the 21 movies selected to compete for the top prize. Only two films in the running are directed by women.
Festival director Alberto Barbera has defended Polanski’s inclusion in competition, calling him ‘one of the last masters still active in European cinema’.
The festival is also facing criticism for presenting a new film in a side event from director Nate Parker, who was embroiled in a rape trial while still at university.