The very existence of "Dominique Strauss-Kahn: The Movie" reveals a darker side to Hollywood

Will his alleged victim, Nafissatou Diallo, get to tell her side of the story?

Filming is set to begin for a movie about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician who stepped down as head of the IMF after he was accused of attempted rape by a New York hotel worker in May 2011. Details about the film, which has yet to be given a title, are being kept under wraps. Directed by Abel Ferrara, who made Bad Lieutenant, it will star Gerard Depardieu as DSK and Isabelle Adjani as his multimillionaire journalist wife, Anne Sinclair. In addition to the New York incident, it has been speculated that the film may include subsequent allegations of sexual assault by French journalist Tristane Banon, and charges of "aggravated pimping in an organised gang" in Lille in which sex workers were allegedly procured for orgies. The inquiry is also examining whether one sex worker was gang-raped. Strauss-Kahn denies all the charges.

Certainly, the scandal (or scandals) has captured the imagination of many writers, dramatists, and journalists. It has been only 15 months since immigrant worker Nafissatou Diallo accused DSK of sexual assault and attempted rape, but the incident has already been the subject of multiple plays, and books, as well as this new film.

Theatrical productions in Paris and at the Edinburgh fringe looked at the incident, particularly focusing on the relationship between Strauss-Kahn and Sinclair – who stood by her man throughout the scandal, leaving him only recently. A non-fictional investigation into the couple was one of the biggest bestsellers in France this summer. A thriller inspired by the case, Night Watch by Linda Farstein, was a bestseller in the US. Meanwhile, a recently published novel by French author Stéphane Zagdanski, Burning Chaos, looks at the New York story through patients in a Manhattan psychiatric centre.

Of course, the tale of power, sex, and scandal is classic material for theatre or fiction. But is it problematic that the story is being turned into a money-spinning drama (by many different people) before the case is even closed? While criminal charges were dropped because the judge said there were “substantial credibility issues” with Diallo (a sadly common story for victims of sexual assault), she is bringing a civil suit for sexual assault and gender violence which has yet to reach court. Strauss-Kahn is counter-suing for defamation and malicious prosecution.

Zagdanski told AFP why he chose the story as the subject of his novel:  

"The DSK affair is the incarnation of contemporary folly. It fascinates enormously because he was at the summit of the world and he found himself in the gutter overnight, thanks to a six minute fellatio.”

His words demonstrate exactly why there is something unpleasant about turning the case into a fictionalised drama before it is really over. “A six minute fellatio” is a callous choice of words that overlooks the fact that DSK was not proved to be innocent of attacking Diallo: rather, the case was dropped because she was seen as a weak witness. Those are two completely different things. Victims of sexual assault are frequently judged inconsistent – in this case, lies on her asylum application for the US were a major contributing factor.

And let’s not forget that this was allegedly a violent sexual assault. Although DSK claims the encounter was consensual, a leaked medical report showed that she had serious injuries including a torn shoulder ligament. Indeed, the fact that details of exactly what state her bruised and naked body was in were all over the press before the court hearing had even taken place indicates quite how little privacy Diallo was granted. It was against this backdrop – and allegations that she was a liar and a prostitute – that she chose to tell her story to the press, a decision for which she was lambasted.

Zagdanski may be correct that people are fascinated by the story because: "It shows the two faces of our world. People are fascinated by money, the rich, the stars, Hollywood... but they see that on the other side of this world of glamour there is also banal human misery which is not so unlike ordinary folks' misery.”

Yet it is disturbing that these words completely overlook the other side of the story: the ordinary person and alleged victim who is also suffering the personal and professional fallout of this scandal. Diallo’s story may be less glamorous – and as an immigrant hotel cleaner, she is about as far away from being powerful as you can get – but as the book, film, and theatre productions continue, we must only hope that they do not entirely overlook her side of the picture.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn speaks to reporters after sexual assault charges were dropped against him. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism