For over 20 years now, the gay French director François Ozon has delighted and confounded audience expectations. From the candy-colored confections of 1998’s Sitcom (his feature film debut) and his musical comedy 8 Women — which set him up to be the true heir to Pedro Almodóvar — to more serious-minded fare such as 2005’s terminal illness drama Time to Leave and his latest, the quietly effective By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu), Ozon has created an impressive cache of films, both those that are critically acclaimed and a few that just missed the mark.
Throughout his career, he’s been known as a “women’s director,” a phrase old Hollywood used to throw around as code for homosexual, and he’s worn that mantel proudly. Yet it was time for a change in his approach to this new Lyon-set drama based on a true story about the Catholic Church, pedophile priests and the lengths both the institution and its victims will go to protect themselves.
“I’d made a lot of films with strong female characters,” he has said, “and wanted to make a film about male characters expressing their feelings and emotions. Often, in films, men are associated with action and women with emotions, but I wanted to flip that idea on its head.”
Ozon’s screenplay narrates the events of a fight to remove and bring to justice the accused Father Preynat (Bernard Verley) through the lens of three characters.
Alexandre Guérin (Melvin Poupaud, steady and determined), a 40-something father of five recently relocated back to Lyon from Paris, is disturbed and disappointed to find that Father Preynat, who had been accused and confessed to repeated acts of sexual impropriety with children, is still in active service for the church. He initiates inquiries into the diocese that lead to an open investigation by the police.
François Duburd (Denis Ménochet), a rabble-rouser in his 30s, becomes involved a few years later. Where Alexandre is measured in his approach through the prescribed channels of the church, François is more confrontational. He helps found La Parole Libérée, a justice-seeking organization that soon includes a growing number of men afflicted by the actions of the priest.
Eventually, Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud) joins their ranks, an intellectual savant given to periodic seizures brought on by stress and the painful memories of his abuse. The men, along with their supportive (or skeptical) significant others and families, are thwarted at every step by the monolithic reach of the Catholic Church. While acknowledging the seriousness of the crimes, the church officials repeatedly sanction forgiveness towards Father Preynat so that the men may put it behind them and move on with their lives. And while they are told that Preynat is no longer allowed to work with children, Alexandre continues to find the Father heading up catechism classes or administering the sacraments.
Ozon, along with the subtle work of his cast, doesn’t pump up the drama or rely on shock reveals. The subject matter itself is fraught. While the director contextualizes the abuse through a series of flashbacks — each evocative enough to suggest what happens when the Father invites one boy into a darkroom or another into a tent during retreat — it’s the words of the victims recounting the crimes, either to each other or the investigating detectives, that’s most horrifying.
“When talking to the victims,” Ozon has said, “they told me that people often have a hard time understanding why the children did not try to escape, so I wanted to show how children interact with adults, the hold that an adult can have over children, ultimately causing them to walk straight into the wolf’s mouth, because they are not aware of the danger that lies ahead.”
The wolves are plentiful. Preynat himself — in his 70s and docile as a pussycat — is honest about his transgressions, though in no way repentant. He acknowledges his “problem” while painting himself as a victim of his nature. Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) and his administrative right hand, Régine Marie (Martine Erhel), hit all the salient talking points while doing next to nothing to resolve the problem. Change is slow, and La Parole Libérée ups the pressure. (At one point, François Duburd passionately argues that the group stage a media stunt by skywriting a giant penis above the Lyon Basilica that’s mostly met with disapproval.)
Ozon doesn’t follow the inevitable court case that arises; it remains ongoing in France. (Father Preynat, still alive, attempted to block the release of the film.) Ozon allows the drama private grace notes: the distance in Alexandre’s face as he recounts the first time the Father — charismatic and beloved by the parishioners — invites him to be alone; François Duburd’s jovial suggestion of his media stunt, both an enormous joke and a giant middle-finger to the institution that has turned him into an atheist; Emmanuel’s physical and emotional tics, an armor that only disappears when he has his seizures or argues with his girlfriend.
Like much of the best in French cinema, the film’s power lies in the accumulation of small details and the juxtaposition of differing communities’ responses to conflict. Devout Catholics, Alexandre’s parents want him to let it rest. Emmanuel’s mother, still distraught that she did nothing when her son first told her that the priest had kissed him on the lips, becomes the intake operator for the La Parole Libérée help line.
And then there’s the Freudian slip that gives the film its title. During a press conference to stave off the tide of innuendo and bad publicity, Cardinal Barbarin utters the phrase “by the grace of god” before stating that the statute of limitations for the sexual abuse has passed. That phrase, and its intimation of spiritual balm, exposes the hypocrisy of the church’s response. It’s a knife in the heart to the survivors who may never feel His grace again.
By the Grace of God, the new film by François Ozon, is in theaters now.
Featured image: Denis Ménochet, Melvil Poupaud and Eric Caravaca in ‘By the Grace of God’ (Photo courtesy Music Box Films)
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