Francois Ozon is one of France’s most popular and busiest film makers. His films tend to do well here in England too – he’s often worked with Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool, Under the Sand) and Kristin Scott Thomas (In The House) and when he isn’t with those Francophone grandes dames, you can find him in the campy, starry company of Catherine Deneuve (Potiche, 8 Women) or exploring soft-core erotica with a sex kitten such as Ludivine Sagnier or Marine Vacht.
Ozon’s films are what we want from our French movies – sexy, clever, elegant, witty, playful and poignant.
And so By The Grace of God marks a significant shift. Not that Ozon’s customary elegance isn’t to the fore but, in terms of subject, this a new departure – a gripping, chilling procedural drama based on very recent real life and telling the story of a child abuse scandal that continues to rock the Catholic Church.
It begins with a family man in Lyons, Alexandre Guerin (Melvil Poupaud – so good in Ozon’s 2005 Time to Leave), seeing a local newspaper article about a priest, Bernard Preynat, he thought he’d never see again. It triggers in him a memory of abuse when he was a boy, particularly when he was in the local scouts, a movement which Preynat seems to have used as his particular hunting ground for many years.
Guerin begins to write to the Cardinal and investigate why Preynat is still being assigned positions that leave him in charge of children. It’s a slow case, and very little seems to be done about it, even after several emotional meetings confessing all to persons in authority. And it’s this silence that begins gnawing away at Guerin’s soul and at his very well-heeled family and professional life.
There’s a telling little scene where he’s tapping frantically at his keyboard, refusing to come out for a Sunday walk. His children ask: “What are you doing, Daddy?” The obsessed Guerin responds, without looking up: “I’m writing to the Pope.” It’s manic and extremely touching.
As the despair of it shakes Alexandre to the point of paranoia, Ozon then widens his story to examine how Preynat’s re-emergence – and his past actions – are slowly having effects on others. One man, Francois (played by Denis Menochet), is determined to dig deeper and starts a website, rounding up victims, persuading them to come forward, to join him and to confess and accuse Preynat. It’s not an easy task.
Many of these confessions have passed the “statute of limitations” (too out-of-date to have any legal standing) and many of the men are still scared. Scared of what their families, their wives and girlfriends, might think or what their neighbours, bosses or parents might say.
However, one Mum (played by the redoubtable actress Josiane Balasko) becomes a surprising ally and the movement grows, a grass-roots of people coming forward, traumatised adults now reliving a past of which they’d never spoken – or if they had, which was brushed away and ignored – slowly finding confidence and comfort in numbers.
The abuse has affected the men in very different ways – sexually, mentally, religiously. There are, we learn, a few who have taken their own lives or gone off the rails irreparably. But when the number of victims begins to trickle forth, there’s a very delicate sense of triumph, like a family coming together after trauma.
Ozon, so often the film maker who puts the emotions of his female characters at the centre of his films, explores the fragility of the male psyche here, as well as the corruption of an institution and the abuse of power and how they effect sexuality.
It’s a potent combination and a pleasure to see a film maker known for his emotional empathy really harness his skills here for an almost documentary-like, rigorous shake-down of the Church, but seen through the eyes and hearts of a generation of wounded boys.
The film landed Ozon in court in France after the Church tried to ban the film but, this being France, artistic expression won out and the film reaches us as Ozon intended, using the real names of both victims and of Father Preynat, who is currently appealing to the Vatican against the defrocking that eventually followed the accusations made in By The Grace of God.
It’s shocking stuff, but done with such tenderness and clarity that you’re always rooting for the characters, feeling their pain and their frustrations. Anger is reserved toward the Church rather than God himself, but of course there’s a constant probing of religious faith, too.
Ultimately, this beautifully-controlled film becomes a search for meaning in the face of a ghastly betrayal. The thought of this pain and shame wrought on innocent children will surely bring any viewer to tears.
Listen to a great Francois Ozon interview about this film and the ensuing court case, with me on my London Film Podcast from the LFF on @bbcsounds