Claire Dederer’s Monsters

Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski on the set of Chinatown (1974)

Two stories appearing in the French press within the past few weeks handily stand in for the opposing horns Claire Dederer tackles in her new book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. On Tuesday, Télérama published an open letter from Adèle Haenel. The weekly’s editors were wondering what had happened to her since she stormed out of the César Awards ceremony in 2020 after Roman Polanski won Best Director for An Officer and a Spy. Yelling “Bravo pedophilia!,” Haenel was accompanied by Céline Sciamma; both women were up for awards for Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), and while it’s beside the point, to save you the trouble of looking it up: Portrait was nominated for ten Césars and won just one, Best Cinematography, for Claire Mathon.

In her open letter, Haenel explains that, while she carries on her work in the theater and as a political activist, she’s gone “on strike” from the film industry, which is run by people who will “do anything to defend their rapist chiefs, those who are so rich that they believe they belong to a superior species, those who make a show of this superiority by . . . objectifying women and subordinates.” She specifically calls out the industry’s support for Gérard Depardieu, who is facing charges of sexual assault from thirteen women; Dominique Boutonnat, the president of the National Film Board who was actually indicted for sexual assault but was nevertheless reappointed for a second term last summer; and of course, Roman Polanski, who has admitted that he raped Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) in 1977 when he was forty-three and she was thirteen.

In April, Geimer herself appeared on the cover of another French weekly, Le Point, alongside Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife and frequent collaborator. “I don’t see what’s so feminist about claiming victimhood,” Geimer tells Seigner, who followed up on the interview by posting a photo of Geimer and Polanski together, both smiling warmly. “Everyone should know by now that Roman has served his sentence,” says Geimer. “Which was . . . long, if you want my opinion.” That’s quite a contrast to Haenel’s embrace of “cancel culture in the primary sense . . . I cancel you from my world.”

In 2017, Claire Dederer, the Seattle-based film and literary critic and the author of two memoirs, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses (2010) and Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning (2017), found that she was not yet ready to make that call. “I was researching Roman Polanski for a book I was writing and found myself awed by his monstrousness,” she wrote in an essay for the Paris Review, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” As she’d done many times before, she rewatched Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Chinatown (1974), films that had become “part of me, the way something loved does. I wasn’t supposed to love this work, or this man. He’s the object of boycotts and lawsuits and outrage. In the public’s mind, man and work seem to be the same thing. But are they? Ought we try to separate the art from the artist, the maker from the made? . . . Or do we believe genius gets special dispensation, a behavioral hall pass?”

Monsters is an expansion of that essay in which Dederer reconsiders the work of dozens of men and, as Alexandra Jacobs points out in the New York Times, “a surprising number of women,” too. Monsters is “part memoir, part treatise, and all treat,” writes Jacobs. “Dederer is continually trying—not in the adjectival sense, but as the present participle: showing us her thought process, correcting as she goes and experimenting with different forms.” Dederer’s book is “not a defense of monsters themselves,” writes Camille Sojit Pejcha in Document Journal, “but of the individual, subjective experiences of the people who love their work: Because while we might not want to be moved by a piece of art, or love a person who has hurt us, we often are, and we often do.”

The Guardian’s Rachel Cooke is happy to report that “Dederer’s verdict on [Polanski’s] work is (rightly, I think) unchanged: Chinatown is still a masterpiece.” But that doesn’t mean Cooke admires Dederer’s book: “The feeling grows that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Thoughts and ideas come and go, explored at various speeds and in various gears, like cars on a busy motorway. You want to flag one down, but they never quite pull over.”

Rhian Sasseen, writing for the Baffler, finds that “something has happened in the transference from essay into book; Dederer’s search for nuance has, paradoxically, created a work muddled by inexactitudes . . . By the book’s end, Dederer . . . throws up her hands and turns to that familiar canard: there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, and so ‘our consumption, or lack thereof, of the work is essentially meaningless as an ethical gesture.’ This may be true, but it’s an unsatisfying conclusion, one that feels irresponsible in a book that raises what it views as provocative questions.”

When Jessica Ferri asks Dederer in the Los Angeles Times specifically about Haenel and Sciamma storming out of the Césars, Dederer says, “I think there’s a false dichotomy—that we pretend the life of the artist doesn’t matter, or on the other end, that the biography and the art are the same thing. If the art is separate, you’d venerate Polanski. On the other hand, you’d say we can never even show Polanski’s work. Consuming but not institutionally rewarding is possible. We do it all the time. If we have these rules, that seems like a good solution to the problem, but these rules don’t work out well for queer people, women, and it doesn’t serve people . . . When we pooh-pooh the subjective, the love of the fans, we are giving power to people that already have it.”

Talking to Leslie Jamison in Bomb Magazine, Dederer says, “Moving away from punitiveness is something that I’ve been thinking about in every part of my life, and I think that is reflected in the book.” For Slate’s Laura Miller, the “obdurate truth remains that some of the most beautiful and profound things humanity has created are the work of terrible people. We can decide, in a fury of righteousness, to cast those works aside. Or we can choose to view them as a kind of grace, the miraculous salvage from the inevitable wreck of our lives.”

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