Cancel Depardieu? French cinema split over film icon

AFP , Wednesday 3 Jan 2024

The case of actor Gerard Depardieu, charged with rape and facing other accusations of sexual assault, has exposed a major split in French cinema, extending into politics and wider society.

Gerard Depardieu
Gerard Depardieu (Photo: AFP)

A petition to support the actor has been challenged by a wave of open letters denouncing years of reprehensible behaviour, while the case has caused an apparent rift between French President Emmanuel Macron and his culture minister.

An icon of French cinema for half a century after rocketing to fame in the mid 1970s, Depardieu was charged in 2020 with rape and has been targeted by two other complaints alleging sexual assault, as well as other accusations published in media.

He denies any wrongdoing.

With his career on hold, debate over whether the 75-year-old's back catalogue of some 200 titles should be shown at all intensified last month when a French television documentary entitled "Fall of the Ogre" showed him making a litany of sexual comments at women during a trip to North Korea in 2018.

His wax sculpture was hurriedly removed from the Musee Grevin waxwork museum in Paris, Canada's Quebec region stripped him of its top honour while Swiss public broadcaster RTS halted the broadcast of films where he plays a leading role.

This prompted dozens of friends and colleagues of the actor to sign a controversial petition published in the right-wing Le Figaro daily denouncing a "lynching of Depardieu" and saying he was entitled to "presumption of innocence".

- 'Old world' -

Those signing the letter -- entitled "Don't Erase Gerard Depardieu" -- included former French first lady and singer Carla Bruni, British actor Charlotte Rampling and Depardieu's former partner, actor Carole Bouquet.

Another celebrity signing the text was director Bertrand Blier who made the 1974 movie "Les Valseuses" ("Going Places"), which was one of Depardieu's first hits and which has long been controversial over the vulgar attitudes expressed towards women.

But in a sign of the discomfort caused by the open letter, a counter-petition signed by 8,000 people including singers Angele and Louane and rapper Medine swiftly appeared, contending that the text supporting Depardieu "spat in the face" of his accusers.

"It's a sinister and perfect illustration of an old world that refuses to let things change," the counter petition said.

Another critical petition, entitled "Address to the old world", was published on Sunday on the Mediapart website with some 70 signatures from cinema personalities including Anouk Grinberg, Blier's former partner.

"No one wants to erase the artist. But the talent of Gerard Depardieu does not permit the indignity of his behaviour," it said.

"Defending art also means saying that being an artist should not exempt us from all responsibility," added a third petition published in the Liberation daily signed by luminaries including theatre director Thomas Jolly, who is to mastermind the 2024 Olympics opening ceremony, and actor Swann Arlaud who starred in "Anatomy of a Fall".

- 'Not perfect' -

The controversy has also been reflected in politics, with Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak in December saying Depardieu's behaviour "shames France" and a procedure would be started that could see him stripped of France's top award the Legion of Honour.

But Macron days later contradicted his minister, complaining that Depardieu, an "immense actor" was the target of a "manhunt" and dismissing the minister's suggestion he could be stripped of the award.

Meanwhile, scrutiny has in the last days intensified on the original petition supporting Depardieu, with some of its signatories now distancing themselves from the text.

Disquiet grew after it emerged that the initiator of the text was little known actor Yannis Ezziadi -- who writes for the ultraconservative magazine Causeur, and is close to Gerard Depardieu's daughter Julie Depardieu.

"I signed it," Carole Bouquet said on Instagram. "However, I do not support the ideas and values associated with the journalist behind this platform. Giving him visibility through Gerard makes me, as you can imagine, deeply uncomfortable."

The former head of Paris' prestigious Cinematheque francaise, Serge Toubiana, who also signed the petition, told AFP he had not been aware who was behind the text, which he acknowledged was "not perfect".

It gives the impression "that because he (Depardieu) is an immense actor, that could put him above the law", he noted.

Actor and director Jacques Weber expressed regret for signing the document, saying he had put his name "in haste... as a reflex of friendship without inquiring."

"Despite the love or admiration that his friends, his family and the cinema family have for him, we must not prevent the truth from emerging," he wrote.

Ezziadi himself strongly defended the petition in comments to AFP, saying "we don't want to cancel him, and we don't want to do without him" and denouncing a "climate of terror".

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