UPDATE: The biggest talking point ahead of and into the early days of the Venice Film Festival, Roman Polanski’s An Officer And A Spy had its official competition world premiere this evening. Inside the Sala Grande, the film was well-received with a five-minute standing ovation. That’s not a Lido record in this year or others (ie, Marriage Story we understand had folks on their feet for seven minutes last night, while in years past rare ovations have gone to 10 minutes+). It is, however, indicative of the division between how certain audiences may accept, or not, a movie whose maker comes with baggage.
From critics, the film has received mixed to solid reviews since it screened for the press this morning. It was warmly-received at a press conference this afternoon, during which the focus was on the movie and the actors rather tha Polanski’s long history as a fugitive from U.S. justice (see below).
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The filmmaker is not attending the festival, though he does have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the movie.
PREVIOUS, 8:02AM PT: Roman Polanski’s An Officer And A Spy screened for the press this morning at the Venice Film Festival, and while there’s still a fest-imposed embargo on reviews or revelatory comments, it’s fair to say the historical drama was met with an extremely warm welcome at its jam-packed afternoon press conference. Sustained applause greeted stars Jean Dujardin, Louis Garrel and Emmanuelle Seigner along with composer Alexandre Desplat and the producers, and continued to break out at times during the session. Polanski, as expected, did not attend.
Because of the director’s controversial status, talk of the movie has dominated the Lido in the past few days. Italian co-producer Luca Barbareschi addressed the elephant not in the room immediately when he said, “We will answer questions only in as much as we know for the production. We will leave aside any polemic which is not important. This is not a moral trial, this is a marvelous film festival.” That got a round of applause.
There were more huzzahs when Barbareschi responded to a query about recent comments made by Venice jury president Lucrecia Martel as regards Polanski’s Dreyfus Affair drama. “The past is the past,” he said speaking of the events of just two days ago when Martel appeared to show bias against the film before releasing a clarifying statement. “The film must be able to speak and then it’s up to the public to judge,” said Barbareschi.
After that, discussion centered mostly on the film and its path to the screen.
The French-language movie, which has its competition world premiere tonight, charts the story of the notorious, anti-semitic 1894 Dreyfus Affair in which a Jewish officer in France was wrongfully convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. His conviction took years to overturn after a cover-up was discovered by army intelligence officer Colonel Georges Picquart (Dujardin) which led to Emile Zola’s famous J’Accuse open letter of 1898. Louis Garrel plays Alfred Dreyfus with Mathieu Amalric and Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, also starring.
Seigner responded to a question about the theme of persecution in her husband’s film. She offered, “All I can say about a sentiment of persecution is it’s enough to consider what has happened to him in his life to understand. I have been married to him for 30 years and I know his life very well.”
The cast said they were all familiar with the Dreyfus story, but not in detail. Garrel, charming the local press corps in Italian, called the Dreyfus Affair, “Perhaps the most important story in contemporary France,” then allowed, “I knew it but didn’t know it. I read Roman’s writing from Picquart’s point of view, I didn’t know existence of this man, and after 36 years I finally know the story that everyone knows without really knowing…” He was also drawn to the thriller aspect of the movie, stressing that “every detail in the film is true.”
Asked about working with Polanski as a director, Oscar winner Dujardin said the Oscar winner is very “precise.” In the morning, “there is an hour or two of set-up which is very important for him.” His meticulous attention to detail — Dujardin offered the example of unbuttoning a collar 40 times to get it right — might be repetitive, “but you’re glad at the same time because you know the movie will be beautiful… He can be very demanding and sometimes he may feel frustrated, but then he will tell you to take your time… and all of his comments are invariably smart. In the end, the films he makes are great movies.”
He further enthused, “I am left with pride. I am proud I was able to work in this movie and very proud because (Polanski) trusted me. Maybe five years ago I would have refused the proposal because I didn’t feel up to the task.”
Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat wrote the score. Having worked with Polanski previously, he was expecting something big, but the film “rejected this kind of music. Any such music would have become idiotic and vain if it had overtaken the suffering of Alfred Dreyfus.”
Producer Alain Goldman quipped that the difficulties in getting the movie made were “so numerous that I stopped counting them,” but added that it’s always “difficult to find money to make good films.” He said the key turning point for An Officer And A Spy was when a decision was made to switch from shooting in English to French. “That told the world we were doing something universal, but very specific in the history of France.”