The Cannes film festival is known, among much else, for its many cavalier offenses against good taste. When I attended it last month, I saw an orange Lamborghini with gold-plated rims and Qatari license plates circling languidly around la Croisette, and utterly unspeakable things went on at the invitation-only party at the Russian pavilion. Sacha Baron Cohen’s dictator lustfully fed his camel an espresso. Yet one abomination was officially averted: French-Cameroonian comedian, actor, and political provocateur Dieudonné M’bala M’bala’s new film L’Antisémite was officially banned by one of the festival’s infamously unbending edicts.
After trying and failing to find a DVD copy of the film for sale on the street upon my return to Paris—it is illegal to distribute L’Antisémite in France—I found that a dodgy torrent site online was hosting the work and sat down in my cramped living room to watch it. The opening credits of the film, which is co-produced by something called Iran’s Documentary and Experimental Film Center, are overlaid by a skull and crossbones beneath which runs a general address to the viewer, warning that “this film has no distribution agreement, and that its dissemination is interdit sur le territoire français and in countries that have ratified the Geneva conventions; but as the French legislature has no authority in the ‘international zone,’ watching it cannot be prohibited in nonaligned areas, neutral seas, and in space.”
The film is utterly appalling from beginning to end. The humor is puerile and the filmmaking technique forthrightly crude. But the message is by no means unsophisticated or a reversion to older examples of anti-Semitic propaganda. While there has always been a strain of anti-Semitic jocularity in French comedy (starting with Voltaire, passing through the popular anti-Semitic songs of the Dreyfus era, the collaborationist references in Maurice Chevalier, as well as his imitators, in the 1940s, and culminating with the casual redneck chauvinism of the so-called franchouillards), this is something qualitatively different—and worth paying attention to. A medley of paranoia, narcissistic rage, and twisted self-exculpatory demagoguery, it is also the record of a gifted artist’s comprehensive descent into nihilism and madness.
The opening 2-minute skit of the film consists of a Chaplanesque newsreel narration set during the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The quivering, grabby hand of a pinstriped inmate extends out from behind barbed wire as the emaciated survivor jostles with a fleshy cigar-smoking capo for attention from the camera. Dieudonné arrives dressed as an American sergeant and throws scraps of food at the beggar, commanding him with a hearty laugh and flash cards to “Mange! Bouffe!” (“Eat! Grub!”) The prisoner then reveals the existence of the gas chambers to Dieudonné. As a kitten laps up liquid from a Zyklon B canister, Dieudonné sniffs at the canister suspiciously and then dabs some on his neck like cologne. Together they sift through the ashes of a barbecue pit. “Chicken?” the skeptical Dieudonné asks. “No, those are children’s bones,” the prisoner tells him. Dieudonné proceeds to sit on a leather chair only to be yelled at by the prisoner “for sitting on my grandmother!” He picks up a chandelier and asks if it too was made of Jewish skin. “Bien sûr,” replies the prisoner before Dieudonné plops it over his head and electrifies him as if in a cartoon. The film also features guest appearances by the aged Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and ghastly National Front ideological guru Alain Soral.
The sad tale of Dieudonné’s (he is universally known by his first name) fall from grace and folk acclaim as the multicultural golden boy of French comedy into ever more lurid and hysterical anti-Semitic gestures has been told so often that one feels benumbed at the prospect of having to recite his rap sheet. Having started out as part of a comic duo with a Jewish boy he had grown up with, he became active on the anti-racist left and worked to put together a movement of pan-African intellectuals. A prodigiously gifted actor and mimic, he has an undeniably energetic charisma that he directed into his successful one-man shows and a minor career as a film character actor. He then parlayed his success into the Théâtre de la Main d’Or, a Paris venue that he started and owns.
Yet sometime around the turn of the last millennium Dieudonné underwent a mysterious conversion to the religion of Dadaist provocation: public anti-Semitism. In December of 2003 he appeared in an Israeli army officer’s uniform wearing a black hat and fake peyes on a live comedy show. He concluded the sketch with a Hitler salute, after which he shouted either “Heil Hitler” or “Heil Israel.” (A French court determined the matter inconclusive.) He was tried on charges of anti-Semitism and acquitted. His acquittal was followed by an ever escalating, frenetic, and no doubt exhausting one-man campaign against the “Zionist world conspiracy”—and in particular against the Jews of France. He described Judaism as “a sect, a fraud, which is the worst of all, because it was the first,” insulted the Talmud, spoke admiringly of the “charisma of Bin Laden,” and decried efforts at remembrance of the Holocaust as “memorial pornography.” He got into physical altercations with Jewish teenagers in the Paris suburbs and with young Jewish men in an airport in Martinique. In 2007, he ran for the European parliament as a candidate of the ultra-radical Parti Anti Sioniste (whose platform is self-explanatory), and obtained the endorsement of the jailed international terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
Five years later, Dieudonné finds himself politically allied with the ultra right-wing Front National, led by Marine Le Pen. In between taking vacations with Le Pen’s husband and attending press junkets as a guest of various Arab dictatorships, he has struck up friendships with Islamist radicals as well as members of the Iranian government. (For the record: No Parisian, Arab, Muslim, Jew, French intellectual, dissipated American poet, or novelist living in Paris, or any entity inhabiting several of these categories that I spoke with had any clear theory about what triggered Dieudonné’s decision to merge his once-flourishing stage career with the apparently dominating ambition of becoming France’s most notorious anti-Semitic bigot.)
The movie’s story, inasmuch as there is one, is told through the postmodern technique of triplicate compartmentalization. Events taking place in “the movie” are shot in color while those taking place behind the camera, bracketed by faux shaky handheld-camera-style documentary effects, are in black and white. Dieudonné plays “himself” as a pathologically violent, misogynistic, homophobic, rabidly anti-Semitic degenerate alcoholic. There is no discrepancy between the persona in the black-and-white and the color narratives within the film and the persona he plays in his real life. Dieudonné’s essential riposte to his critics’ cries of “Antisémite!” is to flaunt just how big, how dedicated, and how significant an anti-Semite he truly is.
The plot of the film goes like this: In “the film”—the film within a film in which the actor is appearing—Dieudonné appears dressed as a Nazi sergeant on the way to a costume party with his wife, whose conversation centers pathologically on Jews. Echoing the cries of Dieudonné’s critics, his distressed wife asks if he suffers from the sickness of anti-Semitism. All their “friends and colleagues” have turned away from them. The scene fades to black and white, and the film’s prancing gay Jewish director offers directions on how to act. Afterward, Dieudonné and a Lebanese translator (played by the same actress as the “wife”) give a reflective interview to Lebanese television during which Dieudonné recites and cavalierly dismisses a litany of the criticisms directed at him. Asked by the Lebanese host whether the film is an incentive to anti-Semitism, he and the translator begin to cackle. There is no anti-Semitism either in France or in Lebanon, they rejoinder, this is merely a “political slur to attack people.” The elderly Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson is brought into the film, which causes friction and infighting among the film’s crew. “I don’t like Jews,” Dieudonné confides to Faurisson. He and Dieudonné discuss their mutual hatred of Jews while driving a large truck and are then accosted by a bright light and a white-clad angel representing “the spirit of the Shoah.” Dieudonné wavers but then obeys Faurisson’s obscenity-laced command to run her over.
Soon after this, Dieudonné’s character’s wife in “the film” finds out she has cancer and accuses her husband of seeing Jews everywhere and sends him off to see a shrink about his problem. A circumcision scene takes place in a dimly lit room with a gaggle of masked avatars performing incantations over the child’s crib. They perform the operation with a scythe. As the spray of red blood hits the face of a blonde actress portraying a headstrong Jewish chauvinist named Esther, she calls her uncle Dr. Goldstein and tells him about the “monkey” who wants to use his psychiatric services. There follows a predictable bad-acid-scene routine with the shrink during which the film’s Jewish producer, a black-leather-trench-coat-clad biker, arrives and ravages Esther by force in the director’s room and then subjugates and humiliates the gay director by making him kiss his member. A vengeful Palestinian terrorist calls in a hit on Esther after she insults the Quran; the little boy who pulls the trigger is played by Dieudonné’s real-life son. A wounded Dieudonné whelps over his dying wife’s body (she is wantonly euthanized by a Jewish doctor) and shrieks, “Yes! YES!I am an anti-Semite!” At the end of the movie within the movie, Dieudonné and the actor playing Goldstein (as well as the emaciated prisoner in the camp) have overcome their natural hostility through viciously homophobic banter at the expense of the capering director and walk off together like Bogart’s Rick and Capt. Renault in Casablanca. We can all be friends, the logic of demotic and democratic misanthropy goes, if we just hate and tease each other equally.
When I watched the film for a second time with a French friend, the literary critic Florian Hohenberg, he observed that the film was complex because Dieudonné’s pathologies are complex. When I ventured that the whole ideological premise might be understood as Dieudonné convincing himself that all his incitements were a distancing lens directed toward something more noble—a sort of Racist anti-anti-Racism for redirecting the attention toward the plight of French Arabs and Blacks, Hohenberg smiled at my endearing naiveté. “No, no,” he answered. “You want that to be the case so that this has something, however tenuous, to do with reality.” He then quickly and assuredly unpacked—in typically breezy and sexy but methodologically consistent and classicizing French fashion—the cultural provenances of the film’s in-jokes and their concomitant relation to Dieudonné’s previous provocations, as well as the obvious ontological problematic all this must surely have wrought for his inner life. Listening to his brilliant deconstruction of the recurring themes in Dieudonné’s cosmology, I blurted out that all this was excellent. And: “Why don’t you write about this for the French press?” I asked. Hohenberg merely chuckled and answered slyly, “If I ever published any of this on the Internet I would be dead within the week.”
He may be right. Dieudonné’s movie was made for the Internet in every sense: Shunned by polite society, pursued by the anti-racist organizations, the courts, and the Belgian police, expelled from Cannes and thus having to toady up to Ahmadinejad to make films, Dieudonné’s last remaining constituency is his rabid underground fan-base of dispossessed Internet users. Paradoxically, with every fresh provocation he cements his status among young, deprived, and poorly integrated Frenchmen of Arabic and African descent as a fearless speaker of “taboo” truth to power. At the end of May, Belgian riot police broke up a screening of the film in Brussels. Criminal proceedings for incitement of racism are under way in Montreal and elsewhere. Dieudonné has been found guilty a half dozen times of racial incitement and defamation by French courts—usually incurring a 10,000-euro penalty. He is a leper who aspires to become king of the lepers.
After making a movie about coming to inhabit one’s artistic artifice and the collapsing walls between perception and reality, there is literally nowhere left for Dieudonné to go as an artist, a political actor, or as a human being. His war against French Jewry and Jewish organizations, which began perhaps as a stunt and has continued unremittingly as theatrical actionism, has solidified into the fundament of his identity. The spectacle of a talented man subsumed and transmogrified by compulsive-obsessive hatred is valuable to us as a cautionary tale, like anti-smoking commercials in the United States: As bad as anti-Semitism is for the Jews, it is far more toxic to the anti-Semite’s own soul.
“The worst thing,” Hohenberg said as we watched the credits, “is that he no longer has the glint of intelligence in his eyes that he used to.” As a filmed record of the way that Dieudonné’s obsessive anti-Semitism distorts his art and takes over his life, L’Antisémite may be a talented performer’s most valuable and lasting achievement.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.