Scarlett Johansson walks into a garage in northern France, and young mechanic Arthur Dreyfuss, who has never had much success with women, is smitten.
For French writer Grégoire Delacourt this was intended to be a mildly amusing scene in his new novel. The Johansson character turns out to be a French model and Johansson lookalike who laments that men only see her as a sex object. It was, said the best-selling author, fiction; but unlike the usual literary caveat, physical similarities with those living were entirely deliberate and meant to be flattering.
Johansson, however, was not amused. The star of Lost in Translation and The Girl With the Pearl Earring sued Delacourt for making false claims about her private life: the fictional character who was not really Scarlett Johansson had two affairs that the real Johansson never had. It was, she said, defamatory – and a French judge agreed. However, the court threw out her argument that the book – La Première Chose Qu’on Regarde (The First Thing You Look At), which has sold more than 100,000 copies and been translated into several languages – “fraudulently exploited her name, her image and her celebrity” and should not be translated or made into a film, as planned. Instead of the €50,000 (£40,000) in damages Johansson claimed, the court awarded her just €2,500, plus €2,500 in legal costs, saying she had already talked about her private life in interviews.
Emmanuelle Allibert of the publishers J-C Lattès said they and Delacourt were happy with the judgment. “All of Scarlett Johansson’s demands were rejected except one thing that was seen to be an attack in her private life over two relations that she never had.
“All her other demands, including damages of €50,000, were rejected, notably that there should be a ban on the book being translated or made into a film. We just have to cut out the bit about the affairs, which is just four lines,” Allibert told the Guardian.
“The book has already been translated into German and Italian and there has been interest in translating it into English, but publishers were waiting for the outcome of the case. Now we are open to offers.”
Allibert said Delacourt, whose previous novel, My List of Desires, was translated into 47 languages, did not wish to comment on the court’s decision. He had earlier explained that he chose to use Johansson as the model for his protagonist because she is “the archetype of beauty today”.
“I wrote a work of fiction. My character is not Scarlett Johansson,” he said.
He told Le Figaro he was “stupefied” at the American actress’s action. “I didn’t expect it at all … especially as I’m not sure she’s even read the book. It’s not been translated.
“I thought she’d get in contact to ask me to go for a coffee with her. I didn’t write a novel about celebrity. I wrote a real love story and a homage to feminine beauty, especially interior beauty.”
He added that had he known Johansson would kick up such a fuss, he would have chosen someone else as his icon of modern-day beauty. “I thought she might send me flowers as [the book] was a declaration of love for her, but she didn’t understand it at all,” he said. “It’s a strange paradox – but a very American one.”