Tuesday 12 November 2019

To hell and back: "By the Grace of God"

The French writer-director François Ozon has become so prolific in recent years, without ever matching the transgressive thrills of his first films, that distributors, critics and audiences alike have started to shrug. This may be what happens when a name director settles into a groove, receiving yearly funding to make lightweight caprices for easy rotation on the festival and arthouse circuits: you become part of the scenery, or get taken for granted. By the Grace of God feels like Ozon stretching himself, in attempting something far weightier than the artful divertissements he's been peddling of late. Drawing on real-life events, it has subject matter one might well dig into, and which sticks in the mind and throat: the Catholic Church's haphazard handling of historical sex abuse allegations, and the impact this has had on the lives of the now adult victims. Initially, Ozon takes an idiosyncratic line, laying out the basics of his plot via the correspondence one victim struck up with the authorities: very quickly, there is a sense of a back-and-forth, an ongoing conversation that widens or contracts depending on the climate. Yet these letters also represent a novel way of deepening our involvement, and amplifying the frustration and rage these characters feel. What Ozon is interested in here is that old maxim about the arc of history eventually bending towards justice - but what he really wants to show us is the hard, complicated, often uncomfortable work involved in pushing it that way.

Our man of letters is Alexandre, a handsome, successful banker raising five kids in latter-day Lyon with a loving wife - exactly the kind of character you'd expect to be played by inveterate smoothie Melvil Poupaud. We join him as he's tentatively prising the lid off the box in which he's compartmentalised his feelings pertaining to several incidents of abuse he suffered at a priest's hands during scout camp in the 1980s, a process expedited upon learning said priest, Father Preynat (Bernard Verley), has returned to a neighbouring parish and started teaching children. It's soon clear, however, that one of the feelings Alexandre unleashes is a jittery, all-consuming anger that threatens his well-appointed, well-ordered lifestyle. The letters are, for one of the parties involved, an attempt to extract justice through the proper channels - what we hear in their words is a decent man striving to address a terrible indecency - yet they're also, for the other party, a delaying tactic, a means of dancing around a subject nobody really wants to go public with. Here is another ritual the Catholic church has had considerable practice with: "All in good time," Alexandre is promised by the clubbable new Cardinal appointed to root out and investigate instances of sex abuse, yet you and I might might think, as Alexandre thinks, that thirty years have provided time and opportunity enough to defrock and prosecute the priest in question.

I'll confess here to a few early reservations that were set aside as the film adopted new lines of inquiry, the better to get to the heart of this matter. Having burst through with 1998's épater le bourgeois provocation Sitcom, Ozon has increasingly been drawn towards characters with time and money on their side. Alexandre is a prime example of this tendency, but placing close dramatic focus on someone so demonstrably privileged actually punches up how the Catholic Church's predatory wing has spared no-one: he speaks, most eloquently, for all those victims who don't have the time - and perhaps the literacy - to initiate a letter-writing campaign. There is also the primacy Ozon affords to those self-same letters: very much a choice, and something of a tic, in that it means around 80% of the film's opening hour is smothered in Poupaud's hushed, increasingly harried voiceover. It's a considered choice, all the same, in that it allows those scenes that aren't narrated to break free - they're a breath, if not necessarily of fresh air. Ozon's tactics become clearer in the second half upon the introduction of François, a second victim of the same priest, played by a bulked-up Denis Ménochet. Less a negotiator like Alexandre than a raging bull keen to charge the Cardinals with horns fully extended, François is a brilliant contrast achieved at the casting stage: a more obvious victim than Alexandre - you imagine him as a chubby, slow child - he's also, it transpires, capable of a more robust response.

The dramatic coups don't stop there. The quiet emphasis Ozon puts on Alex and François' children underlines how these fathers go digging into their own pasts with an eye to reshaping the future: the movie hinges on a thorny question of how we look after our young. Nuances pile up. As one plaintiff in a proposed class action lawsuit - more of a reformer than the pugilist François, less aggrieved than Alexandre - puts it: "I'm not doing this against the Church. I'm doing it for the Church." And there's an inspired flourish amid one priest-victim confrontation involving the tu and vous forms of address, and their implied levels of familiarity. What's most impressive about By the Grace of God, however, is its overall shape - perhaps decompartmentalisation might be the right term here. What Ozon is really dramatising, with a newfound maturity, is how men locked for many years inside their own traumas came to find one another - and that, the film submits, is where that historical course correction mentioned earlier comes from: via some vast collective shove. 

We might still wonder whether - as with Almodóvar, the filmmaker Ozon looked to be imitating at the start of his career - the transgressive thrills this director went for in his days as an enfant terrible have been left behind for good. Although it strikes a few lighter notes as these very different personalities coincide (see François' outrageous skywriting proposal), By the Grace of God generally unfolds with a procedural sobriety, a determination to at no point be sensational. (One of the task force investigators has a poster for 2015's Spotlight prominently positioned in his office, and that film's influence can be seen almost everywhere else you look.) Yet it's stirring to discover an Ozon movie that has been removed of any surface irony, and configured instead to play to its maker's strengths: narrative invention, a supreme attentiveness around and sensitivity towards performers, and an abundant sympathy for the marginalised. This is a film that asks to be taken seriously; in doing so, By the Grace of God aligns itself with any victim, anywhere, at any time.

By the Grace of God is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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