Following Mediapart’s revelations of the accounts of nine women who accuse French filmmaker Luc Besson of various forms of sexually abusive behaviour and, in one case, of rape, the alleged victims have been given outspoken support from individuals and groups in the US associated with the #Metoo movement that was launched in the wake of the scandal surrounding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
They include actresses Rose McGowan, Jessica Barth, Caitlin Dulany, trauma expert Louise Godbold, and former Italian model Samantha Panagrosso, five women who have become symbolic of the movement against sexual harassment and aggression in the US film industry and beyond, and also the Time’s Up organisation.
In the latest of a series of reports published by Mediapart that began in July this year, when four women first publicly detailed their allegations against Besson, five more women recently came forward with further accusations of sexual misconduct against the 59-year-old director and producer of blockbuster films that include Nikita, The Big Blue, Leon and The Fifth Element.
Contacted by Mediapart on several occasions, beginning in July, both Luc Besson and his lawyer Thierry Marembert have declined our repeated requests for an interview, and neither have replied to questions submitted to them. However, speaking in May following a complaint against Besson for rape filed by Belgian-Dutch actress Sand Van Roy, Marembert said Besson “categorically denies any inappropriate and reprehensible behaviour of any kind”.
Mediapart contacted a number of people, unions and associations all involved in the cinema industry, in France and the US, to seek their reactions to the published accounts which, by the strikingly similar nature of the events they relate, raise serious questions about the filmmaker’s behaviour, and also his practice of conducting professional encounters with young, and even underage, actresses, alone in hotels.
Reacting to Mediapart’s reports, the Time’s Up organisation, established in the US at the beginning of 2018 with the support of more than 300 actresses (including Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman), women screenwriters and directors, and which has now built up a 21-million-dollar legal defence fund to serve victims of sexual assault and harassment in all professional situations, issued a statement to Mediapart saying it “stands in solidarity with the women who bravely came forward to share their stories,” adding: “Women everywhere deserve nothing less than safe and dignified workplaces, free from harassment and assault”.
“We support all survivors in their demand to be heard and in their fight to seek justice,” the statement continued. “As we have seen this year, our collective voice is getting louder every day as women from around the globe and across industries continue to speak their truth.”
Actress Rose McGowan, 45, who was one of the first to come forward publicly with sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein, told Mediapart that she was “inspired by the bravery” of the women who had spoken out about their alleged experiences with Luc Besson, and despite what she called “the complicity machine behind him”. More generally, she noted that “Excusing outrageous and damaging behaviour is no longer acceptable,” adding: “The time has come for change. If Hollywood can ban hotel room meetings, so can the French film industry. Hard truths are still truths, and we must act accordingly.”
Following a formal complaint for rape filed in France earlier this year against Besson by Belgian-Dutch actress Sand Van Roy, McGowan posted a message on Twitter saying, “I’ve been wondering how long this would take. We have heard about you, sir.” Contacted in July by Mediapart, the star of Grindhouse, Jawbreaker and TV series Charmed, recounted how, when the Weinstein scandal first broke, “a French producer contacted me saying he wondered how long [it would be] until Luc Besson was found out”. She said she “started hearing about Besson, but have no direct knowledge” of the alleged events.
Louise Godbold is a former British actress who was among the women who spoke out publicly in October 2017 against Harvey Weinstein, when she recounted how she had been a victim of his lewd behaviour in the early 1990s (see her original blogpost here, and a video interview here) when she sought an internship with Weinstein’s production company. Godbold, 56, now executive director of Los Angeles-based organisation Echo Parenting & Education, dedicated to helping child trauma victims, reacted strongly to Mediapart’s revelations.
“I am angered that any woman has to put up with non-consensual sex, whether she is an actress, a chambermaid or a wife,” she told Mediapart. “Sand and other women have been put in an untenable position,” she said, referring to the Belgian-Dutch actress Sand Van Roy who filed a complaint against Besson for rape in May this year, while also denouncing more generally what she called “the blackmail to demand sex in return for your career”.
“As with Weinstein, there are a lot of women who complied not to advance their career but to prevent it being torpedoed,” she said. “[…] Sand is so brave to have come forward without the 'cover' of other women,” she added.
On the subject of the silence that has surrounded inappropriate behaviour in the cinema business, she said: “I can only speak about the movie industry in the US and the UK, where I was raised. It is an industry that generates a lot of wealth and power, and the people who control this wealth and power just want this kind of scandal to go away so they can go back to business as usual. There is also a sense of impunity - the casting couch existed because those who are less powerful didn't know they had the right to say "Stop! Time's up!"
“I'm hoping that even if people with power, including the predators with power, don't want change, those who are subjected to their harassment will be sufficiently empowered to no longer put up with it. However, it seems as if it still takes dozens of victims all telling the same story before they are believed.”
She said cinema industry practices like meetings in hotel rooms had to change, and welcomed a move the by the US Screen Actors Guild earlier this year calling for an end to the practice. “We need to start behaving like professionals. In which other industry would an executive take meetings in their bath robe? What type of professional would conduct interviews while in a hot tub? It is disrespectful, but when you ask ‘Why do they do this?’ the answer is, ‘Because they can’. Let's change that.”
She said she had believed France was “the most civilized country in the world […] but now I am beginning to see that along with the sophistication, taste, intellectualism and manners, there is also a darker side”.
“Women have internalised their oppression to the extent that even some of the older generation of feminists seem to believe that we have to be sexy to be valued, that sexual aggression is flattering, and that men have to be forgiven for their acting on their biological urges.”
'A large part of the French cinema industry is complicit'
Actresses Jessica Barth, 38 and Caitlin Dulany, 51, are also among Weinstein’s accusers. Barth told her story in an article in The New Yorker by Ronan Farrow in October 2017, when he published the accounts of 13 alleged victims of the producer, and Dulany joined a class action against Weinstein alleging he sexually assaulted her at the Hôtel du Cap in Cannes in 1996. The two have founded a website to enable victims of sexual assault to report their experiences.
After learning of the accounts of the women now accusing Luc Besson, first published by Mediapart in French in late November, Barth, who starred in the film Ted, posted a message on Twitter in which she applauded them for their “courage”. Contacted now by Mediapart, she said of the nine women: “We understand, first hand, how incredibly difficult, invasive and scary it can be to share your private pain with the world. Please know that your courage will, no doubt, embolden more victims to break their silence. You are changing the world and we thank you for your voice.”
“This movement isn’t against men,” she added, “it is against sexual harassment and sexual assault. It has nothing to do with hating men or emasculating them; anyone who claims otherwise, completely undermines our mission.”
Barth concluded: “Praying this really is a tipping point for France.”
Contacted by Mediapart, Caitlin Dulany also gave them her support, underlining how difficult it is to accuse “a powerful figure in the world of French Cinema and it took great courage for them to tell their stories, knowing the potential for backlash and public scrutiny”.
“I believe them, I applaud them for making this choice and I hope this brings about more protection for people who are in the vulnerable positions these women found themselves in,” Dulany added.
“It has always been difficult for those of us in the entertainment industry to speak out,” she told Mediapart. “We are most often in temporary workplace situations; hired for a film or television series overseen by a variety of individuals and companies.”
“There has never been a clear blueprint of where to go or what to do when sexual misconduct happens and there is the very real threat of repercussions – the fear of being fired, the possibility of having your reputation ruined or of never being hired again if you speak out. This has made our industry a 'hunting ground' for predators who repeat their behaviour. Even one year after the #MeToo movement took off, the accounts of sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment business keep coming. It's heart breaking, devastating and infuriating […] It has to stop.”
She and Barth said that was why they founded Voices in Action, which Barth described as “a reporting site where victims of sexual misconduct can report abuse and will be alerted if there is a match in perpetrators. They will then be given the option to connect with our team of attorneys under privilege and confidentiality.”
“We developed this system with the understanding that many sex offenders are repeat offenders and with the intent of empowering victims to take back their power,” she said.
Dulaney added: “We are a place to go for guidance, direction and support. We are survivor-founded and led, with no obligation to the powers that be and only to victims. We empower victims to use their voice, to tell their stories.”
“The simple truth was if this had existed in the aftermath of our encounters by Harvey Weinstein many more assaults could have been prevented.”
Former Italian model Samantha Panagrosso, 45, has also spoken out publicly against Weinstein, detailing that he assaulted her during the 2003 Cannes film festival. Paris-based, and a friend of actress Sand Van Roy, she told Mediapart that, “the Weinstein case proved that women can change a system as long as they are aware of the importance of speaking out”.
“This allows us women to share our experiences and stand united against injustice,” she said.
“In the Weinstein case, a lot of women came forward yet only a few went to file a police report. This step is of upmost importance, because the legal system can’t interfere as long as no depositions have been made.”
Panagrosso advised women victims: “Make your rights heard, and share your story with the police. Never forget that force is found in numbers.”
While the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the controversy surrounding Luc Besson have clear differences, notably that the French filmmaker is not the target of around one hundred accusations and nor is he placed under formal investigation in France, Panagrosso nevertheless said she identified “similarities” between the two cases, citing what she believed was the fact that “certain actresses who had worked with Luc Besson saw the career suddenly stop after refusing to have sexual relations with Luc Besson”.
For Panagrosso, “the omerta [code of silence] that reigns over the French cinema world frightens the victims and prevents them from talking to the police”.
“A large part of the French cinema industry is complicit and says nothing for obvious reasons,” she added. She said the practice of hotel room meetings should no longer be tolerated, as it has been for “too long”.
The Weinstein affair has led to certain changes in practices in Hollywood, where the Screen Actors Guild has issued a code of conduct that advises against meetings between producers and production executives with actors in hotels or private residences without a “support peer”.
Contacted by Mediapart, the guild (SAG-AFTRA), which is the largest actors' and actresses' union in the US, said: “After hearing from members and a broad range of industry stakeholders and outside experts, SAG-AFTRA published a series of recommendations under the auspices of our Four Pillars of Change Initiative. As part of the initiative, SAG-AFTRA banned solo auditions in private homes and hotel rooms, which had an immediate impact on the professional lives of performers. Now, our members can confidently make decisions about where and how they pursue their profession with the full weight and protection of the union behind them.”
Some American entertainment figures targeted by sexual abuse allegations have been, at least in part, shunned by the profession. Numerous actors and actresses have distanced themselves with director Woody Allen, accused by estranged daughter Dylan Farrow of sexually abusing her as a child – an allegation he firmly denies – and whose latest movie, A Rainy Day in New York, is uncertain of being released. US stand-up comedian Louis C.K. recently saw the premiere of his film I Love You, Daddy cancelled amid accusations of five women of sexual misconduct, including masturbation in front of some, and his voiceover in a Disney cartoon film was replaced.
Meanwhile, actor Kevin Spacey was removed from the Netflix hit series House of Cards following allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards male acquaintances, and erased from Ridley Scott’s 40-million-dollar thriller about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, All the Money in the World.
Now, the release of Luc Besson’s latest film, Anna, which was initially planned for the beginning of 2019, has now been put on hold by its US distributors. Meanwhile, Besson’s company EuropaCorp, already hit by financial difficulties and affected by the scandal surrounding the filmmaker, is preparing to shut down its distribution arm, with no film projects currently underway.
French actors' group calls for hotel meetings to end
Mediapart’s revelations of the accounts of the nine women accusers of Luc Besson were reported by other media worldwide, while in France they prompted little, if any, reaction.
In July this year, following the complaint for rape filed against Besson by actress Sand Van Roy and the publication by Mediapart of the accounts of her and three other women accusers of the filmmaker, a New York Times report referred to “a wall of silence” within French cinema, and noted that no important figure in the entertainment business had offered support to the 27-yer-old actress.
On December 6th, German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported on the accusations levelled at Besson, who it described as “untouchable” in France, citing “the persistent silence of the Parisian press”. The daily underlined that the alleged events have been largely only mentioned in France in gossip magazines.
More recently, after the publication by Mediapart of the accounts of five more women accusers of Besson, the French cinema world remained silent, with no public reaction either in his defence or against him.
Asked to comment on the accusations, the professional association Actrices, Acteurs et Associés (Actresses and Actors Associated), AAFA, said: “Concerning the ongoing cases, they are before the justice system; while respecting the [legal] presumption of innocence [afforded to Luc Besson], we can only support the eventual victims. We are following these cases with attention.”
Founded in 2015 and headed by the actor Olivier Sitruk, AAFA created, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, a dedicated service dealing with complaints of violence or harassment from members of the acting profession. Working alongside the Fondation des femmes (women’s foundation), it offers support and assistance to victims of sexual aggression, and has put in place a protocol agreement among different actor training schools to allow victims to speak out. The association is now due to launch a series of consultations with representative bodies in the acting profession for the adoption of a broad code of ethics it has itself prepared.
One of the elements in the code is to make the practice of holding auditions in hotel rooms, and those “notably involving minors”, should become “no longer possible”. While underlining that “artistic freedom is essential” in the cinema and theatre, and that “the work can and must be stimulating, experimental and audacious”, AAFA also insists that “the creative space must be a secured space”.
“Every employee, manager and executive must recognise that each individual has the right to a working environment that encourages respectful, dignified and non-sexualised professional relations,” added AAFA.
In October 2017, amid the Weinstein revelations, France’s Société des réalisateurs de films (SRF, a professional association of film directors), co-presided by the filmmakers Marie Amachoukeli, Bertrand Bonello and Christophe Ruggia, issued a statement expressing its “solidarity and unwavering support for all those who have the courage to speak out”.
“A wind of change is blowing, it is our collective responsibility to take a part in it,” the statement added.
Until now, this prestigious association has made no comment concerning the accusations levelled at Besson. Contacted by Mediapart, the SRF board, made up of 22 members including Jacques Audiard, Pascale Ferran, Philippe Faucon, Céline Sciamma and Rebecca Zlotowski issued a statement that read: “We continue to encourage the freedom of speech, to put an end to certain intolerable practices or unacceptable situations.”
The SRF board said the case of Luc Besson “invalidates the idea and the feeling that French cinema – either because it was strangely not concerned, either through solidarity – could have miraculously escaped the consequences of the Weinstein affair”. Regarding the complaint filed by Sand Van Roy, the SRF underlined that the case was “at present at a moment of legal procedures”.
As for the practice of professional meetings in hotel rooms, the SRF commented that “this is not common practice and is not normal […] whether indeed it involves adult or underaged actors and actresses”. With a view to banning such practices, the association suggested one solution would be to establish “a code of ethics for auditions, contractual and signed by the producer, director, those responsible for artistic distribution and agents in order to work towards the transparency of practices”.
For its part, the Association des responsables de distribution artistique (ARDA, a professional association representing French casting directors), issued a statement on December 7th, following Mediapart’s report detailing the new accusations against Besson, who it avoided mentioning by name. The text said all its members “take position in stating their total support for the #MeToo movement”, (an affirmation that comes one year after the movement was launched). “We, directors of castings, firmly believe in the necessity of a liberation of speech for those who have been victims of harassment, sexual abuse or rape within the French entertainment industry,” the statement added.
“To submit an actor or actress to sexual pressure while justifying it with the obtaining of a role is unacceptable. It is therefore our duty to guarantee for all actresses and actors total attention if they should be confronted with violence or abuse of power, and if they wish to talk about it.”
Recognising that actresses and actors can be reticent to speak out for fear of reprisals, the ARDA made several pledges to reassure victims. “Never will the fact of speaking out be held against you,” it insisted. “No employment discrimination against those who wish to speak out can be envisaged, the support of every casting director who is a member of ARDA will be unwavering,” it said, concluding: “ARDA is and will be attentive. ARDA will support victims.”
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- The French version of this report can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse