French actress Adele Haenel pose during a photocall of the film 'Portrait de la jeune fille en feu' (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) during the 12th Francophone Angouleme Film Festival on August 22, 2019 in Angouleme, western France. (AFP/Yohan Bonnet)
French star Adele Haenel accused the director who discovered her of sexually harassing her from the age of 12 in a lengthy interview on Monday.
The 30-year-old, who is wowing critics on both sides of the Atlantic with her performance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, said she was the victim of "permanent sexual harassment", "forced kisses on the neck" and touching for the three years she spent working and promoting her debut film, The Devils.
Director Christophe Ruggia strongly denied the claims, with his lawyers saying that he "categorically refuted" any misconduct.
He insisted that he had a "professional and affectionate relationship" with Haenel.
But the actress handed over love letters she said Ruggia had sent her at the time to the French investigative website Mediapart, which spent seven months talking to more than 30 people involved with the 2002 film about an incestuous relationship between 12-year-old siblings.
The director's ex-partner also told the site that she left him after he confessed to being in love with Haenel and of touching her inappropriately.
Haenel, who played a girl with autism in The Devils, told a live interview streamed on Mediapart Monday that she decided to go public after watching Leaving Neverland, the documentary about the child victims of US pop star Michael Jackson.
She said her resolve was further stiffened when she discovered that Ruggia was set to make another film with adolescents.
The actress, who has won a string of awards including two French Oscars, the Cesars, said Ruggia "put a system in place to isolate me, to have him at his place every weekend... It was a man of nearly 40 who every week got himself into a room with a young girl who was between 12 and 15 and tried to touch her up.
"There was no ambiguity in the situation... it wasn't romantic, it was pure pressure. I was stuck to the sofa. I froze in the center of all this."
She said the experience had traumatized her and that she never wanted to make another film.
The French society of film directors (SRF) said it was expelling Ruggia from its ranks in light of the accusations.
"We want to express our total support, our admiration and recognition of the actress Adele Haenel, who had the courage to speak out after so many years of silence," it said in a statement Monday.
Ruggia, 54, who is also known for The Kid from Chaaba, is a former co-president of the organization.
Ruggia's lawyer, Jean-Pierre Versini, told AFP that while the filmmaker may have had "an involuntary, adult, director's hold on her... he categorically denies touching or sexually harassing her" when she was a minor.
Haenel told Mediapart in the live streamed interview that she was "shocked that he denies it. You have to recognize it, it is more violence denying it. And I am even more shocked by the fact that he says he discovered me, because really he destroyed me."
The actress said she was not going to the police because of the "contempt with which the judicial system treats women. One rape in 10 ends up with a conviction."