October 25, 2010
The Dreyfus affair gets a fictional reassessment through a small cast of bourgeois Parisians in a wheezy evocation of belle epoque social conventions. Agatha Christie–style plotting comes quickly to the fore: a mysterious, alluring female client entreats solidly middle-class attorney François Dubon to pursue an appeal for Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who was sent to the Devil's Island penal colony after a questionable 1894 treason trial. Dubon is intrigued, to the point of neglecting his marriage, his mistress, and his clients, and impersonating a military intelligence clerk to evaluate the government's case against the Jewish artilleryman convicted of passing secrets to the Germans. The appeal becomes consuming, in a mannered fashion, as Dubon engages with pseudonymous journalists and an incongruous English private detective, and tracks down justice for his client at great cost to his settled routines and relationships. But while the salons and afternoon assignations are faithfully depicted, the plot twists are laboriously telegraphed, and the overall micro focus fails to convey the larger sense of such a pivotal moment in French history.