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