If the French New Wave established France as the global champion of art-house cinema, the arrival of the age of the blockbuster made the avowedly terrestrial alternative look tremulous and quaint. Black-and-white ménages à trois are lovely and all, but there were Death Stars to blow up.
Then came Luc Besson. The director of La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, The Fifth Element, and Lucy, and producer of the lucrative Transporter and Taken franchises, is one of the most bombastic, moneymaking-est, money-losing-est filmmakers in French history. He is responsible for half of the country’s record-box-office successes, but today, due to a string of questionable professional and personal decisions, Besson’s production-and-distribution company, EuropaCorp, is in receivership, and the filmmaker personally faces numerous allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct, including one of rape, all of which Besson categorically denies.
This is France, however, so the allegations that have stuck the most so far have less to do with sex and more to do with the country’s cherished labor protections. If Besson is facing imminent time in jail, it’s because he abused his assistant, not his girlfriend.
Imbalance of Power
In 2018, an actress and former girlfriend of Besson’s, Sand Van Roy, alleged that, with her livelihood at stake, the married director forced her into sex on multiple occasions. Besson has forcefully refuted her allegations, including during an hour-long televised Barbara Walters–style interview on BFMTV—one of the country’s most watched news networks—which aired on October 8. In it, Besson heaped blame on himself for having cheated on his wife with Roy for two years. He also took credit for enduring twice-weekly therapy sessions about it for almost one year.
Besson heaped blame on himself for having cheated on his wife with Roy for two years.
He felt so unloved he couldn’t see his own outsize influence, he said, but understood hierarchies of power now, and promised to make positive change in the industry: no romantic relationships with subordinates will be allowed on his sets, he said. Mediapart, an investigative news Web site, has published accusations by Van Roy and eight other women, seven of them anonymously, for sexual harassment and misconduct, including breast-grabbing, pulling women onto his lap, and using the possibility of work in his films as leverage. (Other than Van Roy, none are filing charges.)
Van Roy’s case, which relies on medical reports and “he said, she said” testimony, was initially dismissed after a nine-month investigation; the actress and her lawyer refiled their charge in March, complaining of incomplete police work, and asserting that the authorities went easy on Besson. It is now being considered by an investigating judge.
So far, so Hollywood. Except there has been no groundswell of support for Van Roy from the cinematic community, like there was with Adèle Haenel, a promising actress who alleged in early November that she suffered years of trauma, when she was a minor, due to sexual harassment and inappropriate touching at the hands of director Christophe Ruggia. (Ruggia denies the accusations.)
The Story of Sophie F.
Besson is also embroiled in a labor dispute in criminal court, with a verdict and sentencing scheduled for January 8. The case, brought by Besson’s former assistant, known to the press only as Sophie F., was already adjudicated as harassment by the French labor courts. But it has escalated because Besson was alleged to have fired her as punishment for going on sick leave. In France, firing someone over a medical issue can get you jail time, and so the prosecutor asked for a 10-month suspended sentence and a total of $88,914 in fines, to be split between Besson and EuroCorp; the former paying $33,343 and the latter paying the remaining $55,571.
There is a lesson here: It may be just as hard to prosecute a rape in France as it is in the U.S., but run your assistant ragged, and it’s going to cost you. Sophie F. had 15 years’ experience at another production company before going to work for Besson, and complained of being at his disposal on nights, weekends, and even during her holidays. “I had to re-transcribe his screenplays from his text messages on my personal phone,” she told the judge on November 27. “This was someone who didn’t speak to me, who didn’t like me.” After Besson refused to let her take All Saints’ Day weekend off for a family emergency, she broke down and sought medical attention for burnout. Doctors approved a time-out, which Besson and EuropaCorp considered fraudulent, and she was fired in early January 2018. She remained on “arrêt maladie,” or doctor-mandated sick leave, for 13 months.
“I had to re-transcribe his screenplays from his text messages on my personal phone.”
To so many Hollywood support staffers—even, or especially, those working for the lowliest agent or development executives—Sophie F.’s ordeal is otherwise known as Tuesday. Here in France, even the production workers, among the most precarious players in the gig economy, have rights. Intermittents du spectacle, as above- and below-the-line crews are called, benefit from extra-strong employment protections across the board. (In 2014, when their contract negotiations came up, they staged naked protests. That’s entertainment!) Besson has often been derisively referred to as France’s “most Hollywood” director, but the possible outcome of his latest string of catastrophes could only happen here.
Besson, who is the son of Club Med scuba-diving instructors and learned his trade on sets and not at film school, has long felt misunderstood in his own country, despite an undeniably successful career both at home and abroad. His first big hit, only his second feature-length movie, was Subway, in 1985, a Mafia caper that made a star out of a platinum-blond Christopher Lambert, and was nominated for 13 César Awards—the French Oscar. With La Femme Nikita (1990), a moodily lit, Hong Kong–style action movie memorable for minimal dialogue and an iconic haircut, Besson became a global pop sensation. Mathieu Kassovitz, an actor and the director of La Haine and Rebellion, credits him with creating a market for French genre movies. The local critics were (and continue to be) less kind, suspicious of Besson’s eagerness to please his audiences, penchant for big budgets, and other obvious yearnings for Hollywood.
In November 2000, the director-producer added “entrepreneur” to his résumé and founded EuropaCorp—even the name had broader ambitions than France—as the first fully international, vertically integrated production, development, publishing, licensing, and distribution company in the country. There would be up to 10 movies a year, TV development, and even EuropaCorp-owned movie theaters. Don’t let the French-sounding word “entrepreneur” fool you: self-made careers, especially those of the un-diploma’d, have not traditionally been looked at with the same glowing admiration in France as they are in America.
Besson was no one’s idea of elegant, nor was his output, much of which was in English. “In founding his major, Luc Besson discovered that bad films made more money than good ones” goes a line from an extensive report on Besson and EuropaCorp published in Le Monde in November. (It details one EuropaCorp business model of attaching first-time directors to extremely low-budget action movies and retaining final cut for Besson.) The boss moved in with one of his collaborating producers, Virginie Silla (since 2004, Virginie Besson-Silla), at a château in Normandy that also became a EuropaCorp development-and-postproduction hub.
The plan was for him to direct less—in his BFMTV interview, Besson complained of the strain of directing his own scripts—but he continued to make money-printing franchises for France like Taxi and the kid-pic series Arthur and the Invisibles.
EuropaCorp opened offices down the street from the Élysée Palace on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and prepared for a 2007 I.P.O. on the Euronext European stock exchange. In 2012, Besson unveiled the Cité du Cinéma, a 667,000-square-foot, Cinecittà-like studio complex just north of the Paris city limits. It has tenants like the École Nationale Supérieure Louis-Lumière, and Besson’s own school, L’École de la Cité, which is a tuition-free nonprofit teaching directing and screenwriting to hopefuls aged 18 to 25.
Besson’s creations were seeing second lives on TV—Nikita, Taxi, and Transporter all got spin-offs—and the 2014 Scarlett Johansson vehicle Lucy, which Besson wrote and directed, earned $459 million globally off a budget of around $40 million. But Besson was running everyone ragged, including himself.
Things went sour for EuropaCorp with 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which, at $180 million, had the biggest budget ever for a French production. It colossally tanked, making only $225 million globally. EuropaCorp’s stock took a major hit, dropping from 2016 highs of near $5 a share to less than $1. It was followed by two more duds, a submarine thriller called The Command, and Anna, a Russian-themed spy thriller with more than a passing resemblance to La Femme Nikita, starring the model Sasha Luss. The collapse happened so fast, Besson had reportedly already stopped paying rent on the Cité du Cinéma in 2018.
Besson was no one’s idea of elegant, nor was his output, much of which was in English.
Today EuropaCorp’s French-TV division is gone, as is its library. The Cité du Cinéma will be a venue for the 2024 Paris Olympics. EuropaCorp was granted a six-month extension on its restructuring plan a month and a half ago. Besson is even stepping in the merde out at the château, where he has refused local hunters the right to stalk his 395-acre lands for deer so abundant they’re causing damage to neighboring farmers. (The local hunting federation is suing, and the decision is due to arrive the day after Christmas.)
Today, Besson is said to be holed up in Los Angeles, nursing his wounds. Other than his interview with BFMTV, he seems to be refusing all interview requests. (He did not respond to ours through his lawyer.) To BFMTV, Besson claimed to be down but not out. “I can’t say I’m confident, or super-confident, because we’re publicly traded,” he said. For the last year and a half, he’s been unable to work much if at all. “In the United States,” where EuropaCorp has offices in Beverly Hills, “it’s really hard. Most people, 99 percent, still trust me, but a lot of people want to wait till everything’s solved…. We’re handling problems one by one, and as soon as possible we’ll come out of receivership to start again with a normal activity. Before we did 8 to 10 films [a year]; the new business will do two to three. There will be fewer people, I’ll focus on films I like.”
He’s got four scripts good to go, but as a director, he’s not sure. “I either end up in the emergency room or a coma.... Do I want to give all that energy now? I don’t know…. I’ve got maybe two or three films left in me … and then I’ve got to stop.” Whether he gets the chance to even try now rests in the hands of the law.
Alexandra Marshall is a writer based in Paris