French Star Pierre Arditi: I Cried When I Visited Israel for the First Time

At 77, one of France’s most popular actors is as political as ever. With a new film screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival he speaks with Haaretz about why he is disappointed with his country’s socialists

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Pierre Arditi. '[Us French] maintain the things that characterize us: we are irritable, we complain all the time.'
Pierre Arditi. '[Us French] maintain the things that characterize us: we are irritable, we complain all the time.'Credit: SYLVAIN LEFEVRE / Hans Lucas via AFP
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

The United States was shocked when Brock Turner, an outstanding student and swimmer at Stanford University, dragged a young woman who was drunk and almost unconscious behind a dumpster on campus and raped her.

The judge presiding over his trial meted out a ridiculously lenient sentence of six months in prison, of which Turner served only three. What caused the most anger were the infuriating words said by the defendant’s father during the trial. The father said that the stellar career of an outstanding student shouldn’t be wrecked because of “20 minutes of action.”

'When I first visited Israel and the plane flew low over the country, I suddenly felt tears streaming down my face'

A few years after the incident, the victim’s real name emerged: Chanel Miller, who published a memoir about the incident. The affair inspired a bestselling novel titled “Les Choses humaines” ("Human Things") by French author Karine Tuil. This year, a movie adaption, “The Accusation,” directed by Yvan Attal, was released in France, The film will be screened this week at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and throughout Israel starting next week.

In the film, the French actor Pierre Arditi plays the part of Jean Farel, a popular TV broadcaster whose son is accused of rape. The son, played by Ben Attal, the director’s son, has returned to Paris to attend the bestowing of a Legion of Honor award to his father at the Elysee Palace.

During a visit to his mother (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the director’s wife), who is divorced from his father, he meets her new partner (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his daughter Mila. Mila joins him at a party, at the end of which he rapes her. As expected, he denies the charge and argues that the act was consensual, and like the father in the real case, Arditi gets to say the controversial words that treat the son’s act as no more than harmless “action.”

In France, the law permitting abortion was approved in 1975 thanks to a great woman, then-Health Minister Simone Veil

Pierre Arditi

What did you feel when you had to say that?

“I obviously object to it, but as an actor I have to defend the character I am playing. In the case of Jean Farel, I had to look cynical, and I did the best I could. Farel is an arrogant misogynist, due to the popularity he’s gained as a TV personality, but in the book he’s a much more complex figure. Many cuts were made to sublots in the book for the screenplay, in order to keep things compact. In the book, Farel maintains a strong relationship with a lover his age who has Alzheimer’s disease and he takes care of her. This is missing from the film.

“I define myself as a feminist and recognize the importance of the #MeToo movement. It’s a huge step forward. And yet, it seems that a few boundaries have been crossed, such as the [French] campaign called ‘squeal on your pig,’ which opened the door to false accusations. Every man who finds himself alone in an elevator with a woman could be accused of indecent acts without an opportunity to defend himself. I think rationality should be used with regard to #MeToo as well.”

In earlier interviews, you said you oppose “woke culture” and “cancel culture.”

“In contrast to my unreserved support of the #MeToo movement, which is incredibly important and which I’ll defend to my utmost, I’m not enthusiastic about “wokeism.” I’m not in favor of removing some events from our historical records, such as colonialism, which is obviously wrong today. You don’t write history with an eraser in your hand. The same applies to culture. What, are we now going to burn the writings of the Marquis de Sade, remove the paintings of Caravaggio from museum walls, or Picasso’s ‘The Young Ladies of Avignon’ because they were prostitutes?”

On a French TV show, Arditi said in 2018 that he would “definitely agree to act in a Woody Allen movie; he’s a great director! Art doesn’t need ethics lessons from all kinds of hysterical organizations.” He now says in regard to this that “European culture is different from American culture, which derives from extreme puritanism.”

Simone de Beauvoir said that “it only takes a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question.” This statement was realized with the ban on abortion that was renewed in the United States. Could something like that happen in France?

In France, the law permitting abortion was approved in 1975 thanks to a great woman, then-Health Minister Simone Veil. In spite of de Beauvoir’s words, it’s hard for me to believe that this law will ever be rescinded in France, but obviously, it should be enshrined in the Republic’s constitution. Then it will be really hard to abrogate it.”

Yvan Attal, director of 'The Accusation.'Credit: David Bachar

When tears flow

Arditi was born in 1944, the son of Jewish painter Georges Arditi, who was born in Marseilles, but had roots in Thessaloniki and Spain. His mother was Belgian, and as a child he spent most of his vacations in Belgium. His sister, Catherine Arditi, is also an actress, both of them having turned to the profession with the encouragement of their father.

He is a relative of the Jewish author and Nobel Prize laureate Elias Canetti. “Canetti was my father’s cousin,” he says. “He had two brothers. One of them, Jacques ‘Nissim’ Canetti, opened a cabaret called “The Three Donkeys” in Montmartre in the 1950s. Singer-songwriter Jacques Brel and musician Serge Gainsbourg started out there.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. When I first visited Israel for a festival honoring the films of Alain Resnais, and the plane flew low over the country, I suddenly felt tears streaming down my face.”

Arditi has a son, Fredric, with his first wife, the actress Florence Giorgetti. His son is a painter, just like his grandfather. For several years, Arditi was the partner of the singer Barbara, and for over 25 years he’s been married to the actress Evelyne Bouix. With her, they lovingly raised her daughter Salome Lelouch, who was born during her marriage to director Claude Lelouch.

Since 1965, Arditi has been starring in films and the theater, with equal success. As a film actor, he was one of a group surrounding famed director Alain Resnais (“Night and Fog”, “Hiroshima mon amour,” “Last Year at Marienbad”), along with actors Andre Dussollier, Lambert Wilson and Sabine Azema.

After Resnais’ death in 2014, it appeared that Arditi was turning mainly to theater. He denies this during our conversation. “There was some suggestion of that, but I kept on with films as well. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, I filmed at least three movies.” One of these was “La Belle Epoque,” in which he acted alongside Daniel Auteuil.

And yet, it seems that you prefer the theater?

“In theater, one has greater freedom: The director leads, decides, and guides, but when the curtain goes up, he lets go – as if launching a ship to sea. As an actor in the theater, you feel like a king. In cinema, you are just a pawn on a chess board, the director does with you as he pleases and you have no idea what will remain from the film that has been shot… but on second thought – with a great director like Resnais, then as an actor you also feel like a king.

Karine Tuil, author of 'Les Choses humaine.'Credit: Patrice Normand / leemage via AFP

It seems that you like working with Attal as a director?

“Yes. A year ago, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, we took part together in filming ‘La Scala’ by the director Bruno Chiche. The script is based on the Israeli film ‘Footnote.’ In the film, I play a conductor at the end of his musical career, father to Yvan, also a successful young prize-winning conductor. When an invite is sent for one of them to conduct the La Scala opera house in Milan, it is sent to the wrong recipient.”

Macron, of all people

Arditi’s voice is often heard on political affairs. He describes himself as a loudmouth. “I take part in debates at every opportunity I am offered,” he says. “Since I was young, I have been a politically mobilized artist. I was a socialist and I inherited my affinity for the left from my father, who was a communist. I was a socialist, but please don’t label me a Gauche caviar.

"I was a socialist for as long as there were figures on the left, such as Francois Mitterrand or Robert Badinter, who were worthy of admiration. Badinter was a rare personality with a strong, impressive voice who brought about the end of the death penalty. So was his wife, Elisabeth Badinter – a philosopher and feminist. Jack Lang was a wonderful socialist minister of culture for many years. There are no political figures of their standing today.”

In France’s 2017 presidential election, Arditi endorsed Emmanuel Macron and was among the confidantes present at a party in a restaurant after his first-round victory. “The socialists didn’t work hard enough in those elections, they didn’t devote any creative thought, they had nothing to offer other than criticism of Macron,” says Arditi when asked about his decision to support Macron.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron.Credit: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

“It’s true that he has made mistakes, like anyone who does things. During the coronavirus pandemic, he functioned perfectly. Since the war in Ukraine, the financial situation in France, like in all of Europe, has deteriorated. That is a fact. The alternative was the radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Marine Le Pen, who doesn’t need to be introduced. We are experiencing the same crises as the rest of western Europe.”

Some are saying that with globalization, France “is losing its soul.” Is that true?

“Not at all. It isn’t easy and we maintain the things that characterize us: we are irritable, we complain all the time. It is said that the French think they live in hell but they live in paradise. Of course, that isn’t true for all of the population and I am aware of the difficulties and the dissatisfaction of the weaker sections of society. We saw in 2019 the distress of the Yellow Vests. I don’t think we live in paradise, but when people say that the situation in hospitals is dreadful, I would note that today, despite 3,500 coronavirus patients in critical condition, that is a minuscule number compared to a population of 67 million. We live in a democracy and despite the growing strength of the extreme right, I doubt we will become a dictatorship.

“Our culture is humanist, open, and visionary. We are a leading nation in the field of culture. Intellectual debate is alive and well in France, artists and intellectuals write on burning issues. Together with Juliette Binoche and 200 other artists in 2018, we initiated a manifesto to save the planet from global warming. It was published in Le Monde under the headline ‘The greatest challenge in the history of mankind.’”

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