Johnny Depp’s film opened Cannes, has the conversation been closed?


What does Depp’s return to Hollywood mean for MeToo, and the contemporary culture of ‘open secrets’?

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Image by Harald Krichel

By Lucy Wiggins

Over text messages, Johnny Depp referred to Amber Heard as a “filthy whore”, “idiot cow”, and “worthless hooker”. A man who discussed defiling his wife’s “burnt corpse” after drowning her, to “make sure she is dead”, received a seven minute standing ovation at Cannes. With a look of apparent gratitude and making a prayer sign with his hands, Depp embraced the female director of the film he stars in, Maïwenn, who is reported to have made public anti-MeToo statements. He wore a mocking smile as he turned to face those applauding, male and female, world famous and unknown, joking that now they must just “stand here and clap” for these minutes, play “pat-a-cake”.

It is not shocking that Depp’s film opened Cannes; he is one of the most famous actors in the world. Depp, or more specifically his ‘comeback’, gave them the attention they wanted. It is disturbing nonetheless. Or should be. Perhaps the most concerning thing about it is that for the most part it passed by without a second glance. A film he stars in was actively chosen to open Cannes, he got his ovation, and he carries on. Of course, the retort to this is that we can separate the art from the artist in modern society. But can we, when Depp’s film opened arguably the most renowned film festival in the world, while Heard will probably never work in that world again? She has been damned for not making people believe her version of events, for merely having the audacity to think she could.

The cacophony of controversy that stems from this new culture of ‘cancelling’ seems never ending; each week another name seems to be deemed unsafe, another name that must be followed or prefaced by a brief defence. Phillip Schofield’s departure from ITV is just the latest example. I found Alison Hammond’s conflicted response encapsulated the ‘aftermath of allegations against beloved celebrities’ situation very well. Yes, to ‘err’ is human. But we don’t all get away with it. We are all human, but we are not all Schofield, not all Depp. We also cannot excuse them on the basis it might upset them. And if we are saying we must be ‘without sin’ to accuse, this begins to sound a lot like victim blaming. But, Hammond draws attention to this conflict of leniency and condemnation, and the often deeply, instinctively emotional reaction situations like this can evoke in us. Can and should we still love these figures despite knowing their frailties and their shocking imperfections?

One of the names some would put on this list is David Bowie. Lurid accusations against him came to the surface upon his publicly mourned death in 2016, though these accusations are said to have been an “open secret” since the 1970s. The conflict surrounding someone as loved as Bowie, and work as great as his, is inherently emotive. Figures like him are often linked to formative parts of peoples’ lives. The irresolvable nature of these conflicts is felt even more when celebrities are not here to defend themselves or give their version of events. There have been many cases of rumours being distorted, presented as fact, and making headlines after public figures have died. One important case being ‘Operation Midland’, which ran from 2014 to 2016 and resulted in the accuser, Carl Beech’s, imprisonment for false allegations in 2019. Moreover, this is found on screen too, most recently in Black Mirror’s ‘Joan is Awful’. Charlie Brooker’s dystopian warnings on the issue of fact and fiction, and the damning consequences of their confusion, harbour this type of angst.

Some have argued the focus should be on the culture or system, not the individual. But the individuals make up the system. Amanda Marcotte wrote on the topic that it is not about “whether or not you personally are a righteous person because you listen to David Bowie records”. Sometimes it seems we are more interested in appearing moral, fearing our name may be the next to be crossed through, than the actual issues at stake. It is interesting how quickly love can turn to hate when people fear that their own morality will be questioned.

This art and artist debate, which was perfectly captured in Todd Field’s film Tár this year, seems even more so to create an idol out of Depp. He has become complicated, a man with his ‘demons’, but is excused, almost adding to his appeal. It makes Heard an outcast. Depp is a paradox of troubled hero and victim; she is merely cunning and cold. It speaks of something much darker: if you look like Depp, have his success, you can carry on as before, be seen in the same way. Interestingly, Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp’s new HBO show The Idol seems to question this culture of male entitlement through its shock factor. Harshly critiqued in Rolling Stone as “twisted torture porn” and the “rape fantasy” of a “toxic man”, the show tells of how a mysterious male figure can manipulate the world.

Depp’s Sauvage campaign for Dior seems to embody this split. He is portrayed as dark, troubled, and in turn attractive. He is also often associated with his part as a family friendly movie icon: “Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp”. If he wasn’t, perhaps we wouldn’t forgive him. He has been taken back in, whilst Heard has been chewed up and spat out. His troubled face is rugged, yet hers is a mess – an age old case of sexism. It gets more concerning when we think of this attractiveness as a way out of being held accountable for offences. For instance, Tom Cruise is extremely active in his scientologist beliefs. Yet we do not take this aspect of him seriously. It’s almost treated as a joke, giving him that edge, that mystique. Or it’s something we accept of him and often conveniently forget. We subconsciously defend - “but, you know, he’s a weird guy” - and laugh it off. We still love him. We ignore it so we can.

The gendered treatment of Depp and Heard during and immediately after the trial has been discussed at length in Moira Donegan’s piece “The Amber Heard-Johnny Depp Trial was an Orgy of Misogyny”. As time has passed, the aftermath seems characterised by a binary of redemption and condemnation. Depp has been redeemed because he is seen to be worthy of redemption – he has done so much ‘great’ work, and is expected to do more. We decide Heard is not worth redeeming because she has not done as much ‘great’ work. We will not redeem her merely in the possibility she might – we decide she just won’t. We judge her on an impossibility – on what she has not done. We do not give her the same leeway as Depp. Their honesty, their personal lives, are judged by their professional success. We condemn her on the messy present and ungraspable future and him only on the comfortable, clear past.

The chaos of this continues across the globe. In late April, allegations made international news that shook the German film world. Til Schweiger, one of the best known German filmmakers working today, was the next name to be tainted. Over 50 reports were given to Der Spiegel of “Machtmissbrauch” – abuse of power. Guardian journalist Kate Connolly hailed this as Germany’s MeToo “moment”, while in the same article quoting actor Nora Tschirner, that the allegations have been an “open secret for years”. The suggestion here being that this will not change things, that the worker’s rights protection needed to change things is not there. And, after all, Schweiger denies the allegations.

Germany’s commissioner for culture and media, Claudia Roth’s, take on it is clear. That “even artistic geniuses or supposed artistic geniuses are not above the law”, and “the times when patriarchal blokes abused their power positions in the worst sort of way should really be over”. However, Schweiger’s films have been helped by state subsidies. The difficult truth being that big profits from this industry come from big names like Schweiger’s. Judging and punishing the employer and removing them from that position comes at a price to their employees. Schweiger’s lawyers claim these rumours were “unknown” to him, and that rumours being taken as fact are “distorted”. This could be another instance where Brooker’s visions may be coming true.

Schweiger, describing the reaction to his newest film Manta Manta 2 (2023), says that the “press is raging, the audience is thrilled”. He seems to think the audience do not want a “woke film”, as he puts it. He apparently wants to defy the zeitgeist – but how far can this go? What does it mean to be ‘alternative’ now? Is it to promote right wing, or even far right, content? Returning to Depp’s text messages, these were described by Depp himself as a kind of “dark humour”. If these are his casual, joking texts, what are his insults? Yes, “using bad language and colourful humour does not mean you are a violent abuser”, as his attorney Camille Vasquez stated, but those texts do not sound like “colourful humour”.

Another name that has recently become the subject of controversy, the choice for this year’s Met Gala theme, is Karl Lagerfeld. A man who was reported by The Guardian to have been critical of Merkel’s pro-immigration policies, gay marriage, and the MeToo movement. Vogue editor and Met organiser Anna Wintour’s argument against criticism was that it was a celebration of Lagerfeld’s body of work, not the man himself. Yet even in a Vogue article it states the theme was “to honour” Lagerfeld, whilst in another it says the gala “honoured” the “legacy” of Lagerfeld. But when celebrities adorned themselves with his first name, face or designs, it seems to be more a celebration of the artist than simply their art. Celebrities walked the carpet referring merely to ‘Karl’. Wintour revealed it was an emotional night, and that Lagerfeld should get the “recognition” he deserves. Jameela Jamil has commented that it is as if now we only separate the art from the artist when it is “convenient”. When it comes to Lagerfeld and Depp, we can separate the art from the artist, but, apparently, we cannot do the same for Heard. This disparity in treatment is where the problem lies. It is as if celebrities, with the power at least to influence, speak out if not to act, are choosing which victims to give voices to, based on what is best for their image.

The divisive reaction to the allegations against Schweiger, like Depp, is unsurprising. These women should stop “whining”, one person comments under an Instagram post on the accusations. Another, that this is “nothing new”. It may be that it is the system that needs to be the focus for change, not individuals. But that cannot be used to excuse those within the system at the cost of its victims.