First things first: I’d like to reassure all you power brokers, bosses, kingpins, big shots – yes, it hurts. It doesn’t matter that we know this, that we know you, that we’ve had your power shoved down our throats a dozen times – it still fucking hurts. You’ve been whining and bellyaching all weekend, complaining that you’re forced to use article 49 subsection 3 to ram your laws through parliament, that you can’t get a minute’s peace to honour Polanski, that everyone’s pissing on your parade, but don’t worry, under all that pathetic whining we can hear you revelling in the fact that you’re the real bosses, the hotshots, and the message is coming through loud and clear: you are not about to allow this concept of consent to stand. Where’s the fun in belonging to a powerful clique if you have to worry about the consent of the weak? I’m not the only one who feels like howling with rage and helplessness at your pretty little show of strength, and I’m certainly not the only one to feel sullied at the sight of this orgy of impunity.
It’s not remotely surprising that the académie des Césars would vote to name Roman Polanski the Best Director of 2020. Grotesque, insulting, sickening – but not surprising. When you give a guy 25 million to make a TV movie, the budget says it all. If the struggle against rising antisemitism really mattered to the French film industry, we’d know all about it. After all, we know all about the fact that you’re sick and tired of listening to the oppressed telling their own stories in their own words. So when you heard about this subtle analogy between a problematic film director being heckled by hundreds of feminists outside a couple of cinemas and Dreyfus, a nineteenth-century victim of French antisemitism, you jumped at the chance. Twenty-five million euros to make that point. Congratulations. Let’s have a round of applause for the investors, because it takes a village to come up with a budget like this – Gaumont Distribution, tax credits, France 2, France 3, OCS, Canal +, and RAI, they all rummaged in their pockets and, for once, came up with a nice chunk of change. You close ranks, you protect one of your own. You, the powerful, feel a duty to defend your prerogatives: that’s part of your sophistication; rape, in fact, is the basis of your style. The law’s got your back, so have the tribunals, and you own the media. This is precisely what all the power vested in your huge fortunes is for: to control bodies you deem inferior. Bodies that are silent, that do not tell their side of the story. The time has come for the rich to spread the word: the respect that is their due now extends to their cocks smeared with the blood and shit of children they have raped. In the temples of culture, the Houses of Parliament or the Assemblée Nationale, you’re sick and tired of hiding, of pretending to feel shame. You demand total and unqualified respect. And that goes for your rapes, the brutalities of your police, your Césars, your pension reforms. And that’s not enough: you also demand your victims’ silence. That’s just the way it has to be, and if you have to terrorise us to get the message across, what’s the problem? Your perverted pleasure comes first. And you make sure to surround yourself with spineless arse-lickers. It’s not remotely surprising that you’d award a prize to Polanski: what’s celebrated at these award ceremonies is MONEY, no-one gives a shit about the cinema. No-one gives a shit about the audience. It’s your own financial might that you’ve come to celebrate. It’s the fat budget you gave to signal your support for Polanski that you’re saluting. He’s just the middleman; it’s your power that we’re supposed to respect.
In discussing this ceremony, it would be futile and inappropriate to separate the bodies of cis-guys and cis-girls. I don’t see any difference in their behaviour. It’s understood that major prizes continue to be the exclusive preserve of men, since the underlying message is clear: nothing must change. When Florence Foresti has the effrontery to walk out of the ceremony and say that she feels ‘sickened’, she is not doing so as a woman, she is doing so as an individual who risks being blackballed by the entire profession. She is doing it as an individual who’s not completely under the thumb of the film industry, because she knows you won’t use your power to keep people out of the cinemas. She’s the only person who dares to make a joke about the elephant in the room; no-one else will touch it with a barge pole. Not a word about Polanski, not a word about Adèle Haenel. Everyone sits down to dinner, everyone in the industry knows the watchwords: for months you’ve been bridling at the fact that a subsection of the audience has been making itself heard, for months you’ve had to suffer the fact that Adèle Haenel has spoken up and told the story of her career as a child actress, from her point of view.
So all the bodies sitting in the hall tonight have been invited for one reason only: to validate the absolute power of you, the powerful. And the powerful love rapists. Well, the ones like them, the ones who have power. They don’t love them in spite of their rapes and because of their talent. They’re deemed to have style and talent because they’re rapists. That’s why the powerful love them. For their courage in laying claim to the perversity of their pleasure, for their pathetic, systematic urge to destroy others, to destroy everything they touch, in fact. Your pleasure is predatory, that’s the only understanding you have of style. You know exactly what you’re doing when you defend Polanski: you’re demanding our admiration even in your criminality. It is this same demand that, during the ceremony, imposes the same law of silence on all bodies present. You blame it on political correctness, on social media, as though this omertà were something new, as though it were the fault of feminists, but this is how things have been for decades: during French film awards, no-one makes jokes that might offend the bosses’ sensibilities. So everyone shuts up, everyone smiles. If the child rapist is a house cleaner, it’s open season: police, prison, sanctimonious denunciations, statements in support of the victim, and general condemnation. But if the rapist is a powerful man: respect and solidarity. Never talk in public about what happens during the casting calls, the rehearsals, the shoot, the press junket. But word gets out, people know. Everyone knows. But the law of silence prevails. People are hired and fired based on whether they abide by this law.
We’ve known all this for years, but still we’re genuinely surprised by how presumptuous power can be. When it comes down to it, that’s the most beautiful thing about this shit: it works every single time. It is still humiliating to see participants come to the stage to present or to accept an award. We can’t help but identify – not just me, as part of this inner circle, but anyone watching the ceremony – we identify, and we are humiliated by proxy. All this silence, all this submissiveness, all this willingness to serve. We recognise ourselves. We want to die. Because at the end of the day, we know that we’re all just employees in this gargantuan shithouse. We’re humiliated by proxy when we see people say nothing although they know that the only reason Portrait of a Lady on Fire will not win any of the big prizes is because Adèle Haenel spoke out, and so a message needed to be sent to any victims tempted to tell their story that they should think twice before breaking this law of silence. Humiliated by proxy that you dared to force two female directors who have never received – and probably never will receive – the award for best director to go on stage and award that prize to Roman fucking Polanski. Himself. Right under our noses. You really have no fucking shame. You give the guy 25 million – that’s fourteen times the budget for Ladj Ly’s movie Les Misérables – and even then, he couldn’t manage to get the movie into last year’s box-office top five. But you reward him. And you know exactly what you’re doing – you know that the humiliation felt by the section of people in the audience who have got the message loud and clear will overshadow the next award, the one for Les Misérables, when you summon the most vulnerable bodies up onto the stage, people we know are risking their lives every time they’re stopped by the cops, and, okay, there aren’t many girls among them, but we know they’re smart, and we know that they know there’s a direct link between the impunity of the rapist you are celebrating this evening and the situation in the neighbourhoods where they live. The female directors who present the prize for your impunity, the male directors whose prize is tainted by your ignominy – they’re two sides of the same coin. They all know that, when you work in the film business, you better keep your mouths shut if you want a job tomorrow. Not so much as a joke, not even a cutting remark. That’s the Césars. And by a stroke of luck, the date for the ceremony means that the message can be sent out to everyone: a three-month strike against a pension reform policy that no-one wants, but you intend to ram through parliament. It’s the same message from the same elite directed at the same people: ‘Shut up, fuck off, shove your consent up your arse, and if you run into me, make sure you smile because I’m powerful, because I’m loaded, because I’m the fucking boss.’
So, when Adèle Haenel stood up, it was blasphemy. Here was one of your minions, a repeat-offender, refusing to force a smile while she’s publicly humiliated, refusing to applaud the spectacle of her own degradation. Adèle stood up, just as she stood up before to say, this is my take on your story about the director and the teenage actress, this is what I lived through, this is how I keep going, this is what I can never shake off. Because you can phrase it any way you like, your bullshit homily about the distinction between the man and the artist – but every artist who has ever been raped knows there is no miraculous difference between the body that was raped and the body that creates. We are the baggage we lug around, simple as that. Come and mansplain to me how I’m supposed to leave the girl who was raped outside my office door before I sit down to write, you bunch of fuckwits.
Adèle gets up and she walks out. On the evening of 28 February, we didn’t learn much that we didn’t already know about the magnificent French film industry; but we learned a lot about how to wear an evening gown. Like a warrior. How to walk in high heels as though you’re about to bring the whole building down around you, how to walk with your back straight, your neck tensed with rage, your shoulders square. The most glorious image in the forty-five-year history of the Césars: Adèle Haenel walking out and clapping back; now we know what it looks like when someone walks away and says, fuck you. I would give up four-fifths of my feminist library for that image. For that lesson. As I watch that clip of you walking out over and over on my phone, Adèle, it’s not with a male gaze or a female gaze. It’s a love gaze. Your body, your eyes, your back, your voice, your every gesture said: yeah, we’re the bitches, we’re the humiliated ones, yeah, all we have to do is keep our mouths shut and take the shit, you’re the boss, you’ve got the power and the arrogance that goes with it, but we’re not just going to sit here and say nothing. You will not have our respect. We’re walking the fuck out. You go have your bullshit ceremony. Toast each other, humiliate each other, kill, rape, exploit, destroy everything within reach. We’re getting up and we’re walking the fuck out. It’s a sign of the times to come. The difference isn’t between men and women, it’s between the dominated and the dominators, between those determined to control the narrative and impose their decisions and those determined to get up, walk the fuck out and scream. It is the only possible response to your policies. When things are wrong, when things go too far; we get up and we walk the fuck out and we scream and we insult you and even maybe we’re the ones at the bottom of the pile, the ones who have your shitty power shoved in our faces, but we despise you, you make us puke. We’re not going to spare an ounce of respect for your farcical respectability. Your world is stomach-churning. Your love of the strong is morbid. Your power is evil. You are a bunch of toxic morons. The world you have created so you can reign over it like losers is stifling. We get up and we walk out. It’s over. We get up. We walk out. We scream. Fuck you.
This piece was originally published in French on 1 March 2020 by Libération.
Image courtesy of Instagram/adelehaenel
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Virginie Despentesis a writer and filmmaker. She is the author of fifteen books including Apocalypse Baby (2010) and the Vernon Subutex trilogy (2013-2017). She was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for Vernon Subutex 1 in 2018. Vernon Subutex 3 will be published in June by Maclehose. Her essay King Kong Theory will be reissued by Fitzcarraldo Editions in August 2020 in a new translation by Frank Wynne, and with a foreword by Paul B. Preciado.
Frank Wynne is a literary translator. He has translated works by Francophone authors including Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Modiano, Pierre Lemaitre, Ahmadou Kourouma and Virginie Despentes. Having spent almost a decade living in Latin America he began translating from Spanish in 2010, with authors including Tómas Eloy Martínez, Javier Cercas and Almudena Grandes. His work has earned various awards, including the IMPAC Prize (2002), the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2005), the Scott Moncrieff Prize (2008, 2016) and the Premio Valle Inclán (2012, 2014).