At the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, French actor and opening ceremony emcee Laurent Lafitte sparked an uproar with a rape joke linking Woody Allen, who was there to present “Cafe Society,” and Roman Polanski.
“It’s very nice that you’ve been shooting so many movies in Europe, even if you’re not being convicted of rape in the U.S.,” Lafitte said, to murmurs of surprise in the audience. Afterward, the comment drew swift rebukes from Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who said he rushed to make sure Allen wasn’t offended, and “Cafe Society” star Blake Lively, who said any joke “about rape, homophobia or Hitler is not a joke.”
Two years and one radical cultural shift later, Allen has found himself caught up in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in the U.S. over longtime allegations that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. In France, however, a country where Allen has always enjoyed a strong base of die-hard fans, the controversy surrounding the Oscar-winning filmmaker has met with only a muted response.
Fewer voices have been raised in Allen’s defense this time than in the past, perhaps because of the heightened sensitivity over issues of sexual harassment and assault. But there has been no significant backlash against him in the French entertainment industry, though his latest film, “Wonder Wheel,” has grossed only about half of what his films usually make in France.
Allen’s most forthright defender has been Stephane Celerier of Mars Distribution, which released “Wonder Wheel” on Jan. 31. Fremaux, who in 2016 compared Allen’s enduring bond with Cannes to Moliere’s relationship with the Comedie Francaise, has remained silent, declining to comment when contacted by Variety.
Celerier, who has worked with Allen for the last 10 years, published a lengthy op-ed piece in the magazine Le Point noting that investigations into Dylan Farrow’s accusations failed to yield evidence with which to charge Allen in 1993. Celerier said the director should not be unfairly tried by the media or associated with Hollywood predators who have a history of abuse and have either been convicted or are being investigated.
There has been no threat of a boycott against Allen in France. Only Marion Cotillard, who headlined Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” has said she would “probably not” do another movie with him. A spokeswoman for the French guild of art-house theaters said exhibitors she spoke to were looking forward to the next Allen film and would never consider shunning his movies based on “old accusations” that have never been proven.
“We have a culture of tolerance towards artists and auteurs. We tend to not take into consideration their personal lives when judging their work, because their works — whether it’s a book, a painting or a film — exist on their own,” said Caroline Fourest, the French journalist, documentary filmmaker and feminist champion. Fourest has been in the media lately because she has led the charge against Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim academic who was recently accused of rape by many women and is France’s only high-profile figure to have been brought low as part of the local #MeToo movement.
“Allen has made more than 50 films since the 1970s, and he’s one of the last masters alive, along with Martin Scorsese, Aki Kaurismaki, Francis Ford Coppola,” said Alain Cras, the veteran film critic at popular French radio station Europe 1. “His body of work is exceptional. What should we do now — boycott all the movies Allen has made since 1993?”
Cras said comparing Allen to Polanski, who pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl, was unfair. He also criticized Hollywood for being hypocritical, since it saw fit to award Polanski a best-director Oscar for “The Pianist” in 2003.
Beyond Allen’s case, the response in France to the #MeToo movement has differed from that in the U.S., Britain, and Scandinavia. Although a French equivalent to #MeToo, #balancetonporc (“squeal on your pig”), was quickly launched, it has prompted more criticism from people such as actress Catherine Deneuve than actual denunciations.
Not a single high-profile producer or director in France has officially been accused of sexual harassment or assault. Thomas Sotinel, senior cultural critic at Le Monde, said France’s strict libel laws partly explain why so few women have made public accusations and why no media outlets have reported on allegedly abusive filmmakers or producers. “In France, if a journalist is accused of defamation, he or she will have to give concrete proof of what is stated in the article, and when there is no complaint filed or medical record and it’s a case of ‘he said, she said,’ it becomes very complicated to prove anything,” Sotinel said.
Deneuve and others argue that victims of sexual harassment or assault should go to the police before broadcasting their accusations on social media. They also charge the #MeToo movement with creating an atmosphere of “puritanism,” and view it as a slippery slope toward anonymous, malicious denunciations reminiscent of délation, the abhorrent practice in Occupied France of people secretly informing on their neighbors to the Nazis. The specter of délation continues to haunt French society.
In response to the criticism of #MeToo, Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius joined French author Raphael Glucksmann in delivering a sharply written essay titled “We too want equality. Wetoo.” In the Jan. 29 article, Hazanavicius and Glucksmann said the “eruption of the Harvey Weinstein scandal has shaken the ancient male domination of the public space. That’s a good thing!”
Hazanavicius told Variety that #MeToo and #balancetonporc have helped women identify patterns of sexual harassment and abuse. “There’s been a power shift,” he said. “The shift isn’t women against men. It’s about men and women against injustices committed against women.”
But even Hazanivicus doesn’t perceive Allen’s case as fitting the same mold of sexual harassment and assault that has emerged in recent months. “Allen was investigated and a judicial decision was taken 25 years ago,” Hazanavicius said.
Diana Elbaum, a co-producer on “Elle” and founder of Boostcamp, a workshop to empower women filmmakers, agrees that Allen’s case departs from the usual template of #MeToo cases, but it “resonates today because people finally realized Dylan Farrow’s testimony should not be dismissed,” Elbaum said, adding: “That’s the essence of Time’s Up.”