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Lucie Dreyfus: the woman Polanski’s film forgot

Caroline Baum
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Published: 11 November 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

I’VE JUST WATCHED the trailer for An Officer and Spy, the film by Roman Polanski based on Robert Harris’ compelling telling of the Dreyfus Affair. The film, which won the grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival two months ago, has no release date in Australia yet, but it will arrive at some point in 2020 and already I’m annoyed.

Why? Because judging by the trailer, the film is faithful to the novel in being a very masculine version of the story.

But before I vent my irritation, a recap for those unfamiliar with the Dreyfus Affair (Increasingly, I am finding in Australia that basically means anyone under 50).

Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish captain in the French army who, in 1894, was charged with treason for having supposedly supplied secrets to the Germans following the Franco-Prussian war. He was the victim of a military conspiracy and cover-up which saw him sentenced to exile and imprisonment on Devils Island in French Guyana where he spent five years in abject and harsh conditions, enduring daily privation, disease and isolation.

Eventually the corrupt circumstances of this truly shocking case were exposed by an avowedly anti-Semitic military lawyer, General Georges Picquart. Public sentiment about the Affair, which had divided the nation, eventually shifted, largely due to the seismic letter by Emile Zola published in the newspaper L’Aurore in 1989 under the headline J’Accuse - a phrase that became an instant catch-cry for justice around the world. It was the #metoo moment of the day.

Throughout this ordeal, Dreyfus was defended by his brother and supported emotionally by his unbendingly loyal and loving wife Lucie, a shy bourgeoise thrust into the worst kind of spotlight of scandal at the age of 25. Lucie gets short shrift in Harris’ telling of the story, which focuses on the military/legal cover-up.

She is not the only woman who is rendered almost invisible by Harris, and indeed by most tellings of the Dreyfus story, of which there are many ( For those who prefer a more complete and factual version I recommend the one by British Catholic Piers Paul Read, who is paradoxically, better known for his novels.)

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ty_M9muolk[/embed]

What exasperates me about the Polanski trailer, - and yes, I admit, it is only three minutes long - is that we only see one female during the teaser - and it’s not Lucie, but Picquart’s married mistress Pauline Monnier. Played by Polanski’s wife Emanuelle Seignier, she is a truly minor character, of no real relevance to the way history unfolds.

The trailer gives not a glimpse of Lucie, played in the film by up-and-coming young actor Swan Starosta, in her first major screen role.

Lucie deserves better: it was she who , once he was arrested, made Alfred promise not to commit suicide, an option that the military high-command offered by leaving him alone in a room with a revolver before he was sentenced; in his terrible prison, it was Lucie’s letters that kept Alfred alive, even though they were heavily censored- to the point that it was decided they must be transcribed lest her handwriting contain a private code concealing  information about the progress of his defence.

It was Lucie who maintained a fiction for their two young children about how their father had gone on a secret faraway mission, protecting them from worry and harm, and removing them from Paris to safety in the south; and it was Lucie’s money, as the daughter of a wealthy diamond dealer, that financed the lawyers who fought to save her husband’s reputation, honour and name and kept his cause alive.

Lucie is not the only woman in the Dreyfus story; there are many others, including Sarah Bernhardt, various aristocratic hostesses of influential salons and women who were early feminists doing pioneering reporting of the case who took a pro-Dreyfus stand at great personal cost. Women of courage and principle, not all of them Jewish.

To date, there only one biography of Lucie Dreyfus has been written and it is incomplete in many aspects and details of a woman who preferred very much to live her life in private and who exhibited a sometimes rigid stoicism that made her difficult to warm to. No one remembers her for her sense of humour, though it is fair to say she had little to laugh about.
Even Dreyfus’ staunchest enemies acknowledged her steadfast dignity under formidable duress. She deserves better than to be marginalised in a drama in which she played a crucial, decisive role.

But one cannot ignore her diamantine strength, nor fail to admire the way she was able to maintain her belief and love for her husband and help him adjust to the world once he returned from exile. No one else could have done that. And yet Lucie is likely to remain little known or understood by fresh audiences encountering the Dreyfus Affair for the first time through Polanski’s film which seems a terribly wasted opportunity, not to mention a very old-fashioned approach to the story.

This act of overlooking the quiet heroics of a wife and mother is one that a film has a real opportunity to redress. Harris’s telling reads as a cracking legal thriller full of intrigue and high-level bastardry. But in adapting the novel to the screen, Polanski (and Harris, who is credited as co-writer) had the chance to alter the focus just a little in a couple of additional scenes and give Lucie the respect and acknowledgement she deserves.

She is an enigmatic, severe and often frustrating woman - perhaps hard to render sympathetically. She was certainly no early feminist. She was not a great beauty and not a worldly figure of style in the sensual and opulently showy era of the Belle Epoque.

But even Dreyfus’ staunchest enemies acknowledged her steadfast dignity and discretion under formidable duress. She deserves better than to be marginalised in a drama in which she played a crucial, decisive role. It adds insult to injury to do any less.

But of course, I have not seen the film yet.

READ MORE
Roman Polanski accused of 1975 rape (New York Times)

Photo: Image from An Officer and A Spy

About the author

Caroline Baum

Caroline Baum has had a distinguished career as a journalist and broadcaster. In 2016 she contributed to the Rebellious Daughters anthology, and in 2017 she wrote Only: A Singular Memoir.

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