Elsa Keslassy and Elizabeth Wagmeister
Tue, 16 May 2023 at 4:32 pm BST
If you thought Johnny Depp starring in a film might be a lightning rod of controversy, imagine the movie’s director spitting on a journalist.
“Jeanne du Barry” will open the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday night, marking Depp’s return to the red carpet, following legal battles that have largely defined the actor for the past few years. Ahead of the film’s premiere, the director, French actor and filmmaker Maiwenn, admitted to assaulting a journalist by spitting on him.
“She’s outspokenly anti-#MeToo and she made a gesture to please her world, and that’s why she bragged about it on TV. We could see a sort of pride that echoed that world,” journalist Edwy Plenel tells Variety in his first interview since the spitting incident. Plenel was referring to Maiwenn’s comments published by Paris Match in 2020, saying “It’s crazy how many stupidities they say these days! These women don’t like men, that’s clear, and they’re causing very serious collateral damages.” In that same interview she said “When I hear women complaining that men are only interested in their bottom, I tell them, ‘Enjoy it because it won’t last!’”
Last week, during a television interview on a French talk show, Maiwenn confessed to spitting on Plenel. “Do I confirm that I assaulted him? Yes,” Maiwenn said on TV. “I’ll speak about it when I’m ready,” she added. “I’m very anxious about the release of my film.”
Perhaps she should be anxious about the press conference following the premiere of her film, where journalists covering the festival are surely going to quiz her about her spitting admission.
Plenel — who is editor-in-chief and founder of Mediapart, an independent French investigative online newspaper — filed a police complaint on March 7, which accused Maiwenn of aggression while he was eating in a restaurant. The director, who was sitting by herself at a nearby table, allegedly grabbed Plenel by the hair and spit in his face, then left the restaurant. In the complaint, Plenel said he was “traumatized by the incident.”
Now, Plenel tells Variety he believes that Maiwenn spit on him because she was upset about an investigation that Mediapart published into rape and sexual assault allegations against Luc Besson. Maiwenn was married to Besson in the 90’s and they share a daughter together.
For their bombshell investigation, Mediapart spoke to nine women who accused Besson; one of the women, the Belgian-Dutch actor, Sand Van Roy, filed a police report in 2018. In 2021, the case was dismissed.
In Mediapart’s report, the newspaper included some of Maiwenn’s police testimony, which Plenel believes angered the filmmaker. “We published what she told police as part of the investigation into Besson,” Plenel says. “When she talked to the police, she discussed complicated aspects of her relationship with Luc Besson, notably during their separation. But once we published our piece, we never received any protest of any kind. That was about five years [ago] — that would mean that for all this time, Maiwenn wanted to take her revenge. But if that’s the case, why didn’t she send an email? [We] never even got a phone call from her.”
Variety reached out to Maiwenn’s attorney at Cabinet Temime for a comment.
Plenel says he believes the spitting incident is a political act by Maiwenn to protest against Mediapart’s investigative work into sexual assault and harassment in the film industry.
“I don’t know Maiwenn, I never met her. I would have been unable to recognize her,” he says. “This aggression caused more stupor than anything else. She didn’t aggress me individually, but the symbol that I represent, as the founder and director of a journal, which in France, has been on the forefront of all the #MeToo revelations.”
Mediapart notoriously published the first testimony of Adele Haenel, the actor of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” who accused director French director Christophe Ruggia of having sexually harassed her for years starting when she was 12. The testimony, which came out in November 2019, marked the premises of France’s #MeToo movement. Among other investigations, Mediapart also recently published a report about French actor Gerard Depardieu, who is already indicted on rape and sexual assault charges in connection to a 2018 case, with testimonies of 13 women accusing him of sexual misconduct.
“Some people in the film industry see our work at Mediapart as a censor, as if we were preventing them from doing whatever they want, like oppress, harass and profit from their positions,” Plenel says. “You are the first journalist to call me,” he says over the phone, speaking to Variety. “That’s interesting, and it says a lot about the state of French media.”
Plenel says that he was “stunned” by being spit on, but wasn’t planning on filing a lawsuit. He says that he only wanted an apology from Maiwenn, which would have been “an honorable way of solving this,” but claims that “she refused.”
“We decided that we had to file a lawsuit, by principle, because we can’t allow someone — just because that person comes from a privileged and artistic environment — to aggress the director of a publication because of its content,” Plenel says. “We filed that lawsuit to make a point and say that there is no impunity. She doesn’t risk much.”
Plenel says that the Cannes Film Festival selecting Maiwenn’s film for opening night makes a statement on France’s stance towards #MeToo.
“Cannes chose a completely mad symbol as it’s opening night selection: a film by Maiwenn that’s about a courtesan seeking power,” he says. “The mythology that’s put forward in the film, coupled with the casting of Johnny Depp, her anti-#MeToo comments and now this aggression that she seems to be proud and that makes people laugh on TV — that says something.”
In 2020, Depp lost a libel case involving his ex-wife Amber Heard’s abuse allegations in the U.K., and then won another one in the U.S. in 2022.
Plenel continues, “I didn’t receive a message from Monsieur Thierry Fremaux telling me, ‘Look, this is our choice, but be sure that we’re not standing in solidarity with the act of Maiwenn. It could have been done out of correctness or politeness.”
Cannes’ support of Maiwenn’s film is indicative of a larger issue, according to Plenel, who says that the French film industry has not embraced the movement to stand up against sexual harassment and abuse. In America, the entertainment industry has made slow but significant steps towards progress and has a heightened awareness to eradicate sexual harassment throughout Hollywood.
“We’re stunned to see that the film world is not moving after what we revealed on Depardieu,” he says, referencing Mediapart’s report, published just last month, where French actor Gerard Depardieu was accused of sexual misconduct by 13 women. (Depardieu is already indicted on rape and sexual assault charges in connection to a 2018 case.) “I think it’s crazy,” Plenel continues. “It’s hardly making any noise, and we don’t see any real awakening,”
Plenel adds, “It’s as if France is standing aside.”