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Virginie Despentes makes France angry, but things are changing
Writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes in Paris, Jun 16, 2020. If anyone has learned to weather public hostility, it’s Despentes, whose views have a way of riling people up on all sides of the political spectrum. Isabelle Eshraghi/The New York Times.

by Laura Cappelle

PARIS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Nearly three decades into her career, feminist French author and filmmaker Virginie Despentes still has a way of riling people up — right across the political spectrum. While her views have long been unpalatable to social conservatives, her support for prostitution and pornography have gone a step too far for many on the left, too.

In early June, an open letter addressed to her “white friends,” in support of anti-racism protests in France, prompted some activists of color to accuse her of divisiveness. Some critics said that in adopting the language of structural racism and white privilege, Despentes was importing American ideas unsuited to describing France’s situation.

But Despentes doesn’t mind the pushback. “I’ve been comparing it to the #MeToo movement. At the time, I wished more men would have spoken up,” she said this month in an interview at her home in Paris. “Criticism is normal.’”

If anyone has learned to weather public hostility, it’s Despentes. For years after her first novel, “Rape Me,” published in 1993 about two women’s murderous road trip, few in the bourgeois world of French literature took her seriously. Her provocative stories made it easy to paint her as an untamable “enfant terrible.” In 2000, a movie adaptation of “Rape Me,” co-directed by Despentes, stirred a moral panic in France, where it was pulled from mainstream theaters days after its release. It remains banned in some countries, including Australia, for its explicit depiction of sexual violence.

Still, as a novelist, Despentes has recently completed a remarkable takeover of the literary institutions that once painted her as an outsider. Her latest novels, “Apocalypse Baby” and the trilogy “Vernon Subutex,” won multiple awards, with reviewers comparing her to the 19th-century author Honoré de Balzac. From 2016 to 2020, she was on the jury for France’s most prestigious literary award, the Goncourt Prize.

With its slang-infused verve, “Vernon Subutex” has also earned Despentes renewed attention in the English-speaking world; the first volume made the Booker International Prize shortlist in 2018. The second volume is out in translation in the United States on July 7, and the final book in the trilogy will be available in Britain on June 25. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux plans to release the third volume in the United States in 2021, a spokeswoman for the publisher said.)

The saga, published in France between 2015 and 2017, struck a chord here at a time of heightened anxiety. In it, a large cast of misfits — including former porn stars, drifters and bigots — coalesces around the books’ antihero, Vernon, a homeless former record dealer. The first volume was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in 2015, and the events of that day and the subsequent attack at the Bataclan, the Paris music venue, feature later in the trilogy.

Her writing process was “a collage,” Despentes said: “I try to take a Polaroid picture of what is happening while it’s happening.”

Michèle A. Schaal, an associate professor of French and women’s and gender studies at Iowa State University, said in a Zoom interview that “Vernon Subutex” marked the “canonization” of Despentes as a political author. “It is a portrayal of a generation and what has happened socioeconomically in France since the neoliberal turn that took place under François Mitterrand in the 1980s,” Schaal said, referring to France’s president at the time.

“Vernon Subutex” came on the heels of a transformational period in Despentes’ life. In 2005, she took a road trip around the United States to film a documentary about pro-sex feminists, “Mutantes (Féminisme Porno Punk).” Along the way, she fell in love with the camerawoman; at 35, she came out as a lesbian.

The next year, she moved to Barcelona with a new partner, philosopher and transgender activist Paul B. Preciado. Around the same time, she released “King Kong Theory,” a blistering essay about sex and gender, that frankly discussed her own experiences of sexual violence.

“It’s as if people suddenly had a road map for what I was doing: ‘Oh, OK, she was raped. We get it now,’” she said, deadpan. Many critics see Despentes’ willingness to talk frankly about sexual abuse as paving the way for the#MeToo movement in France.

When she moved back from Barcelona to Paris, in 2010, Despentes was shocked by the growing influence of the far right in France, she said, including among her acquaintances. “The right was suddenly obsessed with the Roma people, with Islam. As a novelist, it made me curious,” she said.

In “Vernon Subutex,” she created racist characters to explore their ways of thinking, leaving readers to draw their conclusions. “What’s wonderful with a novel is that there is space for complexity,” Despentes said. “People always have reasons to think as they do.”

French actress Béatrice Dalle, a close friend of the writer, said in a phone interview that this was in keeping with Despentes’ attitude in life. “She doesn’t try to lecture people. She has a very personal take on morality,” she said.

In 2019, “Vernon Subutex” was adapted into a TV series starring French actor Romain Duris. (It is available on the streaming platform Topic in the United States.) But Despentes said she felt the script had simplified the books so much that it missed the point: She hadn’t even watched it, she added. “If you take away the politics, the rise of the far right, the feminist aspect, what’s left is a sort of detective investigation. If I were Agatha Christie, I’d do that all the time. But I’m not.”

Despentes hasn’t worked for the screen since “Bye Bye Blondie,” a 2012 adaptation of her novel of the same name, which starred Dalle as a lesbian punk. She would like to write and direct a TV series, she said, but can’t abide the “deep-seated undercurrent of misogyny” in France’s movie and television industry.

In March, after Roman Polanski, who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women, was named best director at France’s equivalent of the Oscars, Despentes’ reaction — another open letter, “From now on, we get up and we leave” — took off on social media. (Polanski denies the allegations.)

Instead of directing, she has recently been performing onstage, most recently in the feminist musical production “Viril,” alongside Dalle and rapper Casey. As she delivered monologues about women’s experiences of abuse, by authors including Preciado and Leslie Feinberg, Despentes was calmly powerful.

Despentes said she had worked hard in recent years on managing her anger, which she once feared would “burn everyone around her,” damaging relationships as well as her work. She enjoyed the rapturous reception for “Vernon Subutex,” she said, but added that consensus had never been her goal.

“It’s nice to have a period of time when you feel loved, accepted, when you’re very well paid. But if you’re loved all the time, you’re dead,” Despentes said, laughing. “It’s not a writer’s job.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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