Christine Angot, the writer who has produced images of incest: ‘I didn’t want to take revenge… I wanted to hear those who remained silent’

The French writer has screened her film – ‘A Family’ – at the 74th Berlin International Film Festival. In this disturbing documentary, she confronts the family members who did not support her in the face of her father’s sexual abuse

French writer Christine Angot with her daughter, Léonore, in the documentary 'A Family' (2024), which was screened at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
French writer Christine Angot with her daughter, Léonore, in the documentary 'A Family' (2024), which was screened at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.Le Bureau Films/Rectangle/France 2
Álex Vicente

For a long time, Christine Angot, 65, didn’t want to return to Strasbourg, France.

“It seemed like a hostile city to me. I told my editors not to take me there. When I had no other choice, I had someone go with me,” she recalled, on Monday, February 19, while attending the 74th Berlin International Film Festival. “I never went alone.”

The capital of the French region of Alsace was where Angot’s father sexually abused her when she was 13-years-old. It happened on weekends or during vacations. That man — who abandoned her mother before she was born and then reappeared during her adolescence — continued the abuse into her adult life, when she was already married. He died a long time ago, but his wife and children still live in the city. For Angot, it was a cursed place, a kingdom of silence. Many of those around her knew about the rape, but they didn’t say anything. “People never say anything, because they feel ashamed,” she explains.

Angot, however, has never remained silent. In 1999, she published a novel titled Incest. It made her a literary star in her country — she became an author who sold well and was vilified. Critics praised her, but she was also accused of fabricating or exaggerating facts, of washing dirty laundry in public, or of expressing herself with excessive violence. She always refused to see herself as a victim — a word that disgusts her — to avoid the pity of others, since she considers other people’s pity to be “a control mechanism.”

The writer — an unrecognized disciple of Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux (although, like her, she refuses to define what she does as “autofiction”) — has dedicated several books to this major trauma that marked her life. And now, 25 years later, in her debut as a filmmaker, she has returned to the subject, using cinema as a weapon instead of literature.

The result is titled A Family — a documentary in which the author returns to Strasbourg and other French cities, to confront the relatives and friends who covered up the events in question, or who watched them happen in silence. It could be the most disturbing film at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, despite not being among the titles competing for the Golden Bear (it has premiered in the parallel Encounters section).

If she had to resort to images it was, above all, because she felt that she needed neutral and incontestable testimony. When she writes, she’s reproached for engaging in fiction — for interpreting facts, or distorting them to her liking. “Film always seems more real than a novel… even when it isn’t,” she reflects. Angot uses this new medium just like literature: with harshness, heartbreak and clinical precision, at the service of a stubborn will to put words to the unspeakable. And to answer the million-dollar question: why didn’t anyone do anything?

The film begins with a surprise visit. A door opens. On the other side is her father’s wife, who has known the facts since the 1990s. When she sees that she’s being filmed, she tries to slam the door, but Angot sticks her foot out to block it. She forcibly enters the bourgeois foyer, where she’ll (briefly) manage to dialogue with someone who has refused to do so for decades.

She forces her camera operator (Caroline Champetier, who was the director of photography for Jean-Luc Godard and Leos Carax) and her assistant to tape everything. “I need you,” she tells them.

Then, when the cameras are rolling, the reproaches begin: “Aren’t you going to apologize to me?” Angot asks. “I only had your version,” her stepmother responds. Other excuses will follow:  “Your father already had Alzheimer’s when he found out.”  “Anyway, it’s too late now.” “I didn’t want to know.”

At one point, the stepmother asks: “How could you come to my house when you were having a sexual relationship with him?” Angot replies that she was not in a relationship: she was being raped.

“Let’s talk, but without violence,” the false mother had demanded at the beginning of the encounter. By the end, with polite coldness, she says: “It was good to talk, it was necessary. May you have a good day.” Later on, however, she will report Angot for trespassing.

Christine Angot, during a literary event in Kraków, Poland, in October of 2023.
Christine Angot, during a literary event in Kraków, Poland, in October of 2023.NurPhoto (Getty Images)

In successive meetings with other members of her family, this lack of communication will give way to a possible understanding and a utopian sense of calm. She goes to see her mother, who is unable to talk about what happened. Instead, she prefers to focus on the strain that this case of incest caused in her relationship with her daughter. Angot’s mother reads aloud beautiful pieces of writing, which allow us to sense where the future novelist’s literary talent comes from.

The writer also visits her ex-husband, who once overheard Angot’s father abusing her, but stayed locked in his room, a victim of his own childhood traumas, without intervening. Then, she gives the floor to her current partner — the Antillean musician Charly Clovis — who defines himself as a “descendant of slaves.”

“There are people who get together [because of their different heritages] and others who get together because they have things in common that define them,” the author says, describing their union.

In the end, she sits down with her daughter… the first character to offer a kind word when she learns about what her mother has suffered. The writer’s interviews are interspersed with photographs and home videos from the early-1990s. We will discover that Angot was the only one in her class with a Jewish surname: Schwartz. It was later changed to her father’s surname. In an image from her adolescence, the author smiles. She’s unrecognizable.

The context has changed since she started writing about incest. Back at the turn of the millennium, she was laughed at on TV sets, until she was forced to get up and walk away. Now, she’s being listened to… perhaps the result of new social sensitivities. And her art has also been recognized for its merit: her novel Journey to the East won the prestigious Prix Médicis in 2021.

It’s tempting to see the film as a revenge movie — one of those thrillers where a humiliated and wounded character goes to look for her executioners, seeking justice. However, Angot is outraged by this interpretation. “I’m not looking for revenge, but for the truth,” she clarifies. “I wanted the words to emerge. I wanted to hear what those who were silent had to say. That has nothing to do with revenge. My goal was to be able to talk about this before we all died. It was important not only for me, but also for our children, for those who will be born later. And for all of us. Deep down, society is also a family.”

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