Once again, film director Roman Polanski has caused a stir in the film industry as he continues to evade the reach of the U.S. Criminal Justice System and begins filming his new project about the Dreyfus Affair. In the #MeToo era of challenging rampant sexual abuse in the film industry, it’s clear why the predator and fugitive Polanski would draw such ire.
The film – initially announced back in 2012 – is titled J’Accuse, and concentrates on one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in history. The scandal involves the 1894 treason conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish descent, for allegedly conducting espionage for the German Embassy in Paris. Dreyfus was sentenced to life in prison for passing secrets, but in 1896 new evidence pointed towards a French Army Major (Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy) as the true culprit. This evidence was suppressed and new evidence was fabricated, acquitting the Major rather than Dreyfus. This was only really brought to light when author Émile Zola penned his open letter from which Polanski’s film takes its title, J’Accuse…!, accusing the French government of anti-Semitism and orchestrating an attempted cover-up. This new development only served to further divide French society. In 1906, new evidence came to light and Dreyfus was finally exonerated.
Polanski is perhaps best known for his early works Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), as well as being the husband of the Sharon Tate, who was murdered by the Manson Family. In 1977, Polanski’s true character as a predator was revealed when he was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. After learning that the judge planned to sentence him to imprisonment rather than the probation, Polanski fled to Paris, where it seemed he would never find work again. However, this was not the case: he continued to write and direct films, even working with many esteemed actors. Polanski later won the Palme d’Or for his work on The Pianist (2002), as well as an Academy Award for Best Director which he could not collect, and so was presented to him later by friend, collaborator, and vociferous defender Harrison Ford. J’Accuse is another film which is fuelled by star-power, with a script written by best-selling author Robert Harris and starring Oscar-winning actor Jean Dujardin. It is disappointing that such industry icons seem to blithely ignore Polanski’s crimes simply because of who he is and the work he offers.
While some may manage to navigate the perhaps problematic path of separating the art from the creator in order to appreciate Polanski’s former classics, it is more morally difficult to accept the films he made while eluding justice. Some seem to choose to deal with the cognitive dissonance of working with a predator, or even develop a selective amnesia. Some even go as far as to defend Polanski and his crimes. With the rise of the #MeToo movement though, some are less forgiving of sexual predators – both Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby were expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for their actions.
Perhaps because the crime was long ago, or perhaps because the victim in this crime claims to have forgiven him (although others have accused him also), Polanski continues to elude the same punishment as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey for similar actions. Some on social media platforms though have branded the film as “tone deaf”, as well as calling Polanski hypocritical for directing a film about the miscarriage of justice when he himself is a fugitive. What remains unclear though, is why actors who are unlikely to be short of work are choosing to work with a fugitive child-rapist. Even more unclear, is how they can morally justify it.
Words by Adam Cooper