French director Catherine Corsini and her producer Elisabeth Perez have published an open letter denying wrongdoing on the set of upcoming Cannes Palme d’Or contender Le Retour.
There have been multiple French media reports over the past two weeks detailing allegations of a lack of safeguarding of minors as well as the mistreatment of crew members and young actors in the lead-up to and during the film’s shoot in Corsica at the end of last year.
For a time, it looked like the allegations would result in the film being denied a promised slot in the Cannes Film Festival’s main Competition, but the title was announced among 13 feature additions to Official Selection earlier this week following an investigation by the event.
“Anonymous and defamatory emails have been sent to the profession and the press, generating a rumor that was very damaging for the film. Thankfully, the biggest festival in the world took the time to carefully check the truth,” read the letter posted on Tuesday evening and signed off by Corsini and Perez under the banner of their Paris-based Chaz Productions.
It remains to be seen whether the open letter will calm the media storm in the lead-up to the film’s world premiere in Cannes, with the local film industry also divided in its response to the reports and the festival’s decision to the film to Competition.
Le Retour reunites Corsini with Aïssatou Diallo Sagna, a discovery of her last film The Divide, in the role of a woman who travels to Corsica with her wealthy Paris employers to look after their children over the summer.
She is accompanied by her teenage daughters on a trip taking them back to the island they left years previously under tragic circumstances. While the mother struggles with her memories, the girls embark on a summer of pleasure and discovery about their past.
At the heart of the stories in the French press was the revelation that during the shoot the production had added a masturbation scene, acted by a first-time actress who was 15 years old at the time, without informing the relevant bodies overseeing the protection of minors on set.
It emerged that the production’s failure to declare the scene to France’s National Cinema Centre (CNC), and its commission overseeing productions involving minors, had prompted the body to make the rare move of taking back $513,000 in state funding.
The CNC also reported the incident to the Prosecutor’s Office, although no individual complaints have been lodged against the production or Corsini on any count.
Perez has said previously that the omission of the scene from a script submitted as part of the funding application had been an administrative error.
The open letter further addressed the facts around the intimate scene.
“During the shoot, Catherine Corsini added a scene between two young actors, aged 15 and a half and 17 years old. Even if this was done in agreement with them, we should have declared it,” it read.
“Not doing it, constitutes a breach of law and due to this the production has been sanctioned by the CNC. But let’s stop the fantasies. The adolescents were both dressed, and the scene filmed their faces. There was no touching or inappropriate contact between the two, as has been suggested in the press.”
“Cinema is the art of suggestion. The young people understood that. Without being constrained in any way, they refused an intimacy coach and body doubles, which were proposed to them with insistence, due to their confidence in the relationship they had with the director.”
The scene at the heart of the media storm did not make the final cut.
Its existence came to light, however, after labor representatives for the crew called for an inspection of the set by the workplace health and safety body, the CCHSCT, following allegations of harassment and poor working conditions.
Corsini and Perez’s open letter also addressed some of these allegations, saying they had always been “engaged against every form of violence and harassment on set”.
“There were two reports of presumed inappropriate gestures against two crew members which led to internal enquiries, which were transmitted to the CCHSCT… The CCHSCT could see it had been dealt with correctly.”
The news on Monday that Cannes had added the film to Competition has divided the French film industry, prompting expressions both of solidarity for the production and outrage.
In an uncharacteristic public display of anger, respected producer Marc Missonnier, whose credits include François Ozon’s 8 Femmes and Swimming Pool as well as Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite and recent TV drama Cheyenne & Lola and Mirage, said the move was a sign the festival was out of touch.
“It’s mind-blowing to see how disconnected the biggest film festival in the world is from what is happening today and to see how much the whole issue of limits, especially in the case of scenes of a sexual nature, is ignored by French cinema,” he wrote in a Tweet.
“It is today in full knowledge of the facts, after all the articles that have appeared, that Thierry Frémaux chooses to take a problematic film in Competition, spitting in the face of all those who might have the courage to denounce reprehensible facts,” he continued.
Missonnier questioned how public bodies such as the Ministry of Culture, the National Cinema Centre (CNC) and Cannes city council could endorse the selection of the film and said he would be boycotting Cannes this year.
“Curious to see also how the Americans will react to this choice, those who will find themselves side by side with this film and who will be questioned about it. As far as I’m concerned, my choice is made: #BoycottCannes,” he said.
France’s gender equality body Collectif 50/50, launched in 2018 in the wake of the #MeToo movement, also signalled “its consternation” at the film’s selection.
“This is obviously a devastating signal sent to victims of gender-based and sexual violence,” it said. “It’s also a sign that the Cannes Film Festival in 2023 has not evolved sufficiently to take into consideration the subject of moral, sexist and sexual violence.”
Sources tell Deadline, that beyond questions about how the masturbation scene was set up, the real issue was the treatment of the crew and the working conditions on set.
The collective signalled its support for all the crew and cast on the film and said it was open to overseeing the gathering of their statements and transmitting them to the relevant authorities.
It added that more needed to be done to ensure that conditions on film sets adhered to national penal and labor laws, via more obligatory training for producers and increased workplace inspections.
It also called for better monitoring of conditions on set by government labor agencies.
“The fight against violence cannot only be the responsibility of the employees, the Labor Ministry also needs to integrate the specificities of our domain, notably by facilitating the intervention of work inspections.”