French support for Polanski crumbles amid new accusations

Sophie LAUBIE, Fiachra GIBBONS
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Polanski was expelled from US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year for sexual misconduct, although he has gone to court to get his membership back

The "unconditional support" Roman Polanski has enjoyed from the French film establishment seems to be crumbling after a new rape claim against the controversial director.

Interviews to promote his new film "An Officer and a Spy" -- which opens Wednesday -- have been either cancelled or pulled since a French photographer claimed on Friday that Polanski raped her in 1975 when she was 18 after beating her "into submission" at his Swiss chalet.

In Paris late Tuesday, women's rights supporters blocked one of a number of special advance screenings of the film -- the French title of which is "J'accuse" (or "I accuse") -- shouting "Polanski rapist" and carrying banners saying "Polanski persecutes women".

The 86-year-old French-Polish film-maker has been a fugitive from US justice since admitting to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977. He was accused of drugging and raping the girl, and fled to France when it appeared a judge was reconsidering his release.

Photographer Valentine Monnier claimed Polanski tried to make her swallow a pill when he pounced on her after they had gone skiing in Gstaad. "I thought I was going to die," she said in an open letter published by Le Parisien newspaper.

Monnier said she felt impelled to speak out after Polanski appeared to compare himself to the hero of his new film, Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer wrongly persecuted as a spy by French army at the turn of the 20th century.

The former actress had previously written to the French first lady Brigitte Macron to complain about Polanski getting public funds to rewrite history to "cover up his criminal past".

- Deafening silence -

After vociferous denials and threats to sue the newspaper from Polanski's lawyers, his wife actress Emmanuelle Seigner and Jean Dujardin, the film's Oscar-winning star, have since withdrawn from major interviews on French television and radio to promote "An Officer and a Spy".

French public radio -- one of the film's promotional partners -- also shelved another popular show on Monday that featured a pre-recorded interview with Louis Garrel, who plays Dreyfus in the film.

Despite being forced to step down as president of the French Oscars in 2017 after protests by feminist groups, Polanski has weathered previous allegations of rape and sexual assault from other women.

In her letter, Monnier criticised the "unconditional support that (French) artists and intellectuals" have long given Polanski.

But this time his powerful supporters inside the film industry have remained silent.

And in a further blow to legendary film-maker, the French directors' guild, the ARP, could suspend him as early as next week after telling AFP Tuesday that it supported "all victims of sexual violence and harassment".

It said it is considering changing its rules so that "every member convicted of a sex crime would be expelled and any under police investigation would be suspended."

- #MeToo turning point -

Even before the new rape claim there were signs last week that the "tolerance" of predatory sexual behaviour in the industry was evaporating after acclaimed actress Adele Haenel said she was sexually harassed by the director of her first film when she was just 12.

Her lengthy interview prompted an outpouring of support, which many observers saw as a turning point in France's uneasy relationship with the #MeToo movement.

Haenel is so far the only star to speak out in support of Monnier. "I believe her. Her stand is all the more courageous because her aggressor is powerful," she said.

The actress had earlier poured scorn on those who had defended Polanski, daring them to "read the description of what he did... to the child of 13 on which he forced himself" in Los Angeles.

Haenel added that his case was "symptomatic of a society where women who suffer sexual violence are ignored and treated with contempt."

But Samantha Geimer, whom Polanski was accused of raping in Jack Nicholson's LA home two years after the alleged rape in Switzerland, criticised Monnier for not speaking out earlier.

How could Monnier have "sat silently while I was called a liar and a gold digging whore in 1977 knowing they may have prevented it," she tweeted.

Polanski was charged over Geimer's rape, but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor before fleeing the country.

US authorities have repeatedly tried to have Polanski extradited to face trial, with no success.

French film legend Catherine Deneuve, who attacked the #MeToo movement last year as a puritanical "witch-hunt", has been one of Polanski's most stalwart supporters, with Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes film festival also warning in 2017 that Polanski's "case was one which you need to really know before you can talk about".

Alberto Barbera, the head of the rival Venice film festival, where "An Officer and a Spy" premiered in August, said that "we should make a clear distinction between the man and the artist" while the veteran Greek director Costa-Gavras also defended Polanski, saying "it was 40 years ago... Forgiveness is necessary in society."