Trigger Warning: Rape and Child Sexual Assault.
J’Accuse is a 2019 French movie that tells the story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer who was wrongly accused and sentenced to lifelong penal servitude for espionage in 1898. This event is known by everyone in France: it is the paradigm of the deep antisemitism within the justice system. Released this November, the film earned the third-highest opening for a French film in 2019.
The movie has received peculiar attention from the media, and not necessarily for its quality. In 1977, its director Roman Polanski was proven guilty of the rape of Samantha Geimer. To avoid imprisonment, he fled from the US to France. Over the years, other women have come forward to accuse him of sexual violence: Renate Langer, Robin ‘M’, Marianne Barnard, Mallory Millet, Charlotte Lewis, Valentine Monnier (the latest accuser), as well as six other women who preferred to remain anonymous.
In France, many women and activist groups are endlessly protesting the showing of this film by writing to their local theatres and trending the #BoycottPolanski tag on twitter. On the night of the premiere at Le Champo cinema, they managed to prevent the screening and talk that was meant to occur with its lead actor, Louis Garrel.
Years ago, I had a conversation about Rosemary’s Baby with a teacher. I confessed feeling particularly uncomfortable with anything related to Polanski. He responded: “These were different times – there was an intense culture around drugs and sex. This shouldn’t affect the quality of his art.” It seems like it is only in art and cinema that the individual is asked to be thought of as separate from his work. Indeed, sexual violence is a problem everywhere, but usually, the debate revolves around whether the allegations are true or not. In a case like Polanski’s, in which the crime was admitted, and the criminal is an international fugitive, the question becomes whether or not we should dissociate the man from the artist. Art (with a big capital letter) has developed its own private system of reparation: make something great, and you will be cleansed. The Oscars and Césars you win will atone for your sins.
If the blatant irony of this comparison didn’t give it away, there is something clearly at fault in this way of thinking. Reparation should be for the victims. Here, the awards and artistry don’t offer them any consolation: they silence them, and further their pain and trauma. Only the criminal benefits from it: with this mindset, he manages not only to get away from legal charges but also gets richer. No matter how far we try to draw the line between artist and man, money is indissociable from them both. Cinema is not only art – it is also an industry. It has always existed as one. When the Venice Film Festival awards a sexual predator the Grand Jury Prize, they are adding another fancy line to their IMDb page for potential producers. When you personally pay to see their film, you are handing them your money and helping them break box-office records. No matter how much we try to focus on the art, it is a reality we cannot ignore. We cannot mentally kill the man when we are feeding him with money and fame. Criminal and artist will always benefit together.
Yet, there are those who simply want to enjoy a film. I confess, I particularly enjoyed Rosemary’s Baby. There was something in its atmosphere that fascinated me. I can enjoy it when I try – but only partly, only superficially. As I watch its protagonist being manipulated, mentally and physically abused, I can’t help but think of Samantha Geimer who was only 13 years old at the time and was drugged and sexually abused by a 43-year-old man in a jacuzzi. I think of her coming home that night and writing in her journal: “I got my pics taken by Roman Polanski, and he raped me, fuck.” I think of how one of the alleged victims was only 10. I think of how Polanski himself doesn’t seem to draw this line: in the press notes for J’Accuse, he said he saw in this story “the same determination to deny facts and condemn him for things he hasn’t done”. Even if he is referring to another scandal, this shows how connected to his films he is. And the implied parallel between him and Alfred Dreyfus – whether it is intended or not – is repellent.
Money is one thing, your sensibility for these events another. But it is important to remember that many don’t get this privilege of ignorance and indifference towards rape. Many simply can’t forget, despite how much they wish they could. No one should escape justice, no matter how many masterpieces they direct. For me, the fact that someone like Polanski can still make films is not only infuriating because I am a woman. I find it insulting as someone who loves cinema to a sickening point. Films have always been about the humane. We love them because they make us connect with stories and care for people we have only just met. We feel empathy.
This is the cinema I’ve known and loved, and the one I want to personally support.
Image Credit: New York Times