The César awards incident got to the heart of an ongoing conflict in France’s film industry, reckoning with its own #MeToo movement, racial issues, and resistance to modernisation
Last Friday evening in Paris, the 2020 César Award for Best Director was given to a rapist who assaulted a child – following this, a woman who was assaulted as a child by a film director walked out of the ceremony. The video of the event subsequently went viral over the weekend. Adèle Haenel – one of the lead actors in Portrait of a Lady on Fire – led the walk-out in protest at the prize awarded to Roman Polanski, while shouting “shame” and “bravo paedophile”. A few pointers could be helpful in working out how this truly sick situation ever came about, and the cultural and political climate in France.
In January of this year, the writer Vanessa Springora published a book, Le Consentement, in which she revealed that she was sexually assaulted at 14 by the writer Gabriel Matzneff, then aged 50. Matzneff, a writer who had published several apologias of paedophilia throughout the 1970s, was not made an outcast in French literary circles for his pronouncements – for instance, in 1977, that “the two most sensual beings I have known were a boy of 12 and a girl of 15”, or, in 1990, that he had had paid relations with boys as young as 11 in Manila. On the contrary, Matzneff appeared on television throughout the 80s and was championed by everyone from the presenter Bernard Pivot to the writer Frédéric Beigbeder, via François Mitterrand. He was awarded the Prix Renaudot for his essays in 2013, and straight-up given an apartment in Paris by the mayor, Jacques Chirac. The common defence of Matzneff was that he was a brilliant libertine whose work provoked the bourgeoisie; his detractors were vilified by members of the literary establishment such as Philippe Sollers.
In 2005 the film director Jean-Claude Brisseau was found guilty of the sexual harassment of two actresses, and sentenced to a suspended year in prison. The magazine Les Inrocks published a petition of support for the director. He re-offended a year later and was sentenced again, continued making films, and won a prize at Locarno Film Festival, before dying in 2018. The Cinémathèque of Paris planned to celebrate him in 2017 with a career retrospective, just after it had run a tribute to Roman Polanski and just before it held a retrospective of the work of the director Šarūnas Bartas, who has been accused of sexual assault by two women .
This is the context in which the events of Friday must be seen. These are the men whose criminal actions were excused and even enabled in the name of their artistry. Great literary figures (you could count racist controversialists such as Michel Houellebecq in this number) who just so happen to be men, must be excused and upheld in their every endeavour. This rush to support the noble figure of the embattled Great Man, casts their opponents as small-minded puritans intent on destroying art. So, the handful of protesters at Polanski’s retrospective were commonly described as “lynching” Polanski – a handy way of casting a powerful man as the victim.
“Into this landscape now strides a progressively loud movement intent on tearing down this predominantly male establishment”
The overwhelming support in recent years for the magazine Charlie Hebdo, and their right to publish offensive cartoons, plays into this narrative – however right the thinking may be, the central questions of freedom of expression, freedom to offend and disgust, were accepted as self-evidently crucial in France, rather than matters for debate. There could be no conceivable rejoinder to the obvious primacy of intellectual liberty. Of course, the rebels of May ‘68, the bad boys taking down the bourgeoisie, are now the establishment, and not particularly keen on being told they are holding up the march of progress.
Into this landscape now strides a progressively loud movement intent on tearing down this predominantly male establishment. Last year Adèle Haenel suddenly became the inspiring and much-needed figurehead for what had perhaps been a rather ailing #MeToo movement in France. The actor revealed in an exceptionally thorough and detailed report by Mediapart that she had been abused by the director Christophe Ruggia between the ages of 12 and 15, and spoke powerfully of her wish not to go to court, arguing that the legal system fails women. (Ruggia has since been arrested) Certain figures in French film had spoken of their #MeToo moment, including a devastating account by Florence Darel of her interactions with Harvey Weinstein. But all too often the movement met with pushback, from actors like Fanny Ardant who considers #MeToo to be anti-democratic, and Catherine Deneuve, for whom activists are man-hating, and who signed a petition calling for men to retain the right to hit on women in the street, or something.
Speaking of courage during the #cesars2020, we should also talk about actress Aïssa Maïga. She stood on stage and called out the whole room for the lack of diversity and the casual racism in French cinema. She is also one of the few who left after Adèle did. Respect. pic.twitter.com/sNBjvoWgf5— vittoria (@witchesonfire7) February 29, 2020
Elsewhere, a new wave of activism has come from people of colour in French cinema, such as the actor Aïssa Maïga, who oversaw Noire n’est pas mon métier (Black Isn’t My Job) in 2018, a collective essay by actresses of colour denouncing the systemic racism of the industry. Other initiatives making waves include 50/50, a collective agitating for parity and diversity within the film world.
The César awards on Friday got to the heart of this conflict, with Polanski symbolically facing off for best director against Ladj Ly, a young black man, and Céline Sciamma, a young queer woman. The metaphor is almost too pointed. But in effect, if the younger generation were brought into the the ceremony on Friday, as the writer Virginie Despentes noted in an excoriating op-ed in Libération, it was to be made to bear witness, in silence, to the continued victory of the patriarchal establishment, serving its own as usual. If Haenel left her seat in disgust, it’s because she is perfectly aware that she is receiving retribution of sorts for speaking out.
In 1974, a film came out that talked about the quasi-impossibility of bringing down rich, powerful, even criminal men who will stop at nothing to protect their own interests and each other: Chinatown, by Roman Polanski. But that film’s pessimistic last line - “Forget it, Jake – it’s Chinatown”, signalling the futility of action - may need a corrective now. Haenel’s bravery has been seen around the world; they’re chipping away at the edifice bit by bit. Remember Chinatown.