Why Venice is mired in controversy

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Woody Allen at the Venice Film Festival

What does the appearance at this year’s Venice Film Festival of Luc Besson, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen say about the European and US film industry’s contrasting attitudes to controversy, asks Nicholas Barber.

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Among the many big-name premieres at the Venice Film Festival this year are Roman Polanski’s satirical farce, The Palace, Luc Besson’s dark supervillain drama, Dogman, and Woody Allen’s French-language thriller, Coup de Chance, which screened on Monday. They’re just the sort of headline-grabbing, cineaste-tempting offerings you might expect from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, but they have something else in common: all three directors have been accused of sexual assault. This raises the question of whether their films should be in Venice at all. Is the festival signalling its approval of the men by giving them so much publicity? And are journalists who write about them doing the same? Some critics told BBC Culture that they had refused to review any of the three films. At the premiere of Allen’s film on Monday, scuffles broke out as protestors shouted “no rape culture” before being led away.

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It’s important to note the differences between the cases. Polanski fled the US for France in 1978, on the eve of sentencing, having been charged with raping a 13-year-old girl, and has since been accused of sexual assault by several other women, which he denies. Besson has been accused of rape by several women, too: in one instance he was cleared of all charges, and in the others, which he has denied, nobody pressed charges. Allen was alleged to have abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992. The case was investigated, but led to no criminal charges; the allegations, which Allen denied, have frequently resurfaced, most recently in 2021, after a documentary aired on HBO. The allegations against the three directors shouldn’t be lumped together, but the similarities have made them a talking point in Venice.

A scuffle broke out amid protests at the Venice premiere for Woody Allen's latest film, Coup de Chance (Credit: EPA)

A scuffle broke out amid protests at the Venice premiere for Woody Allen’s latest film, Coup de Chance (Credit: EPA)

The inclusion of these films could simply mark the difference between US and European attitudes to the scandals. Until recently, all three directors were the toast of Hollywood. In 2003, Polanski won the best director award at the Oscars for The Pianist, and in 2014, Allen’s Blue Jasmine was nominated for three Oscars. But the mood has changed since then. A key turning point came when reports of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse were published in The New York Times and The New Yorker in 2017. The #MeToo hashtag took off immediately afterwards. Polanski was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2018.

Johnny Depp, who was accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wife Amber Heard (he has lost one related court case and won another), was dropped from the Fantastic Beasts franchise in 2020. Nonetheless, the Cannes Film Festival opened this May with Jeanne Du Barry, a period drama in which Depp co-starred as Louis XV. Thierry Fremaux, Cannes’s General Delegate, said at the time that it wasn’t his job to decide on an actor’s guilt or innocence. Alberto Barbera, the artistic director of the Venice Film Festival, has taken a similar tack. Questioned about the directors in a Guardian newspaper interview, he said: “I’m not a judge who is asked to make a judgment about the bad behaviour of someone. I’m a film critic, my job is judging the quality of his films.” He added that Polanski had “asked to be forgiven by the victim, and the victim gave her forgiveness”, referring to Samantha Geimer, the woman who Polanski was charged with raping when she was 13, who has requested that the charges against him be dropped. On the subject of Allen and Besson, he was more bullish, saying: “For which reason should we ban a film from [either of them] when they’re not guilty in the face of justice? Why should we be more strict against them? We need to have faith in the justice system.”

Luc Besson attends a photocall at the Venice Film Festival, where his film Dogman was shown (Credit: Getty Images)

Luc Besson attends a photocall at the Venice Film Festival, where his film Dogman was shown (Credit: Getty Images)

Depending on how you look at it, this is either a convenient excuse for shrugging off responsibility or a brave commitment to the principles that people can reform (in Polanski’s case) and that everyone is innocent until proven guilty (in Allen and Besson’s cases). Either way, it’s not what you would hear at an American festival.

But maybe attitudes to scandal aren’t quite so different on either side of the Atlantic. Ezra Miller was charged with disorderly conduct, harassment and burglary last year following years of controversies, but that didn’t stop Warner Bros from releasing The Flash, in which they had not one but two starring roles. Could American cinema’s rejection of certain problematic people have as much to do with business as it has with ethics? After all, Polanski is 90 and Allen is 87, and neither Besson nor Depp is the bankable talent he once was. Hollywood can turn its back on them without making any great sacrifice.

Roman Polanski's film The Palace was panned by the critics who reviewed it from the Venice Film Festival (Credit: Getty Images)

Roman Polanski’s film The Palace was panned by the critics who reviewed it from the Venice Film Festival (Credit: Getty Images)

Paradoxically, that same feeling − that these once-powerful men are now verging on irrelevance – could help to explain their appearance in Venice. Several journalists who spoke to BBC Culture said that they felt the directors were no longer making films that would be widely seen, their twilight works being shown to a few thousand discerning cinephiles in a rarefied setting. However, anonymous protest banners appeared at the Lido on Sunday morning, according to The Hollywood Reporter, criticising the directors’ inclusion in the festival, followed by the protests outside the premiere of Coup de Chance on Monday.

And although Allen’s film has been received relatively positively by critics – Rolling Stone called it “his best film in a decade” – some suggest that showing the men’s films might be a more suitable punishment than not showing them, as it could confirm their increasing irrelevance. Polanski’s The Palace, for example, turned out to be a stinker that was slated by every critic who saw it. One of those critics, The Evening Standard’s Jo-Ann Titmarsh, told BBC Culture that The Palace had, at a stroke, made it impossible for anyone to continue defending Polanski as a flawed genius. “If you don’t like Polanski,” she said, “Alberto Barbera has done you a favour by showing his film in Venice.”

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