Luc Besson seemed happy. Smiling, joking, he made the press room at the Venice festival laugh again and again. Perhaps his good mood was due to the premiere of Dogman, his latest film, last Thursday. Although the filmmaker received another piece of joy a few months ago, from the courts: the charges against him, for an alleged rape, have fallen for the third and final time. The questions, however, focused exclusively on cinema. Nobody was interested in the second. And yet, at the Mostra there has been a lot of talk about it. And of the other two guests under the feminist spotlight: Roman Polanski, convicted of raping a minor 50 years ago. And Woody Allen, accused of abuse by his adopted daughter Dylan. The three of them bring his new movie to the Lido. And, also, his old and disputed past.
It is inevitable, therefore, that justice and the seventh art mix. And that such a current debate adds another chapter. Although the starting point remains the same, for centuries: should work and artist be separated? To an affirmative answer, the Mostra adds another step: it would be absurd and liberticidal for a festival to veto figures that justice, to date, has not punished. But the opposite opinion, led by the MeToo movement, also has arrows in its bow of arguments: these violences are often difficult to prove or have prescribed. And applauding the powerful divo, as happened with Besson, can perpetrate impunity for abusers and discourage complaints.
To navigate among so many thorns, it is advisable, first, to stick to the facts. And to the differences and nuances between the cases. Actress Sand Van Roy filed a complaint against Besson in May 2018 for allegedly raping her four times during their relationship, back and forth, for two years. The courts only found a lack of evidence. But eight other women have accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior, as Mediapart revealed. Besson has always denied everything.
Roman Polanski, in May 2018, at the Netia Off Camera Festival, in Krakow (Poland). NurPhoto (NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Against Woody Allen, however, there is a testimony: that of his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. He maintains that she touched his genitals in 1992, when she was seven years old. The defense believes that the girl was manipulated by her mother, Mia Farrow, in the context of the confrontation after Allen began a relationship with his stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn, when she was 21 years old and he was 56. They broke up getting married and still together. An investigation by child abuse specialists later exonerated the director. And in 1993, the attorney for the State of Connecticut renounced denouncing the filmmaker, even though he saw signs, to spare Dylan the trauma, according to The New York Times. But in 2013 the young woman, aged 28, reaffirmed her accusations. A brother of hers, Ronan, supported her. Another of hers, Moses, denied her. And the director has been defended by some and abandoned by others, which has made it difficult for him, at 87 years old, to find financing and distribution of his films, such as his latest, Coup de chance, which will arrive at the Mostra on Monday.
Hence, the only violence demonstrated is that of Roman Polanski, convicted in 1977 of drugging and raping Samantha Geimer, when she was 13 years old and he was 43. The filmmaker admitted an illegal sexual exchange with a minor, but, after 40 days in prison, he took advantage of his probation to flee the United States and avoid being imprisoned again. Since then, he has not set foot in countries that could persecute or extradite him: that is why he was not at the Lido. He was replaced by his team, which also received no questions beyond the cinema. Although Luca Barbareschi, actor and producer of The Palace, stressed that the festival had shown “strong independence” and courage, by programming the Polish master or Woody Allen. Polanski has tried, without success, to have the case closed. Even his victim supported his request. Geimer publicly forgave him and was photographed with him a few months ago, before granting an interview to the actress and Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, where she stated that what happened “was never a big problem” for her. Five other women accused the director of sexual violence, according to a count by The New York Times.
All this leads Alberto Barbera, artistic director of the contest, to affirm: “The Besson case does not exist. The judge found no reason to send him to the bench. Allen has been acquitted twice, because no elements were found to condemn his behavior. If we believe in justice, I don’t see why a festival should be more rigid than the courts and censor one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers. Polanski was prosecuted 50 years ago, for very serious acts that he acknowledged. He paid for his guilt and the victim herself has asked to forget. Let’s judge the works. Enough”.
There are, however, those who are not so clear. In the Mostra itself four years ago, where Polanski was competing with The Officer and the Spy, the then president of the jury, Lucrecia Martel, gave the opposite opinion to Barbera, sitting there next to her: “I do not separate the man from the work ( …). I am not going to attend Mr. Polanski’s gala screening because he (…) would not want to get up to applaud him. But it seems right to me that his film is in the festival, that there is dialogue and these issues are debated.” She herself, two weeks later, offered the umpteenth example of how complex this topic is: she awarded the film the Grand Jury Prize.
The dilemma may be repeated this year. Besson’s Dogman has been hated by some critics, but highly appreciated by others. Polanski and Allen, on the other hand, are not participating in the contest. But the issue, for those who protest, is not limited to the awards: it is about offering them prestige, potential applause, a possible financial return and a much more powerful speaker than their alleged victims can ever use. So much so that a report published these days by The Hollywood Reporter expanded the problem to the media: how should they cover these cases? Ignore them, silence them, try to tell all the nuances, focus only on their films, defend the presumption of innocence. Each option has supports and detractors. Even putting all three in the same bag—or article—seems very questionable. Critic Jo Livingstone, finally, proposed a critical but cinematographic approach: why do they continue to invite them if the level of their films has long declined?
The truth is that Polanski’s last film, at 90 years old, strengthens this thesis. In The Palace, the filmmaker narrates a New Year’s Eve in a luxury hotel to laugh at high society, its manias and its emptiness. A priori, you can think of The Great Beauty, by Paolo Sorrentino, or the recent White Lotus series. However, everything is told with the same bad taste as its protagonists. The Russians get drunk and steal, the plumber couldn’t be sexier and the homosexual couple looks more feathers than seconds on screen. Some even suspect a conscious tease, a comb by Polanski to critics and the public. It is too hard to believe that this could be the filmic testament of the director of The Devil’s Seed.
Perhaps with retirement, however, comes oblivion: fewer spotlights and more silence. The violence of Caravaggio or the Nazi beliefs of Céline, author of the celebrated Journey to the End of the Night, are always used as throwing weapons in this debate. And yet, they do not cover everything: a dead person benefits from nothing. Even so, the Mostra has also come to the rescue of the late Roald Dahl, a genius of youth literature now accused of misogyny and anti-Semitism, to the point that his publisher changed several fragments of his works to make them more to everyone’s taste. Although, in this case, the protest was the other way around: it stopped the modifications. And there was Wes Anderson, at the Lido, vindicating the author with his short The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, based on a story by Dahl, and asking the press that no one retouch a work of art after the fact.
The American Woody Allen, in Paris, in October 2022. Marc Piasecki (GC Images)
In any case, when the artist questioned is alive, as are his alleged victims, the debate becomes much more complex. Pain, image, and the importance of believing those who suffer and denounce come into play. So much so that a source from Spanish cinema, consulted for this report, preferred not to participate. Nor is it exclusive to Venice: Johnny Depp’s presence at the recent San Sebastián and Cannes festivals—with the Donostia award included in Spain—raised some dust. The association of women filmmakers in Spain, Cima, did not regret the recognition itself, but rather that it was elevated after the controversial trial for mistreatment that it won against her ex-partner, Amber Heard. The actor, in Zinemaldia, assured: “A single sentence against is enough to sink you, and there is no defense.” Although, some time before, the British justice system ruled that The Sun had not defamed Depp by calling him an abuser, since it was true.
Once again, the conversation touches on contradictions and doubts. At this point, the Mostra has made its opinion clear. And feminist critics, too. It is foreseeable that the talk will continue. On sets, festivals, homes and courts. It is said that the best films raise questions, rather than answer them. But this is not a movie. On the contrary, it couldn’t be more real.
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