French film director Luc Besson faces new claims of sexual violence

By , and Geoffrey Le Guilcher
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'Each time he tries to go to a new level'

Alice – not her real name – says she knows this working atmosphere well. She was employed at EuropaCorp, the filmmaker's main studio, for several years and still works in the industry. Contacted by Mediapart she finally agreed to speak but on condition that she stayed anonymous and that no information would be used that could identify her.

She says that at her workplace, and against her wishes, Luc Besson kissed her on the mouth, put his hand on her bottom and, in the lift, made a sexual proposition. “He hears when you say 'no' but it doesn't last because he will start again. Each time he tries to go to a new level,” said Alice.

He tried everything. Once he pulled me onto his knees for a cuddle. At the time I didn't really know what to do, so I gave a forced laugh and I got up,” she said. “He calls that cuddles ...when he takes in his arms you don't quite know what to do. He once asked me 'Will you give me a kiss?' I told him 'Um, no'. He's like a child to whom you refuse something.”

Another former employee of EuropaCorp, who asked not to be named, told Mediapart that he had witnessed several of the scenes recounted by Alice. “I saw Alice on his knees several times,” he told Mediapart. “The worst thing is that there were several of us who didn’t believe her when she said she was not in a relationship with him. At the time, it was a different context than that of today.”

The former employee insisted that many of his colleagues saw no problem. “Luc Besson passed that off with the family atmosphere that was present, the fact that we all worked together day and night,” he recalled. “This atmosphere fooled just about everybody, because in the end we were, all the same, in a company, with a boss who made an employee sit on his knees.” He added that “it was also our fault if this kind of behaviour was allowed”.

This apparently commonplace attitude is regarded in different ways according to who Mediapart spoke to. Almost all underlined the personality of Luc Besson, which many used the word “teddy bear” to describe. The director is presented as a gentle, sometimes childish man who can confuse “what happens on set and real life”.

They all agree also that Luc Besson is very “tactile”. He gives “cuddles”, another word that crops up among the people to whom Mediapart has spoken, including those who consider the reported violence “inconceivable”. The director also sits some female co-workers on his knee.

He looks at life as if he was in one of his films, with sometimes a slightly naïve, almost childish side,” said Sophie Lévy, who was second assistant director on Kiss of the Dragon at the start of the 2000s. “With some actresses he was all around them and he had a paternal side with the young women. But it was more affectionate, reinforced by his teddy bear side.” She also described a slightly “cowboy” atmosphere on Besson's set.

Several women who have worked with Besson insist that they have never received the slightest inappropriate proposition. A former chief aide of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, Emmanuelle Mignon, who was briefly number three at EuropaCorp, told Mediapart: “In my job I witnessed nothing out of place.”

Alice, the former employee at EuropaCorp, explains: “[Besson] loves women but not in the perverse sense, he loves women in general, he pampers them. He always makes little gestures, for Mother's Day, for Women's Day. He makes films about women. He loves women. Behind that there's a manner that's sometimes a little archaic, for him women are something fragile: women need protecting.”

These comments also chime with the Tweet sent by Luc Besson (see below) at the time of the Weinstein affair, which shows him making a tender gesture towards the actress Cara Delevingne, accompanied by the comment: “The difference between affection and harassment.”

Luc Besson has even put himself forward as a defender of women's rights, as on the day in January 2017 when he Tweeted a photo from a women's rights march in Los Angeles.

What emerges from the accounts given to Mediapart, despite the hesitations or contradictions they contain, is the impression that some women did not see malevolence as being present in his behaviour, while others, often left fragile for reasons of their personal lives, or simply very young, had suffered greatly from it. Numerous sources also underlined the ambivalence of the cinema milieu, where seduction is commonplace and where, on some shoots, the atmosphere can be heavily sexist, with producers and directors who carry a reputation of multiple conquests with the actresses they hire, and where there is no true balance of power between actors hoping for recognition and the decision makers of the profession.

When Sand Van Roy met Luc Besson at the end of 2015 while trying on clothes for a small role in the film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the Belgian-Dutch model dreamed of becoming an actress. She was impressed. When it came to the world of cinema, Luc Besson wasn't just anyone.

The story of the director of The Big Blue is above all one of an outsider who started from nothing and who had a string of film successes in the 1980s and 1990s with Subway, Nikita, Leon and The Fifth Element. In the 2000s he went through a quiet spell as a director, with his output including Angel-A, The Lady, and Arthur and the Invisibles.

At the time Besson was devoting himself to the development of a new adventure in the form of EuropaCorp. The company, co-founded with actor and producer Pierre-Ange Le Pogram who had been a senior executive at French film studio Gaumont, was seen as the missing piece in the jigsaw of French cinema. It was launched as a major studio on the American model, capable of producing blockbusters and original films.

As well as numerous legal and money conflicts between partners, EuropaCorp's entry onto the French stock market in 2007 was a failure. It quickly lost more than two thirds of its initial value. On June 27th, 2018, it announced a third consecutive year of losses, in particular as a result of the below-average performance in the United States of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which had been touted as the most expensive film in the history of French cinema, with a budget of 190 million euros. Nonetheless, in 2017 Luc Besson was still the highest-paid French director.

Sand Van Roy was all the happier at working with a director who had often catapulted models to the role of lead actress in his films, models who had little or no acting experience. That was the case with the top model Milla Jovovich – Besson's companion for two years – in the 1997 film The Fifth Element, the former Gucci muse Rie Rasmussen in Angel-A in 2005, Gucci model Cara Delevingne, who played Laureline in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and soon it will be the case with Sasha Luss, a model who is to star in Besson's forthcoming film Anna.

At their first meeting Sand Van Roy remembers a man who “asked lots of questions about who I was, where I came from, what age I was. He put a hand on my hip. I found that strange, and not serious.” She continued: “I had seen him give cuddles to the actresses on the set, so that was OK. Several days after he started to 'like' my photos on Instagram. My entourage thought that was great. I was proud, flattered, I said to myself 'Woo-hoo it's Luc Besson',” she told Mediapart two years later.

She admits that by making the formal complaint against the director “I have everything to lose”. She told Mediapart: “I have a super role in Anna [editor's note, the film is due to be released in 2019]. I was going to have my own film Olga [editor's note, that Luc Besson promised to produce]. I'm risking everything to get justice and to help any woman who is forced to suffer violence on the part of their boss.”

The actress knows that her life is going to be dissected and laid bare in public, her lovers, her loves and the platonic relationship with an older man who helped her financially in exchange for her company which she spoke about during her long interview with police officers on June 19th.

According to several of the accounts gathered by Mediapart, the director knows how to use subtle allusions which some heed as warnings. “He's not going to say 'Sleep with me to get a role' or 'Sleep with me or I'll ruin you everywhere',” said Alice. “He never threatens people, he never promises them the moon. On the other hand he is going to speak of someone else for example, and explain that he will ruin that person. So that brings it home to people.”

As for Sand Van Roy, in her written statement and in her interviews with police about her relationship with Besson, she said that “Luc never asks to sleep with him to get a role” but he “lets it be known that you have to sleep with him in order not to lose the role”.

There is an inevitably asymmetric relationship between Luc Besson, an influential producer and director, and his staff or actresses seeking roles in a very competitive world. When asked in 2016 about the criteria he used to choose his actors, the director replied: “No ego. Some talent. And to trust me until death.” He also noted that selecting the right actor was “like falling in love. When you meet the right actor for the part, you just know it.”

It is now for the French investigators to determine whether Besson's relationships have led to an abuse of power and whether they amount to an offence.

Meanwhile several actresses have decided to support the women who have made legal complaints or spoken to the press. Such women “want to speak, the problem is that it's a legal hell, and they are very afraid, particularly because of their careers as young actresses”, said Asia Argento. She added: “I only spoke 20 years later and it took me a lot of time to realise what had happened to me with Harvey Weinstein.”

Speaking about sexual violence cases in general, the Italian actress and director told Mediapart: “Speaking publicly means being stigmatised – a stigma which more often targets the victim than the aggressor. I am myself living proof of how what victims say is questioned and of slut-shaming. That's what must change – we must believe the women. The abuse of power must stop, in all sectors.”

Actress Rose McGowan herself says: “I stand in solidarity with the women coming forward. The veil of secrecy and silence must end.”

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter and Graham Tearse

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All those interviewed and quoted in this report were questioned by Mediapart over recent months. Some asked for their names to be withheld in the article, explaining that they were fearful of the consequences of speaking out. A number of them have provided Mediapart with written statements, notably in case of subsequent legal action by Luc Besson. Some of those interviewed asked for the right to review the quotations published here, which Mediapart agreed to.

We met and interviewed at length Sand Van Roy, and the women given the pseudonyms of Alice and Amandine, on numerous occasions. To support their accounts, they provided Mediapart with a series of documents, email and phone exchanges. Sand Van Roy told Mediapart that the events she described to us were the same as those provided in her statements to the police investigation. She also gave Mediapart notes recorded in the form of a diary on her smartphone that began with her first encounter with Luc Besson.

We interviewed the woman presented under the pseudonym of Mona on several occasions by phone.

We were also given access to the details of the two formal complaints against Luc Besson registered by Sand Van Roy with the Paris public prosecutor’s office, and also the email sent to the prosecution services by Amandine.

Mediapart contacted Luc Besson and his lawyer Thierry Marembert by email on July 3rd requesting an interview with the film director. Luc Besson did not personally answer that request, but his lawyer refused any such interview “for the time being” while asking for the list of questions we wished to ask his client. We duly sent them on July 5th but received no answers. Instead, Thierry Marembert told Mediapart in a written response on July 8th: “The subjects you mention are the objectof an ongoing investigation”, adding: “You will therefore understand that Mr Besson is keeping his answers for the investigators for who he has put himself at their disposition in order for his innocence to be proven.”

A number of indirect, circumstantial accounts gathered by Mediapart during this investigation had already been obtained by Geoffrey Le Guilcher for his 2016 unauthorised biography of Luc Besson, Luc Besson, L'homme qui voulait être aimé : La biographie non autorisée (Luc Besson, the man who wanted to be loved: the unauthorised biography), published in France by Flammarion. Others emerged notably after the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and also following the formal complaint lodged by Sand Van Roy in May.

Mediapart’s research included contact with several dozen women and men who have variously had close and distant professional relations with Luc Besson. Many of those contacted declined to offer any comment.

On May 18th, actress Sand Van Roy lodged her first complaint alleging she was raped by Besson during events that she said took place at the hotel Le Bristol in central Paris. She was subsequently questioned by police investigators on May 18th and on June 19th. She lodged a second complaint against Besson on July 6th concerning other events than those she detailed in her first complaint, when she also requested to be questioned further by the police.