The latest film from François Ozon is By the Grace of God – Grâce à Dieu.
The film gives us the story of Alexandre – a man in his 40s who lives in Lyon with his wife and children. Alexandre learns that the priest who abused him when he was a child is still working with children. He decides to take action, and is soon joined by other victims. They band together to lift the burden of silence surrounding their ordeal.
Melvil Poupaud stars as Alexandre, with Denis Ménochet, Swann Arlaud, and Bernard Verley in other key roles.
Ozon has written that he was searching for a story about male fragility, a counterpoint to the compelling stories of women that is usually his inspiration. His research led him here – a true story, based on the actual testimony of men abused by a priest.
As Ozon immersed himself in the experiences of the men who were the victims of this abuse, he toyed with creating a piece of theatre, then a documentary, but ultimately – and, it seems, at the urging of the men involved who wanted their story told in a fresh way – he opted for a fictional treatment of the story.
Speaking about the film, Ozon references Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film, Spotlight – which told the story of how the Boston Globe uncovered systemic abuse within the Catholic Church. The parallels are unavoidable. Albert Solé’s documentary, Examination of Conscience, also comes to mind – there’s a universality in the experience of boys abused by the Catholic Church, and also in the Church’s response, that gives Ozon’s story an easily established authenticity.
One of the challenges that Ozon faced in translating the facts of the case into a screenplay was the sheer number of people involved. Watching the film on first-sitting, it’s not immediately clear how Ozon is going to navigate the breadth of story he’s trying to tell, but he does it successfully – the domino structure of the film reflects the reality of how the case unfolded. It’s not quite a ripple narrative, but more of a relay race as the focus shifts from one protagonist to the next.
This is a dramatic film without major dramatic moments – the facts are known, the abuse is not disputed – what Ozon is exploring is impact and response.
While flashbacks are used to fill in any blanks in the imagination of the audience, the film’s inherent lack of drama could leave some viewers feeling a little underwhelmed. There’s a lot of exposition – voice-overs reading emails being written.
From a film-making perspective, the difficulty that Ozon has is that the emotional arc – the emotional journey that this film takes its audience on – is one that we’ve been on before. This is accomplished film-making, but where does it take us? Where does it leave us? What does it add to our understanding of the systemic sexual abuse condoned and covered up by the Catholic Church? Is it possible for us to be more outraged than we already were?
Ultimately, this is a story that bears repeating. By the Grace of God is Ozon at his most thoughtful, intelligent, and restrained. He found the ultimate example of male fragility and it’s a poignant reminder of the humanity within us all.