The film festival has reinvented itself as the capital of the anti-woke pushback
In the words of the writer and diarist Vladislav Davidzon, it was an event “indelibly connected to both the filmic exploits and monstrous predations of Harvey Weinstein… [to become] the symbolic birthplace of the #MeToo movement”. Now, the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, back in full force this year after weathering various culture wars and Covid restrictions, has reinvented itself as the capital of the anti-woke pushback.
This started a month before its official opening this week, when festival chief Thierry Frémaux unveiled the 76th edition’s official poster, a 1968 black-and-white still of Catherine Deneuve in Alain Cavalier’s La Chamade, shot in nearby Saint-Tropez. The 79-year-old actress, who has several times been a member of the Cannes Jury and presided over it with Clint Eastwood in 1994, remains quite possibly the star assoluta of French cinema.
Deneuve was also the best-known signatory of the 2018 open manifesto written by 100 Frenchwomen opposing the conflation of sexual assault and that element of grown-up life that allows men to compliment or proposition you. (For what it’s worth, I not only co-signed but took a small part in writing the open letter during one feverish weekend alongside four friends. Until Deneuve called us out of the blue the following Monday, we weren’t sure that anyone would pay attention to it. Be careful what you wish for.)
Deneuve, as figurehead of the 100 Women, was accused of treason to the Cause by ferret-faced little commissars who until that moment had not yet managed to fully enter the French scene, and were seemingly intent on catching up as virulently as possible. Like J.K. Rowling, she wasn’t exactly cancellable, given her status as one of the country’s most bankable stars. Afterwards, hiring or inviting her became a statement.
In the past few years, a number of with-it French actors and film people have staged the depressingly familiar walk-outs, picketing, disrupting of events and boycotts of anyone deemed, like Deneuve, “problematic” — that weasel word of the Overseers of Righteousness. Woody Allen, beloved of European viewers and producers, became one recipient of such adverse attention. So did Roman Polanski, whose An Officer and a Spy won three César Awards in 2020 during an evening in which police had to use tear gas against violent demonstrators.
Last week the actress Adèle Haenel, who was the most prominent figure to walk out of the Césars in response to Polanski’s win (and who has since become the self-appointed figurehead for the purification of French movieland), wrote an open letter against the opening night historical biopic Jeanne du Barry.
As Haenel would have it, the film carries the double sin of starring Johnny Depp (despite his being cleared of violence in his case against ex-wife Amber Heard) and being directed by the actress Maïwenn, who is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with a newspaper editor. Maïwenn’s crime was to publicly pull Edwy Plenel’s hair in a restaurant for “slandering” her former husband, the filmmaker Luc Besson. (Yes, hair-pulling can become “assault” if you’ve done it in defence of your man to a former Le Monde journalist.) “The Cannes Festival is now celebrating rapists,” Haenel accused, before announcing she was quitting acting for good.
Thierry Frémaux demurred, insisting, “I don’t know about the image of Johnny Depp in the US,” and emphasising the value he places on freedom of speech. “If you really thought we were a festival for rapists,” he said, “ you wouldn’t be talking to me now.” Asked whether Cannes would show films by Polanski and Allen, Frémaux said this depended on the quality of the films themselves. But earlier this week, as the Festival audience gave a tearful Depp a seven-minute round of enthusiastic applause, it seemed that again one indomitable Gallic village was victoriously resisting an invasion from abroad.