French starlets sue director over casting-couch exploits

AN AWARD-WINNING French film director was sent for trial for sexual harassment yesterday, accused of forcing young actresses to make explicitly sexual "test films" for his own "personal pleasure".

Jean-Claude Brisseau, 60, who denies the charges, is the director credited with discovering the actress Vanessa Paradis.

Although Mlle Paradis is not involved in the case, her mother told investigators that the director had made a similarly improper suggestion to her daughter when she was only 17 in 1989.

The allegations against M. Brisseau, whose best-known film is Noces Blanches (White Wedding) (1989), go far beyond the classic accusation of using the "casting couch" to obtain sexual favours. He is accused of tricking up to 15 different actresses into undressing and masturbating in front of him as "erotic trials" for scenes in forthcoming movies.

M. Brisseau says that he filmed the trials as part a "minutely prepared" artistic attempt to document the nature of "feminine sexual pleasure".

Four unnamed actresses who have brought complaints against him allege that he masturbated while watching them and that he promised them parts in his movies if they co-operated.

At a preliminary hearing in Paris yesterday, the date of M. Brisseau's trial on charges of "harassment" and "sexual assault" was set for 3 November. The film director - whose last film, Choses Secretes ("Secret Things") was named "film of the year" in 2003 by the respected French magazine Cahiers du Cinema - said that he would "deny the charges en bloc".

The examining magistrate, Corinne Goetzmann, concluded that "all suggestions of an artistic or cinematographic motive" should be rejected. "M. Brisseau sought only the satisfaction of his own personal pleasure."

The magistrate said that she based her conclusions on "the sheer number of these test films, the period of several years over which they were filmed, the fact that the same promises were made to several actresses, the fact that the tests were made in his home or in hotel rooms, and the fact that Jean-Claude Brisseau masturbated openly in front of the actresses".

Scores of rolls of film were seized in a police raid on M. Brisseau's home. Other actresses, including Helene de Fougerolles and Marion Cotillard, were interviewed by police.

The magistrate's report also includes a statement by the mother of Vanessa Paradis that M. Brisseau asked her daughter to masturbate in front of him in 1989 when the actress was 17. Mlle Paradis, who was then making her first film, Noces Blanches, refused, and complained to her mother.

In an interview with the newspaper Liberation yesterday, M. Brisseau said that he was the victim of a "witch-hunt". "They want to try me for perversion. They want, above all, to send me to jail, arguing that my films are trash and just a pretext for picking up girls ... and yet my work in the cinema is intended to make apparent the beauty of feminine pleasure. The aim is to achieve a kind of sexual suspense, without being vulgar, but in remaining credible".

Filming convincing sex scenes was extremely difficult, he said. Audiences were pitiless. If they weren't convinced, they would burst out laughing. "I work on the borders of the ridiculous and the disturbing," M. Brisseau said.

"I reject all disgusting sex films," he said. "My aim was to discover the beauty, a certain grace, in all of that. The only pleasure that I sought was the pleasure of the audience."

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