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Venice 2019: Broken Men and Ladies on Fire

Competing for a Golden Lion, Polanski's "An Officer and a Spy" is a timely period piece, Larraín's "Ema" a daring, perturbing drama
Leonardo Goi
“I do not separate the man from the art,” Jury President Lucrecia Martel said on the eve of the 76th Venice Film Festival, as the fest’s first press conference prompted her to comment on the inclusion of Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse) among the year’s twenty-one Golden Lion hopefuls. While the remarks sparked further debate around Polanski’s competition slot, the idea of a schism between artist and craft (or the impossibility to draw one) seemed all the more relevant to director’s latest, a chronicle of the Dreyfus affair, a scandal that swept across France in the late nineteenth century and led to the disgrace of an army officer falsely convicted as spy. Difficult as it may be to gloss over the meta-fictional echoes—corroborated by the parallels Polanski himself has spotted between his situation and Dreyfus’ own in an interview circulated as part of the film’s press notes—this is a solid, gripping procedural, homing in on men fighting against a corrupted and racist apparatus, a period piece that rings perceptively timely. 
On January 5, 1895, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a promising 35-year-old French officer of Jewish descent, was degraded for spying for Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a rock jutting out of the Atlantic off the coast of French Guiana. Serving in the court martial that ruled his incarceration was Georges Picquart, an officer later promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and appointed to helm the military counter-intelligence unit that instigated Dreyfus’ fall from grace. Except the investigation, as Picquart later found out, was a farce. The man spying for the Germans was not Dreyfus, but a senior French officer, Major Esterhazy, and Picquart spent the years that followed to shed light on the corrupted system that led to Dreyfus’ fall—a case that formally ended in 1906, when the officer was reinstated in the French Army.
To audiences unfamiliar to the affair, An Officer and a Spy may strike, at least for the first third of its 132 minutes, as a history lesson. But there’s nothing pedantic or didactic about it. Drawing from the 2013 historical fiction thriller penned by Robert Harris—credited as Polanski’s co-scribe—the script maintains tension throughout, from the early stages of Picquart’s internal inquiry down to the court procedural the final act morphs into. Peppered all throughout it are echoes of the populist discourse that foraged Dreyfus’ conviction, a hatred toward the Other that manifests itself through antisemitic slurs as much as jibes at foreigners and homosexuals, with army geriatrics ranting against the decay of “all moral and artistic values,” mourning a country they no longer recognize. It’s a subtext that helps sponge up some of the pestilent zeitgeist, and adds further timeliness to a drama that conjures Dreyfus’ plight as an uninterrupted history of xenophobia. But there’s also a curious vintage pleasure to it all: much like Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation, An Officer and a Spy resuscitates a largely defunct espionage universe, where spies must painstakingly open envelopes with water vapor, patch together torn apart letters, and develop photos in darkrooms. 
Louis Garrel plays Dreyfus, but the officer and the spy the title alludes to really are the same person: Jean Dujardin’s Picquart. Astutely, Polanski keeps Dreyfus on the background to zero in on the man who first took part in his trial, and upon uncovering the scandal, put his honor and life at risk to set him free again. This is Picquart’s story, and a one-man show brilliantly sustained by Dujardin as a man whose staunch faith in the institution upon which his whole life pivots starts to shake, and grapples with an identity crisis. But the transformation from Dreyfus’ enemy to unlikely ally is not uncritical. Even as it eventually trumpets Picquart as a disgraced victim of an ossified apparatus that first lulls him as its poster boy and later fights him as some cancerous cell, An Officer and a Spy never simplistically trumpets him as a hero. In a pivotal early exchange, Dujardin tells Garrell he dislikes Jews, and as much as the man’s antisemitism stands out more as the result of some tradition than genuine and visceral hatred, it corroborates the feeling that his quest to save a disgraced soldier comes second to the need to salvage the integrity of an institution he could no longer belong to. 
Shot by Pawel Edelman, this is a drama that unfolds almost exclusively inside closed rooms: Picquart’s bachelor apartment, high-ceilinged, frescoed government offices, courtrooms, and of course, military prisons. But the feeling of claustrophobia spans throughout. A wintry, milk-tinged light falls on rooms and tenants, beaming through curtains that are never drawn. Jean Rabasse’s production design adds an olfactive quality to the visuals, and you can almost smell the dust, the moldy scent that billows from the closed rooms. An Officer and a Spy thrives on Picquart’s moral struggle, but it also works as a taut, intelligent examination of weaponized masculinities. The men populating Polanski’s drama fight to keep their honor as well as their virility intact, an urge to salvage a heteronormative notion of manhood that reverberates in the lingering homophobic discourse as much as the efforts to resolve personal affronts through violence, with a standout duel scene encapsulating the kind of toxic masculinity at stake.
A similar interest in the dissection of manhood cut to the core of the lineup’s seventh title. Two years after Jackie, which screened in competition here on the Lido in 2017, Pablo Larraín returned to Venice with Ema. If the Natalie Portman-starring biopic stood as an outlier within a canon comprising largely of dramas hailing from Larraín’s native Chile, Ema, set in the port city of Valparaíso, also heralds a return to the director’s home turf. Except for the first time the story does not unfold as an autopsy of the past, but is set in the present-day, set among a generation that’s not Larraín’s own. Early as it may be to say after a mere four days of screenings, and with only a third of the whole program unveiled, Larraín’s is one of the fest’s most daring entries. A far cry from from an even ride, it still manages to pulsate with rambunctious, unbridled energy, conjuring an incandescent hymn to female liberation. 
Eponymous Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo)—a reggaeton dancer with silver dyed hair and anthracite, magnetic eyes—shares a bohemian apartment with her husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal). He helms an experimental dance troupe where she serves as lead performer, a choreographer-dancer relationship that brought to mind, in more ways than one, another Golden Lion contender, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Like Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s director-actress duo, this is a couple watching powerless as their married life collapses. Gastón, twelve years older than Ema, was not able to give his wife a son, which led the couple to adopt six-year-old, pint-sized Polo. But as Larraín’s drama kicks off in medias res, the child has already disappeared from the picture. A boy with severe attachment issues that would often in violent tantrums, the last shocking incident he was responsible for forced the adoptive parents to hand him back to social services, which found him another family. 
The child’s abandon rattles through the couple’s life like an omnipresent ghost, a reminder of their shared guilt. Never mind however harsh the insults, however atrocious the accusations they dart at each other, this is something they’re both responsible for, a tragedy that’s consumed within and beyond the confines of their own apartment, as Gastón and Ema hurl against a society that shuns both as heartless pariahs. “People look at us as if we suffocated a dog with a plastic bag,” she tells him, and in a world where even her own mom reminds her that “mothers do not abandon children,” because “children make families” this is no understatement. 
The only moments of respite come from dancing, and Larraín’s regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong captures Ema as she careens and twirls against planets burning on the background, arty performances choreographed by José Vidal that billow to life in entrancing hues and blobs. But this is not her dancing: it is Gastón’s own vision of what dancing should look and feel like. Among the most interesting offerings of Ema’s rich, multilayered universe is a strife over opposing artistic worldviews. Gastón’s attempts to add some avant-garde flair to Chile’s traditional routines are juxtaposed with Ema’s penchant for contemporary, unhinged street performances. Folk dances versus reggaeton, past versus present: as the young woman drifts away from Gastón and her married life to find solace in the sisterhood promised by her best friends and fellow dancers, Ema swells into a celebration of reggaeton as a life-affirming, empowering tool—a means to both debunk and escape the patriarchy Gastón smothers her under.
Penned by Larraín, Guillermo Calderón, and Alejandro Moreno, Ema unfurls as a sinuous, fragmented journey, with dance montages and Nicolas Jaar’s electronic score acting as collagen. The use of fire as a means to underscore Ema’s burning rage, with the young woman meandering across Valparaíso with a flamethrower, can feel a tad too on-the-nose, all the more so as she later finds a symbolic counterpart to it in the shape of a fireman who teaches her how to operate a water pump, and later shares some rather retrograde musings on women’s role as men’s appendices. The secret connection she’s kept with Polo leads to embark on a byzantine quest to be reunited with the boy and his new parents, and the approach, veering from tragedy to absurdist comedy, may strike as convoluted, if not too mannered. But this remains—arguably more so than any of the titles unveiled in these first four festival days—a bold, ambitious work, graced by a towering performance by Di Girolamo, who dances through it with an irresistible and intoxicating aura. Ema takes plenty of risks, and if the end result sometimes strikes as maddening and anfractuous, it is journey well worth embarking on. 


Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2019Roman PolanskiPablo Larrain
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