Standing Up and Walking Out

Virginie Despentes

The following text appeared last week in French on Liberation.fr. Written on the occasion of Roman Polanski winning best director at the Cesar Awards (the french Oscars). Protests and clashes with police took place in the streets outside of the venue, while others attending the ceremony disrupted it from within. Overlapping with the French state’s decision to use an emergency decree to push through an unpopular pension reform, this short polemic turns Polanski’s award into an allegory for all the cruel abuses of power by the elite class in 2020. (CW: rape).

Let me begin like this: to the powerful, to the bosses, to the big shots—rest assured, it hurts. No matter how much we know, no matter how well we know you, no matter how many dozens of times we’ve taken it on the chin from you, with your arrogant power—still, every time it’s painful. All this weekend we’ve listened to you whine and cry, complaining that we’ve left you no choice but to pass your special laws, your article 49.3 [1], that we won’t let you celebrate Polanski in peace, that we are spoiling your party. Yet beneath all your whining Jeremiads, it’s obvious you’re not really worried. You can barely conceal your smug satisfaction that, at the end if the day, it’s you who remain the real bosses, the kingpins. The message is loud and clear: this notion of consent, it isn’t going to fly with you. What would be the fun of belonging to the clan of the powerful, if one suddenly had to start taking the consent of the dominated into account? And I am certainly not the only one who feels like crying out in rage and impotence at your recent show of force, certainly not the only one to feel sullied by the spectacle of your orgy of impunity.

It’s no surprise that the Academy of Caesars awarded Roman Polanski the best director prize for 2020. It’s grotesque, insulting, and despicable, but it’s not surprising. When you give a guy more than 25 million to make a TV movie, the message is in the budget. If the fight against the rise of anti-Semitism interested French cinema, it would be clear to see. On the other hand, the voice of the oppressed who want to take responsibility for telling the story of their own ordeal is obviously quite a drag for you. So when you heard about a subtle comparison some had made between the case of a filmmaker who was heckled by a hundred feminists in front of three movie theaters and that of Dreyfus, a victim of French anti-Semitism at the end of the last century, you jumped at the opportunity. Twenty-five million for this parallel. That’s great. We applaud the investors, since everybody had to pony up to come up with a budget like that: Gaumont Distribution, tax credits, France 2, France 3, OCS, Canal +, RAI… hand in hand, and generous, for once. You close ranks, you defend one of your own. The most powerful intend to defend their prerogatives: it’s part of your elegance, rape is the foundation of your style. The law protects you, the courts are your domain, the media belongs to you. And that’s exactly what the power of your big fortunes is there for: to control the bodies declared subordinate. Bodies that keep quiet, that don’t tell the story from their point of view. Now comes the moment for the rich to pass along their lovely message to us: the respect owed to them now extends to their cocks, stained with the blood and shit of the children they rape. Whether in the National Assembly or in culture – there  will be more hiding, no more feigning embarrassment. From us, full and unwavering respect is demanded. That goes for rape, that goes for your police brutality, that goes for the Caesars, that goes for your pension reform. It’s your policy to demand silence from your victims. It comes with the territory, after all, and you see nothing wrong with using terror to get your message across. Your morbid enjoyment, above all. And you tolerate only the most obedient servants around you. It’s no surprise that you crowned Polanski: it’s always money that’s celebrated in these ceremonies, cinema doesn’t matter. The public doesn’t matter. It’s your own money-making power that you’ve come to worship. The massive budget you  bestowed upon him was a sign of your support – and through it, your power commands its respect.

In commenting on this ceremony, it would be useless and inappropriate to separate the bodies of cis men from those of cis women. I don’t see any difference in behavior. It is understood that the grand prizes continue to be awarded exclusively to men, since the basic message is: nothing must change. Things are fine the way they are. When Foresti leaves the party and declares she is “disgusted,” she doesn’t do it as a woman – she does it as an individual who risks turning her whole profession against her. She does it as an individual who is not entirely subjugated to the film industry, because she knows that power will not go as far as emptying its own theaters. She’s the only one who dares to make a joke about the elephant in the middle of the room, one for which anyone else would be kicked to the curb. Not a word about Polanski, not a word about Adele Haenel. For months you’ve been annoyed by the fact that a part of the audience has been heard, for months you’ve suffered because Adèle Haenel has taken the floor to tell her story as a child actress, from her point of view.

All the bodies sitting in the auditorium that night have gathered for one purpose: to verify the absolute power of the powerful. And the powerful love rapists. I mean, the ones who look like them, the powerful ones. We don’t like them despite the rape and because they’re talented. We find them talented and stylish because they are rapists. We love them for that. For their courage in claiming the morbidity of their pleasure, their stupid and systematic impulse to destroy the other, to destroy everything that truly touches them. You take pleasure in predation, it’s your only understanding of style. You know very well what you’re doing when you defend Polanski: you demand that people admire you even in your delinquency. It is this demand that makes all the bodies during the ceremony subject to the same law of silence. They blame political correctness and social networks, as if this omertà just emerged yesterday and it was the feminists’ fault, when in fact it’s been fixed this way for decades: during French film ceremonies, you never joke about the susceptibility of the bosses. So everyone keeps quiet, everyone smiles. If the child rapist was the janitor or the cleaner, he would be shown no quarter: police, prison, thunderous declamations, spirited defenses of the victim and general condemnation. But if the rapist is a powerful man: respect and solidarity. Never speak in public about what happens during the castings, or during the rehearsals, or on the set, or during the promos. It’s something that can be told, it’s something that’s known. Everyone knows it. The law of silence prevails every time. It’s by respecting this rule that we select our employees.

Even though we’ve known all this for years, the truth is that the arrogance of power always catches us by surprise. That’s the beauty of it – your filth – it works every time. It’s still so humiliating to watch the participants take turns at the podium, whether to announce or to receive a prize. You necessarily identify yourself – not just me, who is part of this seraglio, but anyone watching the ceremony, you identify and you are humiliated by proxy. So much silence, so much submission, so many eager to be servile. We recognize ourselves. You feel like dying. Because at the end of the exercise, we know that we are all employees of this big mess. We are humiliated by proxy when we watch them remain silent, when they know that if Portrait of the Girl on Fire didn’t finish with any  major awards in the end, this is entirely because Adèle Haenel spoke out: it is a matter of making it clear to the victims who might want to tell their story that they would do well to think before breaking the law of silence. Humiliated by proxy that you dared to summon two directors who have never received and probably never will receive the best director award to present the prize to Roman fucking Polanski. Himself. In our faces. You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Twenty-five million, that’s more than fourteen times the budget of Les Misérables, and the guy can’t even get his film into the box office as one of the five most seen films of the year. And you reward him. And you know very well what you’re doing – that the humiliation suffered by a whole section of the audience who understood the message very well will extend to the next prize, Les Misérables, when you call the most vulnerable bodies in the theatre to the stage, those who are known to risk their skins at the slightest police check, and that if there are not enough chicks among them, we can see that they are not lacking in intelligence and we know that they know how direct the link is between the impunity of the rapist celebrated that night and the situation in the neighborhood where they live. The directors who award the price of your impunity, the directors whose price is stained by your ignominy – same struggle. As employees of the film industry, they all know that if they want to work tomorrow, they have to keep quiet. Not even a joke. That’s the spectacle of the Caesars. And the coincidences of the calendar mean that the message is valid on all fronts: three months of strike action to protest against a pension reform that we don’t want and that you’re going to force through. It’s the same message from the same circles to the same people: “Shut up, shut up, your consent is in your ass, and you smile when you see me because I’m powerful, because I have all the money, because I’m the boss.”

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So when Adele Haenel stood up, it was sacrilege on the march. A troublemaking employee, one of those ones won’t force herself to smile when people trash her in public, who won’t force herself to applaud the spectacle of her own humiliation. Adèle stands up, as she has already stood up, to say here’s how I see your story of director and his teenage actress, here’s how I lived it, here’s how I wear it, here’s how it sticks to my skin. Because you can tell it to us in all shades, your stupid separation between man and artist – all victims of rape by artists know that there is no miraculous division between the raped/rapists body and the creative body. You carry around what you are and that’s it. Go ahead and explain to me how I should check the raped girl inside me at the door before I start writing, you buffoons.

Adèle stands up and walks out. On the evening of February 28th we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know about the great French film industry, but we did learn how to wear an evening gown: like a warrior. The same way you strut on high heels: like you plan to tear the whole building down; like how you walk: back straight, shoulders open, and your neck stiffened with anger. The most beautiful image in forty-five years of the ceremony is that of Adèle Haenel descending the stairs to exit and applauding you. It’s an image of someone dipping out, after telling you where you can stick it. I’d give 80% of my feminist library for that image. Adèle, I don’t know if I’m female gazing you or male gazing you, but I am love-gazing at you on a loop on my phone for walking out like that. Your body, your eyes, your back, your voice, your gestures all said: “yes we’re the dumb bitches, we’re the humiliated ones, those who are supposed to shut our mouths and take our lumps from you, you’re the bosses, you have the power and the arrogance that goes with it but we aren’t going to just sit here and say nothing. You won’t get our respect. We’re outta here. You guys can go ahead and do this shit with each other on your own. You can celebrate, humiliate each other. Kill, rape, exploit, smash everything in sight. We’re standing up and walking out of here. It’s probably a harbinger of the days to come. The difference is not between men and women, but between the dominated and the dominant, between those who intend to confiscate the power of narrative and impose their decisions, and those who will stand up and walking out screaming. That is the only possible answer to your policies. When things don’t go well, when they go too far, we stand up and walk out shouting, and you can feel insulted, even though were are the ones with the short end of the stick, even if we have to take your shitty power to our face every day. You should know you are despised, that you disgust us. We have no respect for your masquerade of respectability. Your world is disgusting. Your love of power is morbid, your power is sinister., You ghouls. The world you’ve created, and over which you pathetically rule, is unbreathable. We’re standing up and we’re walking out. It’s over. We’re standing up. We’re walking out. We’re shouting. Fuck you guys.

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[1] The French government recently announced it might invoke emergency provisions in order to jam through its highly unpopular pension reform bill. –Trans.