By Patricia Lee Sharpe
This may be the Year of les Femmes in France, though it started in a strange way, thanks to the randiness of Dominique Strauss-Khan, who—as no one disputes—couldn’t keep his pants zipped—or was it a towel that slipped?—in the presence of a hotel maid? (Catherine Deneuve in Potiche)
Whether DSK raped the woman or not, his sexual incontinence has cost him his prestigious position as head of the International Monetary Fund and may make it impossible for him to mount a credible run for the French presidency. What’s particularly delicious is that his replacement at the IMF is a woman and a Frenchwoman at that.
The Police Had a Reason
There’s been much controversy over DSK’s front-paged perp walk, although it’s hard for a mere American to see why he should have been spared the treatment everyone else gets. When the mighty fall in this country, they don’t get to save face. And don’t blame what’s been called precipitous action on grandstanding American officials. Place the blame where it belongs. On Roman Polanski, the lecherous French film director, the convicted sex criminal who used freedom pending sentencing to flee to France, from whose territory he can’t be extradited. To this day he’s the darling of the super-sophisticated intellectuals who have now jumped to the defense of another infamous womanizer. At the moment DSK is free pending further legal action, but his passport has been lifted. He can’t leave the U.S. (Sandrine Bonnaire in Joyeuse)
Meanwhile, back in France, something interesting is happening. While a certain segment of society ridicules American puritanism, women are beginning to speak publicly of the sexual harassment and rape that are a normal part of female existence in France. Is this perhaps a we-aren’t-going-to-take-it-anymore moment?
The End of Silence
Remember the days when American women began to articulate, first to themselves, next to one another and then to the world, the interlocking elements of second class citizenship masquerading as life on a pedestal? The term that was applied to that process was consciousness-raising. Men loved to make fun of women who felt the allure of consciousness-raising, but the gratifying results can’t be denied.
Could the make-it-public phase have begun now in France? A female journalist who had been persuaded not to sue DSK some years ago has now stepped forward, quite vocally, to press her case. Even if DSK manages to escape prison in the US, he might find his female vote bank a little less assured.
Meanwhile, there’s yet more evidence of a new feminist consciousness in France. It comes in the shape of two movies (one a French-German collaboration, shot in French) that have recently arrived in the U.S., both utterly delightful, even as each chronicles a woman’s hard-won escape from male domination. Also interesting: one is about a well-to-do bourgeoise, the other about a working class woman—a hotel chambermaid, no less.
Are they wish fulfillment fantasies? Maybe. But then social change often begins on the fantasy level. What starts as “what if?” evolves into “but naturally!”
In Potiche (2010) trophy wife Catherine Deneuve takes over the running of an umbrella factory when her union-busting, womanizing husband has a stress-induced heart-attack. By the time hubby decides he’s ready to take the reins again, she’s proven herself to be the superior manager. The employees are happier and more productive; the umbrellas have more pizzaz; and she wants to stay in place. Hubby’s manipulations put him back in control of the factory, but his wife can’t return to plumping pillows in the sitting room. She runs for Parliament and, thanks to the support of the workers in this one-shop town, wins the election. There’s more, of course, including a very amusing, revived romance between Deneuve and the city’s socialist mayor, played by Gerard Despardieu (who also wants that seat in Parliament), but the gist of this semi-farcical must-see concoction is this: empowerment.
Most reviewers insist that the chess games in the 2009 film Joyeuse (translated as Queen to Play) are simple metaphors for sex in the afternoon and not much else, but they are wrong. Like many women without much formal education, Hélène is too intelligent to be stuck in a menial job or to be happy in a classically patriarchal working-class marriage. Her husband is employed. He’s good looking and amorous, too. So it’s not a fuck that she needs. It’s intellectual challenge. Chess provides that and, yes, she gets obsessed. But I wasn’t bored by the process of immersion and mastery. I was deeply fearful that, like so many women with dreams, she’d give in to all the pressures. From her husband. From her employer. From the snotty local chess establishment. But she doesn’t. She keeps improving until she regularly outplays her mentor, whose ego suffers badly. (How does this development comply with the sexual dalliance equivalence?) Eventually she wins a local contest, which gives her a chance to compete in Paris. And the icing on the gateau? Hélène’s nasty sassy daughter comes to admire her mother. What carries this quiet film, it seems to me, is the delicious subtlety of Sandrine Bonnaire’s inhabiting of the role of Hélène, while Kevin Kline approaches dangerously close to the ham-line from time to time.
Sisterhood is Powerful
If French women can respond to movies like Potiche and Joyeuse—and why else were they made?—they certainly aren’t shedding tears over the self-immolation of the lecherous Dominique. What’s more, it seems that the French women who play football at World Cup level are feeling no animosity toward the U.S. either. This year the Americans beat the French 3-1. The play was fast and furious, but the intense competition didn’t interfere with a very high level of sports(wo)manship. Here’s how NYT reporter Alessandra Stanley described it:
And both sides were gracious not just after the match but in the middle of it: at one point a French player bent down and helped up an American who had fallen; at another it was the American who extended her hand to the enemy. If the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of rape has strained Franco-American relations, there was no sign of it on the playing field.