Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images; Elisabetta A. Villa/Getty Images; Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
“Judge the art, not the artist.” That is the mantra we hear each and every time someone in the entertainment world is accused of heinous behavior, and it’s one that was repeated by artistic director Alberto Barbera prior to this year’s Venice Film Festival.
In an interview with The Guardian, Barbera discussed his decision to include films by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Luc Besson in the 2023 festival program — Polanski’s The Palace, a class comedy about a dinner party at a luxury Swiss hotel on the eve of the millennium that goes sideways; Allen’s Coup de Chance, a Paris-set French-language thriller about a thorny ménage à trois; and Besson’s Dogman, a portrait of an abused young man who finds meaning in life through dogs, engaging them in a string of crimes.
Polanski fled the U.S. in 1978 after he pled guilty to sodomizing a 13-year-old girl, and has been accused of sexual assault by five other women, including one who claims Polanksi molested her when she was just 10 years old. (He has denied the other allegations.) Allen stands accused of sexually abusing his daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was seven years old; of engaging in a sexual relationship with his then-partner’s daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, when she was in high school; of having a fling with model Babi Christina Engelhardt beginning when she was 16; and of trying to whisk his Manhattan star Mariel Hemingway off to Paris when she was 17. (Allen has denied all allegations of impropriety.) Besson, who has protested his innocence, was accused of rape by his Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets actress Sand Van Roy, but was cleared by France’s highest court. Nine other women — including a former assistant, two of his film students, and a former employee at his company EuropaCorp — have come forward to accuse him of a range of sexual misconduct. Furthermore, Besson began dating his ex Maïwenn when she was 15 and he was 31, though the age of consent in France is 15. The relationship is said to have inspired Besson’s film Léon: The Professional.
“I’m not a judge who is asked to make judgment about the bad behavior of someone,” Barbera told The Guardian.
The inclusion of works by these three notorious men has not gone unnoticed at the fest. Signs have been spotted along the Lido that read, “Will the Golden Lion go to a rapist?” (The Golden Lion is the fest’s biggest prize.) Another read, “Coup de Chance: la justice ne fait pas son travail,” translating to “Coup de Chance: justice has not been served.” And one directed at Besson came with the message, “Dogman on the screen: Woman in the Dark.” A group of young protesters, meanwhile, assembled outside the premiere of Allen’s Coup de Chance on Monday night, chanting slogans like, “No rape culture!” and “No spotlight for rapist directors!”
Herein lies the problem with “judge the art, not the artist” as it pertains to film festivals: these events aren’t all about the art. They’re just as much about feting the artist. The Venice Film Festival, in particular, has become synonymous with photos and videos of manicured stars and filmmakers in designer duds riding boats to the Lido or striding down its lengthy red carpet. And in today’s social media-driven world, these photo ops arguably generate more press than the films themselves. Who can forget all the hullabaloo surrounding Don’t Worry Darling at last year’s fest? How much of it was about the actual movie?
Barbera, who assumed the role of Venice Film Festival artistic director in 2012, deserves much of the credit for increasing the profile of the fest, leaning into these splashy celebrity moments while also selecting some truly stellar pictures.
When Barbera was hired over a decade ago, Venice had fallen to third place in the fall film festival pecking order, behind Toronto and Telluride. American films and media shunned it. So, Barbera courted Hollywood and the U.S. press. And in 2013, Gravity premiered in Venice before collecting $700 million at the global box office and seven Oscar wins. The following year, Birdman bowed there, winning Best Picture. Next year came Spotlight, also winning Best Picture. It’s now regarded as the premier awards launching pad, with films like La La Land, The Shape of Water, A Star Is Born, Joker, Nomadland, Dune, and The Power of the Dog debuting on the Lido. It’s also benefitted greatly from Cannes’ continued refusal to showcase Netflix films. Their loss has become Venice’s gain. This year alone, Netflix brought Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, David Fincher’s The Killer, Wes Anderson’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Pablo Larraín’s El Conde, and J.A. Bayona’s Society of the Snow to Venice.
There have been controversies, as well. Representation behind the camera is an ongoing area of concern for Venice, and this year, only five of the 23 films in competition were directed by women, while Ava DuVernay became the first African American woman with a film competing in the 80 years of the fest. Sexist insults have been hurled at female directors during press and industry screenings. At this year’s opening ceremony, Italian filmmaker Liliana Cavani addressed the fest’s lack of gender parity while receiving an honorary Golden Lion award.
“I’m the first female person to receive this award,” Cavani said. “There are women writers and directors who are working as well as men. It’s not quite right if we don’t give them a chance to be seen.”
Venice has also built a reputation in recent years as a fest where accused men kick off their comebacks. In 2016, Mel Gibson unveiled his war drama Hacksaw Ridge in Venice en route to six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Two years later, an Italian casting director walked the red carpet wearing a “WEINSTEIN INNOCENT” T-shirt. A year after that, Roman Polanski debuted An Officer and a Spy (J’Accuse in French) in Venice, a film about the Dreyfus affair (and an extended metaphor for his own circumstances). The film won the Grand Jury and FIPRESCI Prizes.
In that same Guardian interview, Barbera defended the inclusion of films by the likes of Polanski, Allen, and Besson thusly: “I’m a film critic, my job is judging the quality of [the] films.”
So, let’s judge the quality of the films, since I think we can all agree that being granted a slot at the Venice Film Festival is a privilege that should only be bestowed upon worthy pictures. You can make a strong argument that Hacksaw Ridge and An Officer and a Spy were solid entrants based on the strength of the filmmaking. Allen’s Coup de Chance is a fun (if forgettable) little thriller, so sure. But the same cannot be said for Polanski and Besson’s films. Polanski’s The Palace is the most poorly received film at this year’s festival by a wide margin. Variety called it “a laughless debacle.” Deadline said it made the director “a laughing stock.” Besson’s Dogman hasn’t fared much better. It was branded “the most ludicrous film you’ll see all year” by The Guardian while The Telegraph ran a headline saying it was “so bad it had me howling in disbelief.”
So, if the films aren’t good enough to bow at a prestigious festival like Venice, why are they here other than to rehab these directors’ images and/or stoke interest in the fest by courting controversy?
The (largely European) media has been complicit, too. Allen received a standing ovation during his Venice Film Festival press conference, as did Besson. (Polanski couldn’t make it since doing so might get him extradited back to the U.S.) Allen and Besson have also managed to sidestep scrutiny from the press, with both agreeing to only a single interview around the fest — with the same journalist from Variety — that touched on their allegations in the gentlest, most accommodating way possible.
On Sept. 5, the Venice Film Festival released a series of statistics about this year’s attendance. According to the fest, total admissions are up 18% over last year.
So, I guess… mission accomplished?