Thanks to Roman Polanski, France Has Finally Discovered #MeToo

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Protesters marching in Paris following the release of “An Officer and a Spy” in France, November 23, 2019.
Protesters marching in Paris following the release of “An Officer and a Spy” in France, November 23, 2019. Credit: Virginie Merle / Hans Lucas / AF
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

The #MeToo movement shook up Hollywood in 2017, outing and ousting a series of power-drunk men who had committed serious sexual assaults. It made millions around the world realize that tolerance for sexual harassment was now a thing of the past.

However, the movement failed to gain similar traction in France, where these new values were not embraced. This was particularly noticeable in 2018, when 100 female artists and intellectuals, led by legendary actress Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter saying that #MeToo was causing a “witch hunt” of men and threatening sexual freedom. 

It was also evident in the way the French for years refused to turn their backs on Roman Polanski, despite the Oscar-winning director being wanted by the U.S. authorities after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl. He fled the country in 1978 before he could be sentenced. He has also been accused of sexual assault by a number of women over the years.

Yet France always continued to protect Polanski, who made his home there and made most of his films there over the past four decades. When he dared visit neighboring countries like Poland and Switzerland, he faced the real danger of extradition to the United States. But whenever he returned home to France, his freedom was assured.

Many top actors have refused to work with Woody Allen since his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, accused him of sexually abusing her when she was a child. Amazon also canceled its four-picture contract with him, recently settling a $68 million lawsuit brought by the filmmaker.

The French film industry, though, had never given Polanski the cold shoulder, and big-name French stars like Louis Garrel and Jean Dujardin are participating in his latest movie – an adaptation of the Robert Harris novel “An Officer and a Spy.”

French Polish director Roman Polanski during a preview of his latest film, "An Officer and a Spy," in Paris, November 4, 2019.Credit: AFP

And Polanski isn’t the only industry veteran toward whom France has been forgiving. The cases against director Luc Besson, who was accused of charges ranging from sexual harassment to rape by nine women, and actor Gérard Depardieu, on a rape complaint, were both closed by the French prosecution citing a lack of evidence.

Wake-up call

Only now, 40-plus years since the 86-year-old Polanski became a criminal fugitive – and after at least four women claimed he had sexually assaulted them – does France finally appear to be waking up to #MeToo. “An Officer and a Spy,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last summer and was released in France last month, has at last stirred the French from their apathy.

It happened thanks to photographer and former actress Valentine Monnier, who, a few days before the movie’s French premiere, published an open letter in French daily Le Parisien. In it, she recounted how, when she was 18 in 1975, Polanski violently raped her at a ski resort in Gstaad, Switzerland. “I thought I was going to die,” Monnier wrote. She also said that immediately afterward, the director tearfully apologized to her and begged her never to tell anyone.

Polanski vehemently denies the allegations and his lawyer insisted it was no coincidence that Monnier, now 62, decided to publicize her claims just days before the director’s new film was released in France. Monnier made no attempt to deny that. In her letter, she explained that it was the film’s release that finally convinced her to break her 44-year silence.

“An Office and a Spy,” which opened in Israeli movie theaters last week but has yet to secure a U.S. release, is based on Harris’ retelling of the Dreyfus affair, in which French-Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason and espionage in the late 19th century. Monnier said the film’s promotional materials, in which Polanski addressed the Dreyfus affair and the famous “J’accuse” letter, drove her to finally speak out.

Louis Garrel, left, as Alfred Dreyfus in Roman Polanski's "An Officer and a Spy." Credit: Gaumont

Her testimony led to raucous protests outside the Paris cinema where “An Officer and a Spy” premiered, with Polanski reportedly being smuggled out of the cinema through the back door. Screenings at one Paris movie theater were canceled due to protests. And there were also calls on social media for a boycott of the film, with memes widely shared showing the movie’s poster with the French title “J’accuse” replaced by the word “J’abuse.”

In addition, interviews that were scheduled as part of the film’s local promotional tour were canceled (including one on a popular radio program with one of the film’s stars, Emmanuelle Seigner, who is also Polanski’s wife). France’s directors’ guild, the ARP, announced it had begun proceedings to suspend Polanski’s membership, and Delphine Ernotte, a top executive with the French public broadcaster that helped finance the film, said at a conference on gender equality that the decision to help support the film had been “an error of judgment.”

But a country like France isn’t likely to change overnight: Despite the protests, the public voted with its feet and “An Officer and a Spy” was an instant box office hit. Over 385,000 people saw it during its first week of release and it remains in the top 10, grossing over $10 million in four weeks.

And if that weren’t enough, the movie is also nominated for five Lumières awards, including best director for Polanski. It also received four nominations at the European Film Awards, again including a best director nod for Polanski, but left empty-handed earlier this month.

However, even allowing for the film’s commercial success, the intensity of the French protest against Polanski still came as a shock. After all, the public response to previous sexual assault accusations against Polanski was minimal. Two years ago, the German actress Renate Langer filed a complaint with the Swiss police saying she had been raped by Polanski in 1972, again at the Gstaad ski resort, when she was just 15. In 2010, British actress Charlotte Lewis, now 52, had accused the director of raping her in Paris when she was 16.

And Israeli journalist Matan Uziel, who launched the site to chronicle the allegations against Polanski, says that five women have told him the director raped them. (In 2017, Polanski sued Uziel in Israel for libel, but when the director refused to show up to court in Herzliya, the case was dismissed and he was ordered to pay Uziel’s court costs).

Which all begs the question: why now? Perhaps it is because Monnier is herself French and told her story in the #MeToo era. But it could also be because her account appeared just days after another chilling account roiled France: Actress Adèle Haenel, one of the biggest stars of contemporary French cinema (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), accused French director Christophe Ruggia of subjecting her to “permanent sexual harassment” when she worked with him on her 2002 debut “The Devils” at age 12. (Ruggia denied the allegation.)

Protesters marching in Paris last month following the release of “An Officer and a Spy.”Credit: AFP

Haenel, 30, winner of two César Awards (the French equivalent of the Academy Awards), said in an interview with French investigative website Mediapart that French society must take sexual harassment more seriously. “Monsters don’t exist. This is our society we’re talking about. Our fathers, our friends, our brothers. As long as we don’t see this, we’ll never move forward,” she said.

The French film industry was quick to stand alongside her. Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard praised Haenel for her courage; the directors’ guild announced it was suspending Ruggia from its ranks; and other French film institutions also expressed their support for her. So when Monnier’s account appeared a few days later, dissent was already in the air.

In league with the devil

Monnier says she was spurred to tell her story after reading the interview Polanski gave as part of the press notes for “An Officer and a Spy” when it premiered at Venice and won a top prize there. Pascal Bruckner, the French author of the novel “Bitter Moon,” which Polanski adapted into a 1992 erotic thriller, conducted the interview. His sympathetic approach was made abundantly clear when he asked Polanski how he would “survive the present-day neo-feminist McCarthyism.”

In response, Polanski said he saw certain similarities between himself and Dreyfus: “I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case,” the director said. “I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me.”

Polanski, who has given few interviews in recent years and did not attend the world premiere in Italy, was also asked why he decided to make a film about the Dreyfus affair. “The story of a man unfairly accused is always fascinating, but it is also very much a current issue, given the upsurge in anti-Semitism. ... Another affair is possible, definitely. All the ingredients are there for it to happen: False accusations, lousy court proceedings, corrupt judges and, above all, ‘social media’ that convict and condemn without a fair trial or a right of appeal,” he replied.

Polanski also used the platform afforded him by the sympathetic interviewer to assert that the public attitude toward him had already begun to be shaped following the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate in 1969 (a tragedy recently subverted by Quentin Tarantino in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”): “When it happened, even though I was already going through a terrible time, the press got hold of the tragedy and, unsure of how to deal with it, covered it in the most despicable way, implying, among other things, that I was one of the people responsible for her murder, against a background of Satanism.

A scene from Roman Polanski's "An Officer and a Spy." Credit: Gaumont

“For them,” he continued, referring to the press, “my film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ proved that I was in league with the devil! It lasted several months, until the police finally found the real killers, Charles Manson and his ‘family.’ … All this still haunts me today. Anything and everything. It is like a snowball, each season adds another layer. Absurd stories by women I have never seen before in my life who accuse me of things which supposedly happened more than half a century ago.”

Monnier says this interview revived her traumatic memory of the 1975 rape. “Is it credible to hear somebody say ‘J’accuse’ when they have branded you and forbidden you, the victim, to accuse him?” Monnier asked in Le Parisien. The question now is whether Monnier’s testimony will end up changing forever France’s attitude toward Polanski. And whether it will mark a watershed moment in the French film industry’s attitude toward sexual harassment and assault.

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