The accusations of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein sent such cataclysmic shock waves through our entire culture that it almost feels there’s nothing left to say. Untouchable, a new documentary detailing Weinstein’s predatory behaviour, doesn’t have much to say that’s new, but it does offer the most important thing of all: the words of the women who were abused, in person, speaking directly to us.
Untouchable is directed by Ursula Macfarlane and premiered this week at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It gives an overview of Weinstein’s rise to his position as an all-powerful movie mogul, highlighting how the burgeoning power and influence of his career was intertwined with his proclivity for sexual harassment and assault.
From his days as a concert promoter in Buffalo to his time as unassailable boss of hit-making movie company Miramax, scores of women allege Weinstein used his position to abuse employees and actresses. A pattern emerges in their allegations of luring women to hotel suites with alternating promises and threats, Weinstein using the weight of his business dealings to find and then silence them just as he used his physical size to take what he wanted.
The film lays out an overview with the women abused by Weinstein, the men and women who worked for him, and the men and women who finally exposed him with stories in The New York Times and The New Yorker in 2017. The interviews are punctuated by moody inserts of the bustling New York streets, along with jaunts to Cannes and Venice and Toronto film festivals. It paints a picture of a glittering New York in the 1990s, and a genuinely exciting cultural moment as independent film shook the foundations of the movie industry. And as the camera creeps through silent hotel corridors, we learn about the machine that existed to feed Harvey Weinstein and satisfy his appetites.
The film scores interviews with various former Weinstein employees, some of whom are able to say they protested or quit when they became aware of Weinstein’s behaviour. Still, the predatory behaviour continued, which opens up the horrifying question of complicity. For every employee who quit when they found out, how many ushered young actresses into hotel rooms and then left?
One senior Miramax employee, John Schmidt, relays a story about recruiting a friend of his into the company, only to describe how Weinstein assaulted her. He says it weighs on him.
Weinstein is referred to by a male interviewee as an ‘equal opportunities abuser’, as if yelling at his male employees was comparable to what he is alleged to have done to so many women. To Miramax employees it was just ‘Harvey being Harvey’, and if there were any improprieties then the actresses were said to have entered into a deal with their eyes open. One Miramax staffer, a man, sums it up: ‘Those of us who were on the Harvey train got a lot out of it.’
At some point we may hear from more of those who were complicit in facilitating and then concealing Weinstein’s behaviour. The studio heads who made money from the Miramax machine. The politicians who benefited from his donations. The press who covered up the rumours and even Weinstein’s assault of a journalist on a New York street. The lawyers who drew up the non-disclosure agreements that said the victims could only talk to therapists if the therapists also signed an agreement. And Weinstein’s brother and Miramax co-founder Bob, who remains something of a cypher.
Ronan Farrow, one of the journalists who exposed Weinstein in 2017, sums up the story with a chilling warning. By singling out and banishing the most grotesque abuser, he says, there’s a temptation to think the problems solved. But as the #metoo movement and subsequent revelations have shown, there’s still work to be done.
For now though the spotlight is on the woman who came forward with their stories. Stars like Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan don’t contribute to Untouchable, but there are more than enough women coming forward to build up a picture of the horrifying pattern. As Caitlin Dulaney, Rosanna Arquette, Paz de la Huerta, Hope Exiner d’Amore, Nannette Klatt and Louise Godbold describe their experiences, the documentary builds into a crescendo of abhorrence.
Untouchable holds unblinking on each woman as she shares her story. The camera patiently waits for them to find the words to describe what they went through and what it stole from them. Untouchable listens while these women have their say.