French cinema has been rocked by a new wave of allegations of child rape and sexual assault targeting household names in the industry, bolstering talk of a long-awaited breakthrough for the #MeToo movement in France following a nationwide controversy over Gérard Depardieu. The latest accusations shine a stark light on the culture of impunity that prevailed in a country where auteur worship has long served as a cover for abuse.
French cinema’s #MeToo breakthrough has been heralded, and pushed back, often enough to warrant caution – but there are signs the ground is finally shifting, more than six years after cinema’s feminist revolution kicked off across the Atlantic.
In 2017, at the dawn of the #MeToo era, French actor Judith Godrèche was among the first to speak out against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, telling the New York Times that the film producer assaulted her in a hotel at the Cannes Film Festival two decades earlier, when she was 24.
Years later, the actor-turned-filmmaker is at the heart of bombshell allegations that are writing a new chapter in France’s troubled reckoning with sex abuse in the film industry.
French prosecutors opened an investigation last week after Godrèche, now 51, said she was groomed and raped by filmmaker Benoît Jacquot during a “predatory” relationship that started when she was 14 and he was 39.
Godrèche, who recently delivered the semi-autobiographical series “Icon of French cinema”, was a child actor when she met Jacquot at a casting call for his movie “Les Mendiants” (The Beggars). She told French daily Le Monde she remained “in his grip” for the following six years, in full sight of the film industry and the media.
“It’s a story similar to those of children who are kidnapped and grow up without seeing the world, and who cannot think ill of their captor,” Godrèche wrote in a statement for the police juvenile protection unit, quoted by the newspaper.
Paris prosecutors said they were investigating several potential offences including rape of a minor committed by a person in authority, domestic violence and sexual assault. They said they would also investigate a complaint she filed against another prominent filmmaker, Jacques Doillon, whom she accused of sexually abusing her when she was 15.
Jacquot, one of France’s best known independent directors, told Le Monde he denied all allegations. The 77-year-old said: “It was me, without irony, who was under her spell for six years.”
Doillon, whose partner at the time of the alleged abuse was the late Jane Birkin, also denied the accusations against him – including claims of sexual assault voiced in the media by actors Isild Le Besco and Anna Mouglalis in the wake of Godrèche’s allegations. “That Judith Godrèche and other women through her have wish to denounce a system, an era, a society, is courageous, commendable and necessary,” Doillon, 79, wrote in a statement to AFP. He added: “But the justness of the cause does not authorise arbitrary denunciations, false accusations and lies.”
The allegations levelled at two household names in French film have further rattled an industry already under fire for having shrugged off sexism and sexual abuse for decades. Godrèche’s accusations relate to the period 1986-1992, meaning they are unlikely to lead to prosecution because the statute of limitations has expired. The authorities’ decision to investigate them nonetheless suggests a new willingness to shed light on sexual abuse in the arts.
Two days after Godrèche filed her complaints, prosecutors said they had requested a trial for 59-year-old film director Christophe Ruggia, who has been charged with sexually assaulting actor Adèle Haenel when she was a minor. It will be up to magistrates to decide whether to press ahead with a trial.
Haenel, now 34, lodged a complaint against Ruggia in 2020, accusing him of subjecting her to “constant sexual harassment” from the age of 12 to 15. Later that year, she stormed out of the César Awards ceremony, the French equivalent of the Oscars, when the Best Director award was handed to veteran filmmaker Roman Polanski, the target of multiple allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
The walkout made her an early champion of the #MeToo movement in France. But her decision three years later, at the height of her fame, to quit the industry over its enduring “complacency” towards sex abuse was seen by many feminist campaigners as evidence of French resistance to change.
A ‘cover’ for abuse
French cinema’s troubled relationship with the #MeToo movement stems from traits specific to the film industry and to France itself, said Bérénice Hamidi, a sociologist of gender and the arts at the Université Lumière in Lyon.
“The arts, and film in particular, are overexposed to sexist and sexual violence, because they are professions that feel apart from society and its rules, in which selection and seduction are very closely intertwined, and in which job insecurity puts many young women in a position of vulnerability,” she said.
“But there is also a culture that is very French in its veneration of artists and the creative process, which excuses all behaviour,” Hamidi added. “There’s this idea that in order to create you have to be in a transgressive relationship with social norms. In this scale of values, women’s lives count for nothing compared to genius and talent. Excusing the behaviour of aggressive artists is specific to France.”
French critics of the #MeToo movement have often come from cinema itself, inspired by an entrenched suspicion of American puritanical campaigns and witch-hunts. Some have accused the movement of being fuelled by a contempt for men and the art of seduction.
In 2018, film icon Catherine Deneuve was among 100 French women who signed a newspaper column accusing the #MeToo campaign of going too far. “We defend a right to pester, which is vital to sexual freedom,” they said.
It’s a theme Jacquot picked up in his defence last week, lamenting the importation from the US of a “frightening neo-Puritanism”. He suggested his relationship with Godrèche carried an interest for both parties, telling Le Monde: “She wanted to be an actress, she had a filmmaker on hand.”
The newspaper has exhumed a host of past quotes by Jacquot that, in hindsight, appear to capture much of what the #MeToo movement has denounced.
In a 2006 interview with arts weekly Les Inrockuptibles, he spoke of a tacit “pact” underpinning his collaboration with Godrèche in his 1990 movie “La Désenchantée” (The Disenchanted), saying: “If I give her the film, she gives herself completely in return. Which can be understood in any sense you like.”
Nine years later, he told the left-leaning newspaper Libération: “My work as a filmmaker consists of pushing an actress to cross a threshold. Meeting her, talking to her, directing her, separating from her and then finding her again: the best way to do all that is to be in the same bed.”
In an Instagram post in early January, Godrèche said she decided to name Jacquot after coming across a 2011 documentary in which he described cinema as a “sort of cover” for illicit behaviour. He spoke of his relationship with the then child actress as a form of “transgression” that brought him “a degree of admiration” in the “small world of cinema”.
Jacquot told Le Monde last week he regretted those words, describing them as arrogant banter.
Godrèche recently moved back to France after a 10-year stint in New York, motivated in part by her desire to get away from the “small world” of French film. Her hit series “Icon of French cinema” tells the story of a French film star’s return to Paris after a decade in Hollywood. Through flashbacks, it revisits the abuse she endured as a 14-year-old child actress groomed by a leading French director.
Its streaming release in late December came on the heels of the hugely successful theatrical launch of Vanessa Filho’s “Le Consentement”, based on the eponymous 2019 book by Vanessa Springora, a memoir of having been sexually abused from the age of 14 by a celebrated writer who was more than three times her age. Gabriel Matzneff, the accused writer who made no secret of his preference for minors, including preteens, is being investigated for rape, now aged 87.
In an interview with the Guardian last month, Godrèche stressed the importance of speaking out about the grooming of teenagers by older men in positions of authority.
“These people usually come to you as protectors. They become a parental figure,” she said, noting that the French film industry was still protecting powerful men and that a form of omerta remained prevalent. She added: “I’m not here to carry out a witch-hunt, but you might expect a little compassion.”
Fall of the Ogre
Talk of powerful men turning a blind eye to allegations of abuse, or even siding with purported aggressors, became the subject of a nationwide controversy in late December when French President Emmanuel Macron condemned a “manhunt” targeting French film icon Gérard Depardieu.
The world-famous actor has been under formal investigation for rape since 2020 and has been accused of rape or sexual assault by a dozen other women – allegations he denies. His reputation took a further hit in December when public broadcaster France Télévision ran a documentary detailing his history of sexual abuse allegations and featuring interviews with several of his accusers. Entitled “Fall of the Ogre”, the documentary featured a segment filmed in North Korea in which the 75-year-old actor is seen making crude, sexual and misogynistic jokes, including one referring to a child riding a pony.
In the weeks that followed, Depardieu’s wax statue was removed from the Musée Grevin in Paris, Canada’s Quebec region stripped him of its top honour, and Swiss public broadcaster RTS said it was halting the broadcast of films in which he plays a leading role. The backlash sparked concern in France that the star of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and some 200 other titles was being cancelled outright.
Appearing on a television talk show on December 20, Macron rebuked his then Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak – who has since been fired – for suggesting Depardieu might be stripped of his Légion d’honneur, France’s highest decoration.
“He’s an immense actor, a genius of his art,” Macron said in defence of Depardieu, stressing that the Légion d’honneur was not a “moral” order. He added: “I say it as president and as a citizen, he makes France proud.”
In his remarks, Macron also suggested the documentary’s North Korea segment might have been edited in a misleading way, though France Télévisions later said it was authenticated by a bailiff who viewed the raw footage.
The president’s words drew outrage from film workers, rights groups and opposition politicians. Generation.s Feministe, a feminist collective, said they were “an insult” to all women who had suffered sexual violence. Macron’s remarks were “not just scandalous but also dangerous”, added the #NousToutes feminist group.
Stepping into the fray, his predecessor François Hollande said he was “not proud of Gérard Depardieu”. He also berated the president over his failure to spare a word for the film star’s alleged victims.
Cult of the auteur
According to Geneviève Sellier, a professor of film studies at the Université Montaigne in Bordeaux, Macron’s words were indicative of a French “cult of the auteur” that has long been used to excuse or cover up reprehensible behaviour.
“The cult of the auteur places artistic genius – regarded as necessarily male – above the law,” she explains. “This French tradition explains in part why the country remains largely blind to the realities of male domination and abuse.”
Sellier said auteur veneration underpinned a controversial petition that was published on Christmas Day in the right-wing daily Le Figaro, denouncing a “lynching of Depardieu”, signed by dozens of friends and colleagues of the actor. They included former French first lady and singer Carla Bruni, British actor Charlotte Rampling and Depardieu’s former partner, actor Carole Bouquet.
“When Gérard Depardieu is targeted this way, it is the art (of cinema) that is being attacked,” read the text, warning against a campaign to “erase” Depardieu. “Depriving ourselves of this immense actor would be a tragedy, a defeat. The death of the art. Our art.”
Hamidi said the petition reflected a “form of blurring between reality and fiction” that is used to shield artists from scrutiny of their behaviour. “There’s a form of transfiguration at play,” she said. “It’s as if punishing Depardieu meant depriving us of the Cyrano he played.” She added: “You often hear people say of Depardieu that he is larger than life, in the sense that he is also too big for the rules that apply to common mortals, and that those rules therefore should not apply to him.”
The text in support of Depardieu swiftly triggered a flurry of counter-petitions, whose signatories were markedly younger of age.
The Figaro petition “is a sinister and perfect illustration of an old world that refuses to let things change”, read an open letter signed by more than 600 artists, arguing that the text in support of Depardieu “spat in the face” of his accusers.
“Art is not a totem of impunity,” read another letter published by Libération. “We are not attacking the art we hold dear: on the contrary, we want to protect it, firmly refusing to use it as a pretext for abuse of power, harassment or sexual violence.”
As the backlash intensified, several signatories of the original petition scrambled to distance themselves from the text, particularly once it emerged it had been written by a little-known actor and writer for the ultra-conservative magazine Causeur, described as close to far-right pundit and former presidential candidate Éric Zemmour.
Patrice Leconte, who directed Depardieu in the recent “Maigret” (2022), said he had been a “fool” to sign the petition without checking who wrote it, while reiterating his dismay at the “media lynching” the film star was being subjected to. Roberto Alagna, the operatic tenor, suggested in an Instagram post that he had been “tricked” into signing a petition he “hadn’t even read”.
Others, like actor and stage director Jacques Weber, expressed greater contrition.
“Yes, I did sign, forgetting the victims and the fate of thousands of women around the world who are suffering from a state of affairs that has been accepted for too long,” Weber wrote in an article published by Mediapart, under the headline, “Guilty”. He added: “My signature was another rape.”
The age gap exposed by the competing petitions has revived talk of a generational divide in attitudes towards sexual misconduct in the arts – a divide previously highlighted by the controversial open letter published in 2018 by Deneuve and her peers.
“There’s a generation that still doesn’t understand this societal evolution,” Muriel Reus, vice president of #MeTooMedia, which campaigns against sexism and sexual misconduct in the media, told France Info radio at the height of the Depardieu controversy.
This generational divide conceals mechanisms of social domination that are particularly pervasive in the arts, argued Sellier.
“In film, powerful men tend to be older, while female victims are younger, poorer and in more vulnerable jobs,” she said. Those women who did speak out, including among older generations, were simply ignored in the past, she added.
Sophie Marceau, one of France’s best-known actors, told Paris Match weekly magazine in December that Depardieu was “rude and inappropriate” when they worked together on the set of “Police” in 1985. Marceau, 57, said she publicly denounced his behaviour at the time, which she described as “unbearable”, adding: “many people turned on me, trying to make it look like I was being a nuisance”.
Marceau said part of the reason he got away with it was that he targeted women with low-level jobs on set, not the stars.
Days later, fellow actress Isabelle Carré denounced a culture of impunity in French cinema and of sexualising young girls in an op-ed piece in women’s magazine Elle. A prominent actress with dozens of films to her name, Carré, 52, said she had been the object of unwanted sexual attention since she was 11. Regarding Depardieu, she wrote: “Isn’t it astounding that it took 50 years to point out to an actor that his behaviour towards female assistants, dressers and co-actors is not acceptable?”
On Monday, members of the Société des réalisatrices et réalisateurs de films (SRF), an organisation representing French filmmakers, issued a statement in support of Godrèche and others who have spoken out in recent days – and expressing dismay at the industry’s habit of turning a blind eye to abuse.
“We firmly denounce the confusion between creative desire and sexual enslavement, which has been ideologically encouraged by a large part of our professional environment for decades,” they wrote. “We are also struck by the silence of those who witnessed it then and now.”
The next day, the writer and film critic Hélène Frappat hailed a “wind of revolt blowing across France”, praising Godrèche for having “broken the spell” that holds young girls in silence. In an op-ed in Le Monde, Frappat wrote: “The girls are rising up! It seems our culturally reactionary country, this time, will not be able to muzzle them.”
Welcoming the onset of a “French #MeToo” in an interview with France Inter radio last month, actor Laure Calamy praised her colleagues who dared to take on powerful men. She said their courage contrasted with Macron’s support for Depardieu, which she likened to a “slap in their face”.
At stake in this tussle is the very credibility of France and its film industry, Hamidi argued, highlighting a French “backwardness” on the issue. She said: “Statements such as Macron’s project a catastrophic image abroad, giving the impression that we are still in Ancien Régime France, in which the powerful can take advantage of women.”
Far from preserving France’s cherished cultural rayonnement (influence), the president’s words achieved the very opposite, Sellier added: “It is precisely this blindness to sexist violence that is undermining France’s cultural influence.”
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