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The fall of France’s sacred monsters Women are finally seeking justice

The Ogre: Gérard Depardieu. Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images

The Ogre: Gérard Depardieu. Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images


May 13, 2024   8 mins

The French version of MeToo is coming to Cannes this year, and it’s going to be a very different kind of film festival. A reckoning is in the air, one that has been decades in the making. The actress Judith Godrèche, who has made allegations of sexual abuse against two well-known directors, will screen her short film Moi Aussi, in part a response to the 5,000 or more testimonies she received from other women after she first spoke out. The 75-year-old titan of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu, is to stand trial in October over allegations of sexual assault from two women on a 2021 film set, a charge he denies. And the head of France’s top cinema body, Dominique Boutonnat, will be tried in June on charges of sexually assaulting his godson, which he also denies.

The atmosphere is becoming a little feverish: according to Le Figaro, festival organisers are assembling a crisis management team, in the belief that 10 high-profile directors and actors may be publicly denounced at Cannes. It is said that the list of names has already been sent anonymously to organisations that finance French films.

A long-standing omertà — as many refer to it — over the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse in France’s creative industries has finally been broken, and some of the most respected cultural figures of the post-1968 era are in the firing line. The most recognisable of them is Depardieu, who in the last few years has seemed to stagger from scandal to controversy without a pause. Last December, his personal reputation seemed to hit a new low with the screening of a French documentary, Depardieu: The Fall of the Ogre.

The film showed footage of the actor in North Korea in 2018, invited there on a celebratory jolly to mark the 70th anniversary of the dictatorship. Depardieu was relaxed, on good form: he could scarcely encounter a young woman without blurting out sexual comments, a kind of ongoing chatter between himself and his libido, with constant references to his genitals — “I’ve got a beam in my pants!” — her genitals, and the attributes of both. A visit to an equestrian centre sparked a stream-of-consciousness reflection on the sexual pleasure women allegedly get from riding horses, which managed to include a passing 10-year-old girl. His female interpreter, compelled to accompany this honoured Gallic guest of the regime, tried to stay smiling and polite. In North Korea even more than in most places, I imagine, she really didn’t feel she had much choice.

Depardieu was there with his friend, the author and film-maker Yann Moix, a winner of several French literary prizes who crashed into the Anglo-Saxon consciousness in 2019, aged 50, when he said that women over 50 were “too, too old” to love. Equally unbearable, romantically speaking, were “white western” women, he said: in fact, he now preferred dating young Asian women. The predictable outrage had ensued, followed by Moix’s equally predictable defence of the freedom to state one’s preferences and predilections. But compared to Depardieu, Moix was a junior league sexual troll. On the North Korean trip, sometimes he looked a bit anxious. “You picked the short straw with Gérard!” he told the interpreter, in what may have been a stab at empathy. In the end he had chosen not to screen the film he initially meant to make about their trip: it is only glimpsed here, in clips.

The Fall of the Ogre detailed a number of accusations of sexual assault against Depardieu, on film sets where other crew members had allegedly responded with laughter or turning a blind eye. “That’s Gérard!” people used to say. Another young woman, Charlotte Arnould, who had thought of him as a friend of the family, accused him of sexual assault and rape when she was 22. Questions were raised over earlier press interviews, in which Depardieu suggested he had participated in rapes in his famously delinquent youth, in Chateauroux in central France. The first remark was in Film Comment magazine, in 1978, when he said: “I had plenty of rapes, too many to count.” In 1990, an interviewer from Time magazine asked the actor to clarify whether he had indeed taken part in rape, and he replied, “Yes. But it was absolutely normal in those circumstances. That was part of my childhood.” A column in The Washington Post expressed outrage, but Depardieu said he had been mistranslated, and denied raping anyone. Back then, France had shrugged its collective shoulders.

The actor’s one-time agent Jean-Louis Livi gave a telling response in the documentary. “I know Gerard Depardieu,” he said, “He is neither a rapist nor a predator. He’s a monster, yes. But he’s also a sacred monster. He’s a monument.” It’s an interesting series of statements to unpack. First, a flat and decisive denial: “He is neither a rapist nor a predator.” Then, a disarming admission: “He’s a monster, yes”. But if Depardieu is indeed a “monster”, then how did it manifest itself, precisely what kind of monster was he? No matter: a “sacred” one, apparently, too big and legendary to attack, his talent, whims and eccentricities placing him beyond restraint or criticism; a “monument” to French culture, in fact, to the very idea of France. Attack Depardieu, and you are attacking France itself.

It’s a notion which goes right to the top. When President Macron was asked about the actor, following the screening of The Fall of an Ogre, Depardieu was already under formal investigation for rape. Macron said, correctly, that the judicial process should be allowed to take its course, and Depardieu be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But then he added: “I’m a great admirer of Depardieu; he’s an immense actor…a genius of his art. He has made France known across the whole world. And, I say this as a president and as a citizen, he makes France proud.”

That statement of solidarity — “he makes France proud” — triggered fury in French feminists and Left-wing politicians. Yet it also missed the essential point, perhaps deliberately. No-one, even Depardieu’s accusers, has ever questioned his talent as an actor. It’s clear that he brings something exceptional to the screen, a kind of primal energy, an instinctive and restless intelligence which may indeed be partly related to the survival skills honed during his rough upbringing, spent in petty criminality and the hectic flouting of middle-class norms. The question now being asked is whether his status in French cinema should place his alleged harassment, assault and possibly even rape of women beyond social condemnation and the reach of the law.

That question doesn’t only pertain to Depardieu: it goes to the heart of the French cultural establishment. For a long time it was tacitly accepted in French culture that the celebration of male genius and creative self-expression took precedence over the sexual boundaries of women, and sometimes those of children. When #MeToo exploded in America, France stood apart for a time, wary of a spate of denunciations and cancellations. But then stories from French women themselves started to emerge. They were fuelled by a pent-up, long-held female anger at male abuses which had long operated under the cover of a seductive idea of a liberal French culture that was proudly distinct from the punitive, uptight mores of the Anglosphere. Many of them circled painful questions of age and consent.

Consent was, in fact, the title of the 2020 memoir by Vanessa Springora, a prominent French writer and editor, who said that she had been abused as a teenager between the ages of 14 and 16 by the well-known author Gabriel Matzneff, then aged 50. He first began having sex with her when she was 14, after they met at a dinner party, and thereafter she became his “girlfriend” or his “muse”. Matzneff was open about his preferences for very young girls and boys: in 1974 he published a pamphlet called “The Under-16s” which included lines such as “to sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure”. In another book, in the Eighties, he detailed his sexual experiences in the Philippines with boys aged between eight and 14. For decades, such unabashed revelations did nothing to threaten Matzneff’s apparently secure place within the cultural establishment.

Reputational risk, where it existed, seemed not to await those who pursued children for sex, but those who challenged them. When, in 1990, Matzneff appeared on a French literary chat show, the host quizzed him playfully about his penchant for very young girls, and the author began to expand confidently upon his theme. There was one strongly dissenting voice, however: a French-Canadian novelist called Denise Bombardier, who attacked his behaviour “an abuse of power”, remarking that “literature cannot serve as an alibi”. For this, she was roundly derided by a number of French intellectuals: the late author and critic Phillippe Sollers called her a “bitch”. Her publisher explicitly warned her that “your future as a writer in France will be compromised”; Le Monde, she said later, never afterwards published another article about her books.

The late Bombardier has been vindicated by history, but the elderly Matzneff cuts a disgraced figure: his books have been pulled from shops, and he was stripped of the state aid given to writers. He might be forgiven a degree of confusion at his current pariah status, however, if only because at one time his world-view had so many friends. When he wrote a letter to Le Monde in 1977, arguing that under-age children should be permitted in law to consent to sex with adults, it was co-signed by such luminaries as Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

As Springora did with publishing, Judith Godrèche has now placed a stick of gelignite under the French film industry. At the age of 14, she said, she became the “girlfriend” of the then 39-year-old arthouse director Benoit Jacquot, with whom she stayed until the age of 20. She describes a strange relationship: she was never actually attracted to him, she said, and yet she became his “child-wife”, initially over-awed by his aura of worldly success, his encompassing control, and, she alleged, his domestic violence. The odd thing was, she says, that none of the adults around her seemed to treat it as at all abnormal. In fact, she attracted another adult predator, she alleged, in a situation tolerated by Jacquot: when the film director Jacques Doillon was directing her, at 15, in a film called La Fille de 15 Ans Godrèche says he sexually assaulted her on two occasions, once at the home he shared with the English actress Jane Birkin.

A common theme is of children who felt confused and abandoned by the code of the grown-ups around them. In 2021 Camille Kouchner published a book which revealed that her step-father had regularly sexually abused her twin brother when he was just 14 years old. Her step-father was Olivier Duhamel, a prominent intellectual and politician. Her mother, Evelyne Pisier, was a star of the French Left: a well-known feminist and political scientist who had a four-year affair with Fidel Castro. The family was stylish, wealthy and well-connected: its members prided themselves on not being “prudes”. Boundaries were so far sunk under the concept of “freedom” that the twins at first didn’t know how to process their stepfather’s behaviour. Camille’s brother told her, “I don’t know if we should be angry”. When they finally told their mother, she supported her husband.

“The ‘freedom’ of the child was never remotely equivalent to the freedom of the adult.”

Each set of allegations is specific to its case, and the individuals concerned: it is important not to conflate them. But nonetheless there are certain themes common to the culture in which French women have been steeped. The career of Serge Gainsbourg, the famously louche balladeer whom President Mitterrand called “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire” is a case in point. While no-one has suggested that Gainsbourg crossed a line privately, his public persona knowingly toyed with the transgressive charge associated with under-age sex: Lemon Incest, which he sang with his then 12-year-old daughter Charlotte, was an ambiguous paean to father-daughter love; his album “The Ballad of Melody Nelson” is about the adult narrator’s sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl. France seemed to agree that Gainsbourg was shocking, charming, sexy, a great seducer. Certainly, his talent was undeniable. But by the end, his provocations looked increasingly crass: a drunken Gainsbourg on a French chat show, pawing the hair of a young, startled Whitney Houston while mumbling “I want to ferk yeu”.

For men such as Matzneff and Jacquot, however, it is not simply that society affected not to look. It did look, and it approved. In fashionable Parisian circles, the ability to seduce and parade the very young was a status-enhancer, signalling a man’s cultural power. Crashing through barriers in plain sight was the sign of a bohemian risk-taker, sanctioned by the spirit of rebellion.

Now the erstwhile objects of that quest for sexual freedom have grown up, and are interrogating who owned the freedom in the first place. They are often women in their forties and fifties, bent on protecting a younger generation, asking why they received no protection from adults themselves. They are pointing out that the concept of sexual freedom, so prized both by strands of the French Revolution and the soixante-huitards, is not owned equally, but heavily subject to status and context. The “freedom” of the child was never remotely equivalent to the freedom of the adult, nor that of the star equivalent to that of the extra on set, paid by the day. That may not invalidate art, but it does place boundaries on the artist. At Cannes, and elsewhere, France’s age of the sacred monster is coming to an end.


Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.

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Samantha Stevens
Samantha Stevens
5 days ago

Wow. No wonder the French didn’t care that Macron’s wife had been his teacher. What revolting revelations in this article. Yet, I have no doubt it is not unique to the French, just more openly accepted there. Just look at the Nickelodeon depravity.

We must not forget that the creator of Queer Theory Michel Foucault fought his entire life to abolish the age of consent in France, as he vacation to Tunisia to abuse boys. Erasing child safeguarding boundaries is the goal of queer theory.

Better to have them declare themselves that we might know who they are and deal with them accordingly. There is no justification for childhood sexual abuse. Signed, a survivor with lifetime scars.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
4 days ago

Nickelodeon depravity?

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
4 days ago
Reply to  Mangle Tangle

You haven’t heard? ‘Quiet On Set’ is a documentary on Nickelodeon’s scandalous behaviour towards their young cast.

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago

Better to have them declare themselves that we might know who they are 

Those striped t shirts and berets are a dead give away!

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
4 days ago

Andre Gide wrote about his own exploits with underage boys in Northern Africa, avec Oscar Wilde

Jack Robertson
Jack Robertson
3 days ago

Yes, St Oscar-of-the-Rainbow was no slouch in the creepy sexual predation of minors stakes himself.
Isn’t it something how this (long-overdue) reckoning in behavioural consequences is turning the entire ‘sexual revolution’ hard back upon itself. Curious alliances abound. I wonder how continental feminist sophisticates like Judith Godreche and Charlotte Arnould would regard historical social conservatives (AKA ‘uptight reactionaries’, etc) like, say, Mary Whitehouse these days.
Turns out she was a whole lot more morally astute and civically prescient than she was ever granted credit for. Does this make her retrospectively…kind of cool?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
4 days ago

All roads lead back to the glorious revolution(s) it would seem, but let us not also forget that the established church has had an enduring problem with child abuse as has the extended family. Indeed, anywhere where adults have easy access to children.

So no easy options or solutions here although there is something particularly galling (and Gallic) about the use of a ‘brave, artistic nature’ being used as a shield for appalling behaviour.

Mind you, wasn’t our truly dreadful Eurovision entry graced by an ‘edgy’ dance routine taking place in what resembled a public lavatory ? How fearless, how ‘unapologetic ‘, how transgressive, how just plain boring zzzzzz.

Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

There’s always an easy option – turn a blind eye and do nothing. Which is what the French appear to have done up to now. In a not dissimilar way to their inability to ever really come to terms with their [not universal, but widespread] WWII collaboration, it’s easier to weave a counter-narrative about cultural greatness (or “liberating Paris ourselves”).
No surprise that France is one of those countries that goes in for presidential immunity. And doesn’t lock up the crooks when they’re eventually found guilty.
“Law is for the little people” as Leona Helmsley might have put it.

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

It’s not that the French don’t disapprove of many of the things we disapprove of, just that they have more of a “these things happen” sort of attitude. they expect human beings to be flawed, to be imperfect and to get things wrong. Obviously I am not talking here about serious crimes!

They are less extreme in their condemnation. In France, for example, a woman who claimed to still be traumatised because a man put his hand on her knee ten years ago would simply appear ridiculous.

mike otter
mike otter
3 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

that would be 98% universal, and the communist party making up other 2% were jsut gutted the germans got their job started before they did

Liam F
Liam F
3 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

yes! I thought our Eurovision entry was just a bad attempt at homoerotic porn. But boring rubbish. The public certainly gave it the number of votes it deserved.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
5 days ago

But what would Foucault think?

mike otter
mike otter
3 days ago

France has always been a little bit of the primitive world clinging by its fingertips to Europe. They have a history of cutting deals with infidel in the Levant and Sahel against European opponents. Their population deserves what they get, including the female half.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
5 days ago

What is right and wrong to do must not be a trend of the times, but based on truths that are set, fixed, immutable. May France therefore become a Christian country once more ……

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
5 days ago

Just looking at Depaedieu’s hands is intimidating.

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

But in a good, bad or ambivalent way?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
4 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

That hand is somewhat, um, impressive.

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago

I think to most people GD comes across as a bit of a pig, though that doesn’t seem to have blunted his sex appeal for some women. He has often been cast in roles which contrast him with intellectual nice guys, inevitably a bit useless in bed, as the rough man “in touch with life”. In France at least there is also quite a tradition of films and books in which the bourgeois woman finds sexual satisfaction, if not love, with quite brutish men.

With GD this seems to be his non film persona too.

El Uro
El Uro
4 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Old Russian proverb: Every merchant’s wife has a husband by law, an officer for feelings, and a coachman for pleasure.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
4 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

Or the observation in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time:
Women may show some discrimination about whom they sleep with, but they’ll marry anybody.’

jane baker
jane baker
4 days ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

With money…

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago

There is something of a back story to all this which centres around a clash between an older, distinctly French feminism, and younger feminists who take their lead from America. These older feminists tend to see Americans as puritanical. They are a bit shocked by what they see in younger French feminists as an invasion of American Puritanism.

The clash isn’t just about sexual mores. Older French feminists tend to include in their concept of liberation a liberation from the “natural” which manifests itself in attitudes to breast feeding as well as to the erotic. The older feminism is very dualist, very Cartesian, and based on a greater sense of difference between the cultural and the natural than is usual in the US or U.K.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

The gender ideology of Judith Butler et al seems very Cartesian. The ‘sexed soul’ being distinct from the biological sex.

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yes to a degree – there’s an early article of hers which shows how indebted she is to French existentialism – itself massively Cartesian. Other French influences are well known.

But Butler, following existentialism, is more the unsexed, gender fluid soul, distinct from biological sex. Basically existence precedes essence for gender.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
4 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Some truth in what you say, for sure. ‘If America wants something, we must push back and deny, whatever the contradictions.’ Bit like young LGBT crazies supporting Hamas.

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago
Reply to  Mangle Tangle

Many French see the world as divided culturally between two poles – America and France. For the rest of us this seems a massive overestimation of their own cultural importance. But a lot makes sense once you understand this. So pushing back against America is more than just resisting Americanisation – to the French it’s like a cultural war of opposites.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
4 days ago

Droit du seigneur is the phrase that comes from the language. It’s still prevalent in Latin cultures though they’re much quieter about it in Italy and Spain. France is a problematic country but I find that their otherwise-admired culture because more and more difficult to sustain over time. It’s no wonder Houellebecq predicted an Islamic takeover, but now that would probably be to cleanse the culture.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
4 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

I think you’ll find that an Islamic takeover would do the precise opposite to “cleansing”, as the grooming gang scandals have shown in the UK. Where was the self-cleansing within their own community?

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
4 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Unlikely.

Houellebecq’s protagonist ends up being keen on the takeover – exchanging charcuterie for a harem of young wives, strikes him as a good bargain.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 days ago
David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Thanks for this. Interesting background. Looks like the new American influenced French feminists are flexing their muscles, sharpening their knives, and looking for blood.

It’s important not to see this as simply an overdue reckoning with a few genuine perpetrators – the aim is to create the same chilling atmosphere that we have had in the U.K. and the US for decades where no one dare disagree for fear of accusation. Whether the individuals are guilty or not, these are more like feminist show trials.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
4 days ago

So at the tender age of 72 Depardieu sexually assaulted two women? At the same time or each individually? How did he do that? Lower his diapers? He is just a dirty old man and should be treated like that. Do it once more, grandad and no Bob Ross after your afternoon nap.
Interesting to read that the French have rediscoverd the ‘lettres de cachet’. As my mother always told me: ‘Never throw away your shoes. One day they will be in fashion again.’

Richard Russell
Richard Russell
4 days ago

Depardieu is just another rich, public, buffoon, like countless others. This author is only using this tired old wreck to relive what she really cares about: the #MeToo witch hunts. So exciting for a sociopath to be given free rein to torture the innocent!

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago

A sort of more edgy Boris Johnson then 🙂

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
4 days ago

Anyone else feel this article is, i don’t know, more than a tad too rigidly dependent on casting all its humans as no more than living abstractions defined by their coincidence with a given age figure? Nowhere do we see the first concern with whatever individual character might have been involved, nope, the event was *defined* by the age-status if its participants at the time and nothing more. Nothing more whatsoever!

If there is any comparative “freedom” to explore between this person or that within a psychosexually frazzled world, this instant branding/abstracting by age has to go, surely. To say we are all if us caught in its thrall is an understatement

It’s almost obscene how this author triunphantly
rides along upon its eveready cushion of self-rigteous air…

David Morley
David Morley
4 days ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Not quite sure what you are saying here, but I did feel she was using the argument from child abuse. Basically, associate anything with child abuse and it’s a slam dunk. Anybody who disagrees with the real issue at hand is made to look like they condone child abuse.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
4 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Danmit DM, really? Not sure what i’m saying? I’m saying the writer defines her players in terms of their age-status at the time of whatever event, and concerns herself no further! That figure features as the beginning, middle, and end shape of all conceivable stories!

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
3 days ago

““to sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure”

Anyone here care to testify to the contrary?

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
3 days ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Myra Hindley once claimed evil is spiritual

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
3 days ago

Ok, i’ll bite. Just what are you trying to say here?

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 days ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Just that the quote in the comment seems to mirror Myra Hindley’s beliefs/experiences, that evil has a spiritual quality though I would say unholy rather than holy.

Last edited 2 days ago by Aphrodite Rises
Don Lightband
Don Lightband
1 day ago

What on earth do HER beliefs have to do with the notion of returning to the field of play, now wholly rid of all ghastly power-relations and anything related to them?

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
8 hours ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

The world will never be rid of power relations. The power relations may take a different form but they will continue to exist.
My comment, as I indicated, related to the quote. I am interested in why people are attracted to evil, what motivates or drives them.