Roman Polanski has been cautious about making any explicit comparisons between himself and Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer whose trial generated a colossal debate about anti-Semitism at turn of the last century, but it requires no enormous stretch to read the director's latest film as a grumble against his own treatment at the hands of press and industry.
The Polish director has been living in Europe – largely in France – since fleeing the US following an accusation of rape in 1978. The charges are still pending. An Officer and a Spy, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, relates how Dreyfus was driven from public life by trumped-up accusations of espionage. Polanski, who admits having sex with Samantha Geimer, then 13, has a suite in his name at the Carlton hotel in Cannes. Dreyfus ended up on Devil's Island.
"As a Jew pursued during the war, a filmmaker persecuted in Poland, will you survive today's neo-feminist McCarthyism?" Pascal Bruckner, a philosopher, asked Polanski before the Venice premiere. "Working, making a film like this one, helped me a great deal," Polanski replied. "Sometimes I find moments that I lived through myself. I see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I didn't do." Make of that what you will.
This weekend, An Officer and a Spy (granted the more resonant title J'Accuse in France) competes for four gongs at the European Film Awards in Berlin. The film shares the most number of nominations with Pedro Almodóvar's Pain And Glory and Marco Bellocchio's The Traitor.
Earlier this week, the picture picked up another five nominations for the Lumiere Awards, awarded by overseas journalists in France. All this just a few weeks after Valentine Monnier, a French photographer and former actor, accused Polanski of violently raping her in 1975. He has denied it.
No US or UK distribution deals have yet been announced for the film and it seems unlikely that any will be forthcoming. Those nations have replied more robustly to the #MeToo movement than have their cousins in continental Europe.
Woody Allen, accused of sexual assault by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, saw his deal with Amazon Prime melt away in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal – the company won't even stream the completed A Rainy Day in New York – but Spanish multimedia group Mediapro were happy to finance the upcoming Rifkin's Festival. Taking the San Sebastián Film Festival as its backdrop, the picture is now in post-production.
The apparent gulf between mainland Europe and the Anglophone nations became apparent soon after revelations about Weinstein went above ground. As long ago as January 2018, Catherine Deneuve was among the 100 French artists, writers and academics who wrote to Le Monde complaining about a new "puritanism" they believed the scandal had generated.
“Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not – nor is men being gentlemanly a macho attack,” the letter ran. “Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone’s knee or try to steal a kiss.”
Just weeks after the #MeToo hashtag emerged, Deneuve got her oar in. “I don’t think it is the right method to change things, it is excessive.”
Lara Marlowe, this newspaper's Paris correspondent, has been observing the divergence for some time. "For years, the French cinema industry and intelligentsia have smugly criticised what was seen as excessive moralising in the US over sexual harassment and in some cases allegations of rape," she wrote last month.
The evasions and prevarications go on. Nadine Trintignant, a renowned TV director, has implied that anti-Semitism is behind the attacks on Polanski. "I find it very serious to bother him at this time when there is a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe," she said. "He did something serious 44 years ago. In 44 years, there have been thousands of women raped and we do not know the names of the men who did these bad deeds. We leave them alone because they are called Dupont, Durand."
Yet there is some sense the tide is turning. The rising actor Adèle Haenel, soon to be seen in the acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, shocked the French establishment when she recently accused director Christophe Ruggia of sexually harassing her between the ages of 12 and 15.
Following the Monnier accusations, ARP, which represents French screenwriters, directors and producers, voted to suspend the filmmaker’s membership. A group of French feminists and industry professionals have launched a campaign calling for the European Film Awards to rescind Polanski’s nominations.
“The movie industry’s acceptance of Polanski must end. Its complicit willingness to ‘separate the art from the artist’ must end,” the group’s statement declared. “We ask that you also step forward and take a stand against sexual violence as movie industry professionals and European citizens. We ask you to shine your spotlight on rape culture in Europe and to shame, rather than laud, its perpetrators in the film industry.”
Good luck to them. Whereas the US film industry has turned away from Polanski and Allen, the greater levels of tolerance across La Manche will be hard to shift.
An Officer and a Spy topped the French box office when it was released in mid-November. Don’t count against Rifkin’s Festival being a hit there as well.