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[Publisher's Note]

The “Affair”

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“I was immediately struck by the fundamental difference between the ‘seventh art’ and literature.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on February 3, 2020. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

While in London before Christmas to promote my new book, I was invited to a secret screening of a sort of neo-samizdat: An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse in French), Roman Polanski’s new film, whose subject is the Dreyfus Affair. Although I may be making an exaggerated comparison to the literature published clandestinely in the Communist Bloc during the 1970s and ’80s, I’m doing so for genuine emotional reasons that aren’t exaggerated at all. In 1983, I traveled to Prague to meet some dissident writers who had been subjected to incarceration and political intimidation. For three days, I was followed in the streets and eavesdropped on more or less everywhere by the police. Right up to the moment when I boarded a plane for Zurich, I was afraid of being arrested, especially because my traveling companion and future wife was carrying, under her sweater, some carbon copies of writings forbidden by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia.

How was it possible that I could experience a similar fright in 2019, in the free West? Why am I obliged to conceal the identities of my British hosts and the location of the screening room, somewhere in England, where I tasted the forbidden fruit? Well, An Officer and a Spy is presently untouchable in the English-speaking world. Having confessed to the 1977 rape of a thirteen-year-old American girl—and, more recently, having denied the claims of a French photographer who has accused him of raping her in 1975—Polanski, a dual Polish-French citizen of Jewish descent, has been “canceled,” as the word is used in the vocabulary of Twitter and #MeToo. In spite of the film’s commercial and critical success in France (twelve César nominations, the French equivalent of our Academy Awards nominations), no distributor in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada dares to encourage its release, which would provoke demonstrations, a Twitter storm, or worse. As far as I know, no movie-theater owner or head of a non-profit film institute would want to risk his or her reputation or money by circumventing the established networks and showing the movie to the public.

As I watched An Officer and a Spy in my English hideout, I was immediately struck by the fundamental difference between the “seventh art” and literature. I know the story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s long ordeal well, thanks in part to Robert Harris’s terrific novel of the same name on which the film is based. Beginning with its extraordinary opening scene—in full view of a contemptuous crowd, Dreyfus, in the courtyard of the École Militaire, is stripped of his epaulets and his rank, his gold braid and his buttons, and his sword is broken in two—the viewer understands that a talented director like Polanski, aided by his camera and his actors, is able to far outstrip what we scribblers have at our command.

Dreyfus’s fraudulent conviction for espionage, the pernicious anti-Semitism of the French government and its military leaders, who made a martyr of him, the courageous defense of Dreyfus by Émile Zola and Georges Clemenceau—all that is vividly presented. Nevertheless, the film’s force lies in the investigation carried out by Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin gives a brilliant performance), who, despite his own anti-Semitism, risks his career and freedom in order to clear Dreyfus and uncover the identity of the real spy. This is a serious work, not a simplistic Hollywood movie with a happy ending; no one who sees it will leave the theater with a feeling of redemption. But as I watched the film, the irony of the current political situation in the English-Speaking world suddenly became apparent to me.

The historical Dreyfus, the Jewish scapegoat, was effectively erased, sent to Devil’s Island not only to be tortured but also to be deleted from the French national consciousness. Far from his family and his lawyer, Dreyfus moreover served as a distraction from the corruption at the heart of the French army’s general staff. Today we see the cinematic version of the Dreyfus Affair being “erased” in countries that have a great need to reacquaint themselves with the dire consequences of religious bigotry, groupthink, and censorship. We see, once again, a diversion from an essential debate that should be taking place, its subject the intellectual corruption and suffocating consequences of political correctness. The de facto interdiction—what other words could one use?—of An Officer and a Spy in Canada, still under the aegis of Queen Elizabeth II, the British sovereign, makes that supposedly tolerant and liberal country complicit with the cowardly heads of the Anglo-American film industry

I can imagine what the supporters of the #MeToo movement will say: “What we’re calling for is the punishment of the criminal Polanski, which has nothing to do with Dreyfus; we’re speaking in the name of millions of female victims who have never had a Zola to defend them; when a revolution’s going on, the guillotine can’t always distinguish between very guilty and not very innocent.” Of course, I condemn Polanski for what he did, and for having pusillanimously fled American justice. But what’s the statute of limitations? Why not boycott the plays and other writings of Oscar Wilde, who sexually abused underage boys? Harper’s Magazine published two essays written by a murderer, one while he was serving time in prison and the other afterward; nobody said a word about the author’s crime. Is it now the mob that decides what we’re going to read and see?

My dear Québecois readers, you who consider yourselves citizens of a nation reluctant to accept the diktats and received ideas of Anglo-Saxon culture, it’s beneath you to allow such a closing of the mind, such a blockade against words and images produced by someone whom “decent people” frown upon. Isn’t there a single filmmaker among you who will step up to defend the freedom of art and the right to watch a movie?

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