Movie Review: J’Accuse3rd June 2020
The underlying meaning and protruding ideas within J’Accuse are unavoidable. A man who believes he is innocent, put on trial for who he is and what he stood for. This is perhaps the closest I’ve come to having some difficulty separating the art from the artist, with Roman Polanski’s newest film of a man convicted of treason and sent into isolation being a tad on the nose for the director’s real life. Putting that to one side, though, J’Accuse is a biopic of one Alfred Dreyfus, a French soldier wrongfully sent to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a French penal colony infamous for harsh treatment and a horrendously low survival rate.
Regardless of subtext within J’Accuse, it’s a frankly boring piece of film that shows a director slipping away from the talent he once held. Its faulty direction keeps any real development from occurring, a frustrating experience since the story of Dreyfus is a thoroughly interesting one. Standard camera work that has plagued Polanski’s career thus far, never quite adapting or overcoming the basic obstacles that his direction often faces. There are some strange shot choices, a camera that always feels like it glides on the spot, zooming in from time to time on points of interest that detract from the dialogue. Frankly, it’s sloppy work that could’ve been put together by anyone. At the best of times it’s forgettable, at its worst it becomes thoroughly confusing.
It’s a real shame too, since the performances on display are mesmerizingly strong for such weak direction. The costume and set design make for some great world building, but it’s a shame they’re not utilised in any way that feels at all interesting, not from Polanski’s poor direction anyway. The film broadly makes its way through on the merits of Louis Garrel and Jean Dujardin’s leading performances. Strong performances from the pair elevate J’Accuse to watchable territory, Dujardin especially, portraying Marie-Georges Picqart, the French officer responsible for uncovering the true story behind the Dreyfus cover-up.
Perhaps my fascination with this period of time and love of history has gotten the better of me. J’Accuse is incredibly well performed by everyone throughout, and the flatlining direction of Polanski doesn’t drag these moments down all that much. It’s a serviceable piece on a subject that deserves a lot better. Moody lighting, unavoidable undertones of freeing the guilty and some often-questionable choices regarding the direction make for a film struggling to find a balance between artistic merit and storytelling prowess. Strong performances, but weak direction. Engaging set and costume design, but a lacking drive behind it to deliver the message home. A certainly watchable piece, but it’s unfortunate at how great this could have been.