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Judith Godrèche Breaks Open France’s Moi Aussi Movement at Cannes

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Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images

The French film industry is at an inflection point regarding its Moi Aussi movement, which, as was briefly discussed last week at the Cannes opening press conference, has long trailed behind America’s Me Too movement, only recently gaining any sort of traction. Much of that can be credited to Judith Godrèche, an esteemed French actor whose short film Moi Aussi was shot in secret in March and added last-minute to the Un Certain Regard section of the festival. The poignant, poetic short features the faces and anonymous personal testimonies of people in the industry who have been victims of sexual abuse, gathered together in silence on a Parisian street as Godrèche’s daughter, actress Tess Barthélemy, dances lyrically around them.

The film is significant both for its subject matter and its premiere location, at a festival and within an industry that has turned a blind eye to or gone so far as to celebrate men accused of sexual violence; just last year, for example, Cannes’s opening film starred Johnny Depp, and this year, Shia LaBeouf walked the red carpet. Moi Aussi is also personally symbolic for Godrèche, who, in 2017, joined the chorus of voices testifying against Harvey Weinstein, and more recently spoke out against two men in the French film industry: she filed a complaint against director Jacques Doillon, accusing him of “rape with violence,” on and off the set of the 1989 film The 15 Year Old Girl, and denounced as abuse the six-year relationship she, then age 14, had with the then-39-year-old director Benoît Jacquot back in the 1980s, whom she accused of “rape with constraint.” Both men deny the allegations, though the lawsuits are still active.

As a result of her outspokenness, Godrèche was instantly inundated with personal stories of other survivors, which she then decided to transmute into Moi Aussi (which she hopes to release in the U.S. soon). In February, just before filming, she gave a fiery speech at France’s Cesar Awards, in which she asked the audience, “Why allow this art that we love so much, this art that brings us together, to be used as a cover for the illicit trafficking of young girls?” She’s also been a driving force behind the recent French Parliament inquiry into sexual and gender-based violence across the country’s film, audiovisual, performing arts, advertising and fashion sectors. As Deadline’s Melanie Goodfellow put it, “There is no bigger disruptive force in French cinema right now than Godrèche.”

On the heels of her Cannes premiere, and at a festival that’s suddenly stuffed with stories about women attempting to take power back in a system they’ve realized has long been rigged against them (including Furiosa, The Shameless, The Seed of the Sacred Fig, Armand, Balconettes, On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, The Substance, Being Maria, and Anora) I sat down with Godrèche for a long talk at a hotel bar. We discussed why she decided to speak out about her experiences later in life, whether she believed the French film industry was ready to accept real change, and what sort of backlash she’s since faced.

Tell me about your initial impulse to make this film, and the decision to speak out about all of this.
So I lived in the States for 11 years, starting in 2014. I left France, sort of running away from this industry, after I was a child actor and worked my whole life, but felt that I could never really find any sort of legitimacy. I was either someone’s muse or someone’s wife or constantly judged, not able to find the space of legitimacy to direct or write my own things.And I struggled with this because I was a muse. I was with a director for a very long time, living with him when I was 14. He was a beloved auteur in French cinema. So it was already my struggle. I was in LA for a film and sold an idea to HBO, something taking place in the States, so I moved with my two kids. I knew I was breaking up with France and it was not going to be possible for me to go back and work.

The show didn’t end up happening, so I started working as an indie actress in the States. But I never stopped thinking and writing, and I wrote a show on spec, Icon of French Cinema, and A24 came onboard. It took place in Paris, and told a story of an actress who goes back to France. I understood the necessity of anchoring her in her past and in the cinema, in that industry. And I knew I couldn’t tell the story without being honest about my childhood in the industry. I had to tell my story. But I was very worried and scared of coming forward, of saying any names, or being too precise. Obviously everyone knew in France, but I was very scared to not be able to tell this show, or have it made. Or even worse. But I ended up partnering with Arte, and they were very supportive.

This all came after I’d spoken out against Harvey Weinstein, and I’d gone through that experience, which was very scary. The journalists need to protect every source, themselves, and the information, so they don’t give you any information. So you’re talking to someone who’s taking your words and you don’t know what’s going to happen with them, or if you’re alone.

You had no idea who else was speaking out?
Right. So it’s this weird, dark hole. I went through that, with all of these fears about the power of this man, and I didn’t want to go through all of that again. But then the Weinstein prosecutor came to meet me in L.A., along with other victims, and interrogated me, trying to see if I could be potentially brought on the stand to testify against Weinstein, even though the statute of limitations was up for my story. This was one of the pieces of the puzzle that made me realize how repressed I was. I realized I’d lived my whole childhood with this situation, being raped by these men and directors, and I’d pretended that it was fine and that I was somehow responsible. Through writing a book, making my own television series and short film and, most importantly, observing my daughter’s adolescence, I realized how vulnerable I was then. And much to my surprise, I’ve found tremendous support and comfort from other victims and slowly from parliament, but it’s a complicated path. We all need to speak up.

When you say “everyone in France knew” what was happening to you, what do you mean?
Every body knew in this small French industry that I was with a much older director. And on set of A Girl of 15, the director fired the actor, then put himself in the role. In the script it said there was a love scene, but it wasn’t explained with any detail. You’re 15, you’re on set, and suddenly he’s telling you that you need to take off your sweater and be naked. What do you do? He kisses you over and over and over and touches your breasts. What do you do? No adults are speaking up for you. I understand how people are paralyzed; it’s the cult of the auteur, and the power of the director.

At the time, I was trying to speak out — at least on some things, saying he stole my words and some of my writing. If you look back at the press from that time, you don’t even need to do an investigation to understand a lot of things. Clues are everywhere. But nobody ever cared. I was kept in silence for so long, so for me, there was a constant reminder of the lack of legitimacy I would be facing. No matter what I said, I had this stigma, like, “I’m a bad person.” There was no space for me to be heard. So I told the prosecutor, “I’m not good for you. I will hurt other victims. If you bring me on the stand against Weinstein, they’re going to bring up my childhood story.” I was a “bad witness,” a “bad victim.”

That’s awful, that they would use it against you.
Right. But I think that’s one of the first times that I was able to formulate this self-perception, this guilt. So I wrote this show, and I was extremely worried that the show would become somehow in a bad way a Me Too show. That people wouldn’t want to see it, that some part of the show would make it unattractive. I was constantly navigating and negotiating with my own reality, like, “Oh, but it’s funny!” And it is also very funny. I do love the absurd and I’m inspired by Larry David. My tone is more like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and I love to use self-mockery, so it is funny, but there’s also this fear of embracing my own story.

But when the show came out all of these women started writing to me. And some said to me, “Because of your life story, seeing your films, seeing you around with Benoît Jacquot when you were 15, men hit on me and used you as an example. Or directors hit on me, or I wanted to be like you.” I felt this guilt again and responsibility, like, “I gave an example that allowed older men to hit on young girls.” And in directing the young actress in these scenes from my youth that I was reproducing, I imposed things on set that are not mandatory in France.

Like what?
An intimacy coordinator. The young actress had a person for herself, too, an advocate. On set, I was recreating scenes I’d done as a child, but in a completely different setting. It was almost like, “Shit!” She didn’t want the lead actor to approach her more than this [holds her hands apart]. And I wanted him to kiss her, and it looks on screen like he does, but he doesn’t — I shot it from behind so it just looks like he does. I worked within her boundaries instead of imposing them on her. Directing, to me, is that. It’s not, you’re a dictator. On my next project, I’d really like to change, in France, as much as I can, the idea of a hierarchy on set. And the difference between the way a technician or a beginning actor is treated compared to the stars. It’s so feudal and bizarre, a reflection of society.

Mimicking the patriarchy.
Exactly. The lack of consideration for human beings in France… I keep saying “in France,” and that makes French people hate me, but I’m sure it’s in America, too. But I’ve noticed living there, there is an idea that you can start with nothing and become something. Because it’s a younger country, it can give you a chance. It can destroy you, of course. But in France, if you bring coffee to the actors, that’s your role forever. As I’m growing as a director, I hope to have a crew and find a way to do cinema in a more democratic way.

But anyway. I got all of these DMs from women on Instagram after my show, and one of them was a link to a documentary called L’Interdit, The Forbidden. And in one of the interviews, you see Jacquot talking about what was forbidden for him was being with me as a teenager. And he’s mocking it. He’s saying that for him, and for a lot of people, cinema is a “cover” to have sex with young women.

He admitted that outright?
Oh, for sure. He’s bragging about it. And you see images of me and he’s talking about me like I’m an object. He’s putting words in my mouth, describing my feelings as a teenager, and how I was excited by the taste of something that’s forbidden. My body started shaking. I vomited. Suddenly I see this man who I was with for six years — it was so hard for me to get away from him, and I felt my entire life I tried to emancipate myself from him and his power over me — and I see him saying these things I’d never heard before. And I was like, “I can’t.” And I spoke out. It was almost like my body decided for me. It wasn’t an intellectual, step-by-step thing.

You were compelled.
And that started a long journey. I met a bunch of journalists and investigators, considered speaking to the press, and I ended up doing a piece with Le Monde in February. I realized I needed a lawyer. In opening up letters and souvenirs from this man, I realized the child in me needed justice. I was calling reputable lawyers but starting the conversation with, “Are you a lawyer for children?” I said, “I need a lawyer for the 14-year-old kid that I was. And I’d like to go to the place where you file for children, La Brigade des Mineurs.” And because I’m a privileged person, and because I’m famous, we were able to get access quickly. And I ended up filing lawsuits against these two men and my life started like an avalanche that somehow took me here, to bring this fight and this activism to a lot of places and to politics and to government. It was always one day at a time, not knowing what tomorrow is made of. As a person who thought for so long – that was the way these men were coming at you, telling you were “unique” and special. That there’s “no one like you.” But one of the things that made me have the ability to fight was the fact that I’m not unique. There are a lot of people like me.

That gave me some sort of responsibility. After I spoke out on Instagram, I created an email address and within two weeks I had received 5,000 messages. I felt the need of these women and men.

And at what point did you make the Cesar speech? Did they invite you there to speak on this?
Afterwards. No. They invited me to give an award, which I refused. And they said, “You can come and speak.” But I refused to show them my speech.

That’s so badass.
[Laughs and sips her water.] 

Were they upset afterwards?
No, no.

But you knew if you’d showed them, they’d have said no.
Yeah, yeah.

Because it’s so institutionalized in France. How do you account for your relatively positive reception throughout all of this? Because when Adele Haenel spoke out, and walked out of the Cesar’s in 2020, for example, a few years ago, she was met with so much rancor and silence. And ultimately left the industry entirely.
I think as soon as they can, they give you a kick. They wish I would fall, I’d make a mistake. Once you are someone who is a whistleblower about sexual violence, you need to be perfect. There’s such a thirst. Because you’re also representing something that society is extremely uncomfortable with. It’s shaking the status of the patriarchy. That’s not something a lot of people want. So I think it’s extremely complicated for people to receive you well. Even though they want to say they do…I do think in the younger generation, things are different, but I think that older generations and my generation, the power of men is dangerous. A lot of people want to keep that power.

So publicly there’s support, but privately it feels different?
I think so. And there’s not that much support. There’s a lot of silence, also. There has been support here at Cannes and I don’t want to generalize it, because I want to welcome it. But there’s a lot of backlash. Violent ones. Death threats against me, my daughter. Everything, every step I take, is a target. I feel there’s an army of people ready to jump, wolves ready to pounce at the first false move.

That’s a lot of pressure for you. How did you end up premiering this at Cannes? Because it does feel like a protector of the sort of thing you’re talking about, of the status quo and the patriarchy. I’ve never gotten the idea that the festival really “cares about women.”
It’s a lot of pressure. I remember Jane Campion’s speech here at her press conference about women and the lack of space for female directors in cinema. It’s interesting that it happened here. Women are obviously here and their films are selected, but I don’t know that it’s a place where activism is welcomed. But for me, politics is personal. And cinema is politics. I feel like a lot of my favorite films, whether it’s in your face or not, are political. And the proof is that this Iranian director who escaped his country – this is very political, and Cannes is welcoming him here. So it’s interesting because it’s a place where you can have the space to be political. A lot of activists would tell you they’re being shut down here and it’s hard. But maybe because this is a very specific female subject, that it’s specifically MeToo oriented … it’s an interesting debate. Cinema has always been a way to fight. What would the festival be without these movies made by these directors?

It just feels strange to me that they’d welcome this film, and then also celebrate Shia LaBeouf and Johnny Depp. It feels opposed to itself. Do you think them accepting your film is a genuine step in the right direction, like they genuinely want change?
An industry is individuals, and every decision is made by an individual. I don’t know if I can call them “they.”

Of course, it’s very general.
Do “they want change” or not? I don’t know. But I am grateful that I came here. And I hope it wasn’t chosen to do some kind of social washing. I think when right-wing people say that also it’s double-edged, because it’s a way of saying, “Oh, she’s not a director. It’s just a movie about this, that’s used to do this.” For me what’s important is that it’s a real film, it’s cinema, and it’s looking at people with consideration and isn’t using the camera or power or money to dominate and take. How do you make films that are not stealing away from people? How do you give that space and film bodies and faces and stories without instrumentalizing them?

For me, that was a real question: None of these people in my film are actors and I didn’t want to ask them to do anything without their consent. Preparing and thinking of the shots and the choreography was almost philosophical: How do I express without forcing or imposing? How do I offer gestures without people feeling like it’s not natural to them? And in one day! How do I tell all of these stories in one day of shooting, with people who have never been on a set before?

So how did you do it?
We wrote the 5,000 people who wrote to me and offered them to come that day, to film for one day. They came if they could. We didn’t choose who could come. There aren’t a lot of people of color who wrote to me, and I think that’s a real subject. For women of color it’s even harder to speak out. So it’s important to say: my film doesn’t reflect society. It reflects who wrote to me. We gave them some gestures that they could do if they wanted, and I tried to be as transparent as I could, so there were no surprises when they saw the movie. My biggest fear was: How do I film every one of them? Which is impossible. But people came from the countryside, from Australia. So I was looking for her with my mic, calling for her, because I didn’t have any names for the faces. But I was like, “If you aren’t in this movie I’ll cry!”

But we had a lot of informed crew and psychologists. People to talk to if someone was feeling anxious. And I wanted to use dance and the gestures of a child as symbolism, so it wasn’t too pretty. We’d say, if you want to do this gesture, do it, or don’t if you don’t want to. And it just came along. Everyone was so moved to be under the same sky.

And your daughter is dancing throughout the whole film. It sounds like a lot of the impulse behind all of this was to protect her.
She was definitely part of my impulse. She’s an actress, as well as a dancer, and for me, it was like, “No. This can’t happen to her and other young boys and girls in the world.” This industry needs to change, and the lack of protection for children on set needs to change. But it’s very heavy for her to be my daughter right now. She receives death threats and people saying they want to capture her, sexual emails and stuff. They went for her immediately. For me, it was essential that youth was represented. Youth are the future. And one day I want to be able to ask them, “Were you abused?” And they will say, “No.”

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Rachel Handler , 2024-05-25 16:30:25

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