Francois Ozon’s dramatised feature tackles child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church in Lyon
Dir. François Ozon. France. 2019. 137 mins.
Throughout his career, the prolific, super-versatile François Ozon has veered tantalisingly between stylish playfulness (the De Palma-esque L’Amant Double) and a more serious dramatic mode (as in historical piece Frantz), but nearly always with a highly provocative edge. His followers may be surprised, on watching By the Grace Of God, to find Ozon not just taking things very seriously, but altogether on a mission – one of docudrama-style reportage, tracking the progress of a movement of survivors of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest.
Ozon has made the most conventional drama of his career, though not without some formal invention
At one point conceived as a documentary, this fictionalised account follows the formation of the group La Parole Libérée (translated as ‘Lift the Burden’) in response to historic paedophile abuses by Father Bernard Preynat and an inadequate – to say the least - response on the part of the Catholic hierarchy of Lyon. Putting aside both his more flippant dimension and his customary stylistic play, Ozon has made the most conventional drama of his career, though not without some formal invention.
Superbly acted and highly controlled, the film doesn’t afford easy entertainment, its slow pace and weighty sense of narrative responsibility making for heavy viewing during stretches of its extended running time. The film will score plaudits for its integrity and for bringing this case, and the question of priests’ abuse in general, into the spotlight (indeed, the US exposé drama Spotlight is slyly referenced in one shot). This uncharacteristically solemn film is likely to be admired, and used as a springboard for debate on the festival circuit and elsewhere, rather than winning wider audience love.
It begins in 2014, when Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a lawyer and Catholic family man from Lyon, learns that Father Preynat (New Wave veteran Bernard Verley), who abused him during his childhood, is back in Lyon, and still allowed by the Church to work with children. He notifies Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret), and testifies to a psychologist in the Cardinal’s office, Régine Maire (Martine Erhel). She organises a meeting between Alexandre and Preynat, who admits to his crimes; but it becomes apparent that the Church does not intend to defrock Preynat, only to get him to ask forgiveness.
Alexandre is determined to take things further, as are other victims of Preynat. One is François Debord (Denis Ménochet) - now an atheist, while Alexandre retains his faith – who energetically goes to work as an activist with an online campaign, while a police investigation, headed by Chief Courteau (Frédéric Pierrot), also gets under way. The chances of prosecuting Preynat are hampered by the statute of limitations under which older cases can no longer be brought, but younger victims emerge – notably Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), a young man with a dysfunctional family background and stormy present, whose memories of his ordeals trigger seizures.
One of the film’s major assets is its tri-partite structure, shifting the narrative focus from Alexandre to François to Emmanuel. While there are only a small number of dramatic spikes – notably, intense domestic arguments in the François and Emmanuel sections – the quality of the acting is authoritative throughout, both from the leads (notably powerful up-and-comer Arlaud) and the supporting cast, including Marthouret, whose Cardinal continually soft-soaps the accusers with reassuring but empty rhetoric.
More of a problem, however, is the epistolary aspect of the film, with letters and documents in voice-over keeping us abreast of events, but causing a certain degree of dramatic drag. It goes hand in hand, however, with Ozon’s decision to honour Preynat’s victims by letting them give their testimony first hand, conveying a greater weight of experienced grief than if he had reconstructed their childhood experiences: only a few flashbacks outline the context of their ordeals, usually on camping trips, without showing anything intrusively explicit.
The film can’t be faulted on integrity, thoroughness or timeliness, end titles pointing out that at present, the Peyrat case and its repercussions are still a matter of urgent import, with the outcome yet to be decided. Meanwhile, frivolous through it might seem to say it, Ozon’s admirers will probably be relieved when he returns again in one of his spikier registers, which - knowing his inexhaustible productivity - surely won’t be long.
Production companies: Mandarin Production, Foz
International sales: Playtime, email@example.com
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Screenplay: François Ozon
Cinematography: Manu Dacosse
Editor: Laure Gardette
Production design: Emmanuelle Duplay
Music: Evgeny & Sacha Galperine
Main cast: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, Bernard Verley, Josiane Balasko