French actress takes a stand for the accused star in the shadow of #MeToo
As successful and powerful men continue to face a reckoning for real or alleged misdeeds in years and decades past, the latest screen legend to come under scrutiny is none other than Gérard Depardieu, one of the few French actors to have gained a wide following on both sides of the pond. Opening once again a case filed in Aix-en-Provence in 2018 and then briefly revived in December 2020, prosecutors in Paris have charged Depardieu with rape and assault for his alleged actions toward an unnamed actress in her twenties who claims to have met the star while he taught a class at her school.
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Depardieu and his lawyer have vigorously denied the charges, but whatever course things may take as legal proceedings play out in the months to come, there can be little doubt of the lasting damage done to the actor’s life, finances, and career. Due process is passé. Everyone knows how incendiary the charge of sexual misconduct is, and respected media companies like HBO will not hesitate to air a documentary that cherry-picks sources and plays hard and loose with the facts in the name of rectifying an injustice.
It is important to acknowledge the gravity of the charges against Depardieu, as well as the possibility that unnamed actress may be telling the truth. Prosecutors should press ahead if they believe they have a case. But it is equally crucial not to toss out the presumption of innocence. One hopes that the truth will out and neither social media nor actual mobs will prevail.
One of the strongest advocates to have come forward for the accused screen legend is Caroline Barclay, a putative former flame of Depardieu’s, whom some will recall from her roles in 1990s cinematic fare such as Species (1995) and The Game (1997).
It has gone unnoticed in the Anglophone media, but those of us who speak and read French are privy to a new report in which Barclay forcefully denies the accusations to the French media. Admitting to having flirted in the past with Depardieu, Barclay describes him as a raucous, oafish, jocular, larger-than-life personality who at times went so far as to put his hands on her buttocks and scared her a bit with his excessive drinking.
Yet she swears she could never imagine Depardieu committing rape. When it comes to someone as fabulously rich as Depardieu, Barclay reminds us, there is an obvious motive to fling charges. Though she does not say so in as many words, it seems that from Barclay’s point of view, the motives of his accuser are hardly more trustworthy than in the case of an embittered former partner of Woody Allen making charges in the midst of a particularly nasty breakup.
It is not hard to see Barclay’s point. Depardieu just happens to own a castle in the Maine-et-Loire, and his net worth is a modest $250 million. Impossible to see why anyone would come forth with allegations that might set in motion legal proceedings leading to a hefty settlement in or out of court.
Depardieu is innocent until proven guilty. The charges warrant a thorough investigation, but it would be painful indeed to see life once again imitate art.
Gerard Depardieu knows something about the travails of a man falsely accused of sexual assault. Long before the current scandal, he convincingly portrayed Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Abel Ferrara’s 2015 film Welcome to New York, which is based on the bogus charges levied against the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund by a maid from Guinea who worked at the Sofitel New York Hotel, where Strauss-Kahn stayed in May 2011. The charges rocked New York, the movie world, and the French political establishment, but prosecutors had no choice but to drop the charges after it emerged that Strauss-Kahn’s accuser had baldly and repeatedly lied.
“The complainant has been persistently, and at times inexplicably, untruthful in describing matters of both great and small significance,” prosecutors reportedly told a New York State supreme court judge.
People treated Strauss-Kahn like a criminal long before the facts had begun to come to light. Like the area in the Vendée where Depardieu owns property, a verdant rustic land where ultrasophisticated fighter jets streak through the air above medieval castles, the DSK controversy incorporated currents of contemporary political and intellectual life as well as elements of France’s past. Maybe it is not going too far to draw a comparison between the near-legal lynching of DSK as soon as his alleged sexual misconduct with an African maid came to light, and the Dreyfus Affair.
Real sexual harassment merits extremely tough penalties. But some people today just don’t care about the rights of the accused. Today Woody Allen is still battling the massive fallout from decades-old charges of sexual abuse. An article last year in Forbes detailed some of the ruinous, career-wrecking financial and psychological costs visited on men who say they have faced false #MeToo accusations, from high-profile lawyer Alan Dershowitz to journalist Mike Tunison, who went from a job at the Washington Post to working as a janitor after an anonymous source put his name on the Shitty Media Men List.
“There’s an impossible burden of proof on me. How am I supposed to prove that I didn’t do X from a person I can’t identify? It’s literally impossible,” Tunison told Forbes.
Of course, the Dreyfus Affair is hardly the only historical parallel one could draw. French history is replete with examples of the dangers of unchecked revolutionary zeal, but better examples are closer to home. Everything from the War on Drugs to the War on Terror has drawn comparisons to the career-wrecking McCarthy purges of the 1950s. But now, in 2021, maybe a rather different phenomenon happening around us makes for a more apt comparison.