L’Antisémite, Banned at Cannes
A new French film is worth watching if only for its portrayal of aesthetic corruption propelled by bigotry
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.)
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