Europe's Bitter #MeToo Debate: Bardot, Bertolucci and the "Threat of Change"
Illustration by: Rebekka Dunlap

Europe's Bitter #MeToo Debate: Bardot, Bertolucci and the "Threat of Change"

With Catherine Deneuve calling out the anti-harassment movement as "puritanical" and Bertolucci backing Kevin Spacey, insiders blame the continent's "Old Country" culture: "Everything that is new is scary."

Last October, when Italian actress and director Asia Argento first spoke out against Harvey Weinstein, accusing the Hollywood producer of raping her in 1997 when she was 21, she probably expected the European film community to stand behind her. American stars who had come forward to tell their stories of harassment and sexual violence — Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie — had been hailed as heroes, praised for daring to break the silence around a system that fostered and perpetuated abuse.

Not so in Italy.

Instead of praising her, Italian media piled on Argento, with commentators both male and female rushing to defend Weinstein and condemn the actress. Former journalist and Italian MP Renato Farina said the assaults described by Argento were "prostitution, not rape," while Vittorio Feltri, editor in chief of the newspaper Libero, said that if anything, Argento should be thankful to Weinstein for forcibly performing oral sex on her. "I don't believe Asia," said French director Catherine Breillat in a blunt interview with the Murmur podcast. Breillat, who collaborated with Argento on the 2007 drama The Last Mistress, went on to call the actress a "traitor" and a "mercenary" and accused her of "semi-prostitution" in her relationship with Weinstein.

Perhaps the most telling moment came during Rome's Women's March on Jan. 20. Argento had invited her colleagues — Italian actresses, directors and producers — to join her, but when the day came, she marched alone, the sole representative of the Italian film industry.

Argento's treatment came despite the fact that the European film industry prides itself on being woke. Cinema on the continent is seen primarily as an artistic (not commercial) activity, and the industry likes to project a common front of a socially, and sexually, liberal community. Attacks on conservative values or right-wing politics are de rigueur. It's impossible, for example, to imagine an anti-immigration movie getting into any of Europe's major film festivals. Directors and actors rarely miss a chance to bash far-right leaders like France's Marie Le Pen or Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, not to mention Donald Trump.

Hollywood might be sexist, racist and misogynist, many in the European industry would argue, but not us progressive continentals. Now #MeToo, with its accusations of systematic bias and abuse, threatens that self-image. A Europe that is accustomed to taking the moral high ground is being forced to question its own power structures. And the debate about how to move forward in Europe is far more contentious than in the U.S., where the Time's Up and #MeToo movements created a cultural flashpoint that demanded immediate change.

The #MeToo movement initially found strong resonance in Europe. A French #MeToo hashtag, #BalanceTonPorc, or #SquealOnYourPig, went viral. Stars attending the Cesar Awards, France's equivalent of the Oscars, wore white ribbons in solidarity with victims of abuse.

But within the local industry, the movement also sparked a backlash. French icons Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot slammed the movement — Bardot labeled it "hypocritical and ridiculous" and Deneuve signed an open letter to newspaper Le Monde calling #MeToo a "puritanical" witch hunt that "far from helping women to empower themselves … actually serves the enemies of sexual freedom."

Deneuve backtracked on some of the comments in the ensuing uproar, but the argument that #MeToo represents a new era of intolerance was picked up by the likes of Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) and German actress Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun). "When I started making films, [German director Rainer Werner] Fassbinder slapped me in the face and said I had to take it," Schygulla said at the Berlin Film Festival in February. "I know that there is a taboo about this kind of thing now." On April 29, Italy's Bernardo Bertolucci said Ridley Scott should be "ashamed" of buckling under #MeToo pressure last year and replacing Kevin Spacey, after he was accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen men, with Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World.

Audrey Clinet, founder of EROIN, a French group that promotes female directors, points to a key cultural difference between how the U.S. and Europe approach thorny issues like race, gender and equality. The U.S., through its civil rights and women's liberation movements, has a history of challenging the status quo that simply doesn't exist in Europe (in France, for instance, it's illegal to even ask for racial info when gathering census statistics).

"In France, we don't talk about gender," observes Clinet. "It's not as accepted as it is in the U.S. … where you can speak about gender and ethnicity and it's not a problem — where, in fact, [talking about it is] seen as a good thing," she says. "My project was not supported by any women's groups [in France], and when we tried to do a #MeToo movement during the Cesars, no one called me back. Europe is called the Old Country, and I think that is true. Everything that is new is scary."

Clinet sees a clear generational gap in Europe between younger women and actresses who came of age in the 1960s, like Bardot and Deneuve, when "feminism" meant, primarily, sexual liberation. "Within the younger generation in France, there is a really strong feminist movement, and the older generation is maybe further behind," says British actress Gemma Arterton, who has appeared in such French films as 2014's Gemma Bovery. "The people that I associate with in France and the French cinema industry are completely going for a gender balance. It's just that there's a big disparity between the generations."


European cinema's old guard, this argument goes, is still fighting the battles of the 1960s against their parents' puritanical ways and missing the point of #MeToo as a movement to empower women. "It seemed out of touch," says Rebecca Zlotowski, co-president of French directors group SRF, about the Deneuve letter. "They were defending their right to be spanked or whipped in bed while the whole world was finally taking a stand against torture."

Many in the industry also point to the lack of a European Harvey Weinstein. "[Weinstein] was an earthquake in the U.S., and we didn't have that kind of moment," says Tonie Marshall, director of the 1999 feature Venus Beauty Institute and the only woman to have won a Cesar for directing. "Here and there, producers and directors have maybe done some inappropriate actions, but we haven't had someone that powerful," with the influence to make or break a career in the way Weinstein did. Without a poster boy for #MeToo, the European industry has found it easier to dismiss the issue as America's problem.

Perhaps there is no equivalent to Weinstein in Europe because its industry is fundamentally different from Hollywood. In Europe, films are financed primarily by the state with tax subsidies, grants and other programs. Many point to this more "objective" model as a reason why Europe doesn't have the same gender gap as Hollywood. According to USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 4 to 5 percent of films in the U.S. were directed by women from 2007 to 2017. In France, however, the number was 23 percent from 2006 to 2016.

Another difference is the long tradition in Europe of the cult of the auteur — that's why the Cannes Film Festival continues to celebrate directors like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Lars von Trier, even as they are condemned for personal behavior some consider reprehensible or criminal. "As a cinephile, I will defend films to the bitter end, even if it means protecting them from the directors who made them," says Zlotowski. "There are legal and procedural ways to deal with crimes they may have committed, but their work as artists should be defended at all costs."

Notably, the reactions to #MeToo have differed across Europe. Swedish Film Institute head Anna Serner says she sees a difference between Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, "where we've been talking about gender issues for a long time," and Latin nations Italy, Spain and France, "where women have internalized a stereotypical femininity as part of their identity" and may feel threatened by #MeToo. But Serner, who in three years achieved a 50-50 balance in public funding for female and male directors in Sweden (with no quota), sees another, more cynical reason behind the virulence of the European #MeToo pushback — money. "Because we have public funding, we control the industry — the threat of change is real. People know that and they're scared," she says. "That's why Europeans are fighting #MeToo: They know it could change everything. In the U.S., there's a lot of talk but no real action. Everyone can get behind #MeToo without having to worry it will change how business works."

Jordan Mintzer and Ariston Anderson contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.