By the Grace of God
Renowned for his unique visual approach through his enveloping “cinema of the body” style, François Ozon returns this week with his straight-from-the-headlines investigative study and statement picture By the Grace of God. The first release since his daring 2017 erotic thriller L’Amant Double, the film becomes the next addition to the New Wave portfolio. Groundbreaking and rule-bashing, the director’s trademark attention to human characteristics and bodies has created a cult faction. But By the Grace of God offers something very different for Ozon fans and cinephiles alike.
Telling fiction taken from fact, the film traces the lives of a number of men connected by the horrors of their childhood summer camp experiences. Lyon resident Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) is a sharp-suited lawyer and clean-cut family man who gradually confronts a demon that has been hidden inside him for over 30 years. As a minor, he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), and – not to his surprise – he is not the only one. Years later, Alexandre discovers that the priest who abused him went unpunished by the Vatican and is still working with children. Uniting with others abused in the past, Alexandre begins a battle with not only the law, but the deepest inner constructs of the Catholic Church.
After its win of the Jury Grand Prix at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, the anticipation surrounding the public release of Ozon’s latest spine-chilling picture could not be higher. And yet as a whole the film is surprisingly naturalistic and conventional in its portrayal, abandoning abstract visions and instead feasting on the sheer monstrosity – and toe-curling reality – of its subject matter. By the Grace of God is relentless and ever so slightly passive in its buildup, beginning at a gentle pace as email correspondences between victim, psychologist and Cardinal drive the narrative. But before too long, as the characters and story develop, we are flying through months of painful investigation whose toll on the men’s mental wellbeing is increasingly apparent.
Such a penetrating study of present history requires sensitive direction and a cast to match. Thankfully, this is a successful expedition for the actors involved, with powerful performances from Denis Ménochet and Éric Caravaca, among others. None is more staggering than that of Swann Arlaud as Emmanuel, who sensationally wreaks havoc over the audience’s emotional stability as the most damaged of the abused men.
By the Grace of God is not visually a spectacle, even bland in its cinematography, but it is the film’s message that possesses the real power and purpose that Ozon evidently wishes to purvey. It is moving to say the least, with the ensemble bringing a forceful sense of awareness to this wake-up call for the religious establishment and the world. It is something different from Ozon, but just as hard-hitting.
By the Grace of God is released in select cinemas on 25th October 2019.
Watch the trailer for By the Grace of God here: