Gérard Depardieu was accused last Tuesday by 13 women, most of them young actresses, of sexually aggressive acts ranging from inappropriate banter to quasi-rape, according to an investigation by French news website Mediapart. But if France finally decides to make a Harvey Weinstein case of her greatest thespian, Gérard Depardieu, it will be reluctantly.
#BalanceTonPorc (#DenounceYourPig), the Gallic version of the #MeToo movement, a call for women to speak out on their experiences of sexual harassment on the workplace, was only launched in 2017. There had been an earlier wave of revelations on misogyny in politics as early as 2011, triggered by the New York arrest of then-International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, yet it failed to ignite a broader movement.
But Gérard Depardieu? It’s not that anyone thinks such accusations are unlikely from the 24-stone, 74-year-old star of over 200 movies, a dozen TV series, 18 stage plays, documentaries, 16 audio albums from Italian pop to Hector Berlioz, nine books and even a graphic novel. He’s been Obélix, Christopher Columbus, Cyrano de Bergerac, Danton, Rodin, every Musketeer except Aramis in various Alexandre Dumas adaptations, Dumas himself, Inspector Maigret, and even Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Depardieu is excessive, in everything. He gets a pass because he’s what the French call un monstre sacré, a holy monster. He’s our very own Gargantua giant, a national literary hero, practically illiterate until his teens, who can inflect the most difficult parts with extraordinary subtlety and vulnerability; probably the best Tartuffe ever since Molière wrote the play.
Nothing fazes Depardieu’s numerous fans. He converted to Islam and was a Muslim for two years. Vladimir Putin gave him a Russian passport after he got bored with living in Belgium as a tax exile. He got in trouble for urinating into an empty bottle on board a CityJet plane, because the flight attendants wouldn’t let him use the lavatory. He’s recounted how his mother wanted to abort him with knitting needles; that he helped deliver his own younger sister because the midwife was late; that he spent time in jail at 16 for selling stolen cigarettes and stealing cars; that, aged 9, he witnessed a rape by older boys in his neighbourhood.
Rape, in fact, is a recurrent theme in Depardieu’s life and career. He shot to stardom in Bertrand Blier’s 1974 Les Valseuses, an impressive indie debut that also starred Isabelle Huppert and Jeanne Moreau, and became a classic. Valseuses is French slang for bollocks, and the film, to put it bluntly, is a series of rapes, perhaps only understandable in the nihilistic post-May ’68 era. It’s been shown multiple times on prime time television — another example of France’s very different attitude to sex and performative transgression.
The 13 women interviewed at length by Mediapart tell damningly similar stories. On set, between takes, Depardieu gets into their personal space, talks dirty, growls suggestively, paws them: on the backside, hips, breasts, sometimes shoving a hand into their knickers.
In every case, the film crew ignores it, or, worse, starts laughing at the banter. The few brave enough to accuse the star (the bankable star, on whose name the funding of the entire film often rests) are told not to make a fuss. “Mais c’est Gérard!” directors and producers say. “He’s just like that, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Again and again, the victims, interviewed separately, say that even more than Depardieu’s acts, it’s the non-reaction of their co-workers and employers that traumatised them. They use a mafia term, “omerta”, having to stay silent or else. “I didn’t want to lose the job, then be blacklisted in the business forever,” one says. “I was twenty, he was important to the film and I wasn’t,” says another.
Two have already provided evidence as witnesses for a case brought by one young actress, Charlotte Arnould, the daughter of friends, who accuses Depardieu of having raped her twice in 2018 when, a 21-year-old virgin at the time, she visited him at his Paris house for career advice. Depardieu has been indicted but after five years the case still hasn’t had a hearing. Most of the events described in Mediapart this week fall under the statute of limitations; but the account nonetheless may end Depardieu’s long spell of impunity when the Arnould case comes to court.
Is France finally ready to slay its monstre sacré? The evidence would appear to suggest not.