Scarlett Johansson Wins Libel Case Against French Novelist

Posted on July 7, 2014

Cover of La premiere chose qu'on regarde by Gregoire Delacourt

Scarlett Johansson just won her lawsuit against bestselling French novelist Gregoire Delacourt on the grounds of defamation of character.

The Guardian reports that Delacourt's novel is about a garage mechanic named Arthur Dreyfuss who lives in Northern France and does not do well with women. One day, it appears that Scarlett Johansson, a vision of beauty, walks into his garage. It turns out she is not Scarlett, but a model who looks just like her. She is tired of being objectified for her beauty. Apparently she is beautiful on the outside, but hideous on the inside. She has a few sordid affairs and comes to an untimely end, according to newspaper reports (the book has not been translated into English yet). The novel, called La Premiere Chose Qu'on Regarde (The First Thing You Look At), has already sold more than 100,000 copies and has been translated into several other languages.

The lawsuit alleged that the book fraudulently exploited her name, image and celebrity for profit and asked that the book not be translated or made into a film. the judge dismissed that part of the case (which would have been much stronger if she had been suing in the U.S.), but awarded the win to Ms. Johansson on the grounds that the book is defamatory to her personally. She asked for 50,000 Euros in damages, but the judge only awarded her 2500 Euros in damages, 2500 Euros for attorneys fees and denied the injunctive relief request. The judge said Ms. Johansson has spoken about her private life in interviews, so the damages could not be as high as she requested.

The author and publisher are shocked by the verdict and its implications for authors. The author says the character is just someone who looks like Ms. Johansson, it is not actually her. The author gave a statement to Le Figaro saying that he could not believe she sued him, because he held her up as the standard of modern beauty. In fact, he thought she would call him up and want to have a cup of coffee to discuss the novel. This clearly indicates that Monsieur Delacourt a) has a vivid fantasy life; and b) has never met any actresses.

So what does this mean for American authors? Not much, as this is a case in France. However, it does serve as a cautionary tale. U.S. law is clear that if you use an actor's name or likeness to promote your product -- whether it is face cream or a novel -- you are going to get sued. The facts of this case do not seem to support a libel suit in the U.S., because the character only looks like Ms. Johansson and that is made clear. On the other hand, saying that someone who is as beautiful as Scarlett Johansson is usually a terrible person could be problematic. It just depends on what the book actually says. Clearly the judge in France thought it showed Ms. Johansson in a bad light.

Photo: JC Lattes

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