By the Grace of God – Film Review
by David Turpin
Director: François Ozon
Writer: François Ozon
Stars: Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud
A sombre, fact-based drama grasping the nettle of clerical sex abuse, By the Grace of God seems an anomaly for François Ozon – particularly after his last film, the extravagantly lurid erotic melodrama L’amant Double (2017). Lately, it’s been easy to see Ozon as a kind of (very) French Almodóvar, his films characterised by a combination of glossy craftsmanship and notionally ‘outrageous’ subject matter, as well as a centring of female leads that oscillates between identification, idolisation and objectification. However, when Almodóvar himself broached the sins of the church – in 2004’s Bad Education – he did so in the form of a fictitious (and safely historical) noir pastiche. Ozon’s film is much less artificial – and much less circumspect.
By the Grace of God is based on the ongoing scandal surrounding the abuse perpetrated in France by Father Bernard Preynet (played here by Bernard Verley), which ultimately led to the March 2019 conviction of Philippe Barbarin, Cardinal of Lyon, for his role in concealing Preynet’s crimes. In that respect, the film’s closest antecedent is probably Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Oscar-winner Spotlight, which Ozon has cited as an influence. At the same time, it’s easy to overlook, with hindsight, that Spotlight was both a period piece (dealing with a Boston Globe’s investigation that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003) and, primarily, a film about the process of investigative journalism – in which the subject under investigation was largely incidental to the mechanics of the journalistic process.
Ozon’s film differs from McCarthy’s in that his focus is not on the investigators, but on the victims themselves (the subject of just one scene in Spotlight, albeit a memorable one). Here, with characteristically impeccable casting (and canny reframing of actors’ pre-existing ‘personae’), he gives us fictionalised protagonists nevertheless based on his own consultation with actual victims. Ozon veteran Melvil Moupard (Time to Leave) is a paragon of middle-class accomplishment nevertheless tormented by his childhood experiences; Denis Ménochet, with his usual sense of imminent explosion, is determined to inflict public damage on the church. Mediating between two characters who are ideologically opposed yet bonded by experience is a third victim, played by Éric Caravaca. However, the most affecting performance comes from Swann Arlaud, as one of Preynet’s most frequently abused victims – who has consequently never managed to get a foothold in life, and lives close to dereliction.
There’s a certain schematic quality to the compare-and-contrast characterisations, and to the way in which the film unfolds as a series of ‘case studies’. The opening stretch, particularly, feels unusually dry – with long stretches consisting of frustrating written correspondence read out as voice-over. The film acquires a cumulative power, though – not least because, while the sensuality of Ozon’s style is necessarily tamped-down, his absolute command of form and tone is very much in evidence. None of this is to say, either, that Ozon’s treatment of the topic is exactly conservative – indeed, a handful of scenes involving Preynet himself are particularly daring in their presentation of a monster as a man. There’s also a clear, and justified, anger at the root of the film – which, after all, takes its title from Barbarin’s monumental Freudian slip, in which he remarked that it was ‘by the grace of God’ that Preynet’s crimes lay outside the statute of limitations. Ultimately Ozon’s film becomes a powerful testament to the suffering of its subjects, and one that refused to condescend to them with easy platitudes or artificial uplift. Despite – or perhaps because of – its sobriety and understatement, it is a moving experience.