By the Grace of God first look: François Ozon delineates a triptych of church trauma cases

François Ozon tamps down his natural filmmaking flair to tell the urgent, ripped-from-the-headlines story of Lyon’s Catholic Church abuse scandal.

Jamie Dunn

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Melvil Poupaud as Alexandre (right) in By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu)

Melvil Poupaud as Alexandre (right) in By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu)

François Ozon has always enjoyed surprising audiences, be it by the transgressive content of his films or his commendable reluctance to pin his flag to any one genre. His latest, By the Grace of God, might be his biggest surprise yet, with this former enfant terrible and perennially playful director delivering his first no-nonsense film. The less generous might call it a little dry, but you don’t need fireworks when you’re telling an explosive ripped-from-the-headlines story.

Ozon represses all his directorial urges – the structural trickery, the genre-hopping, the sly humour – to tell how a group of men from Lyon have taken Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of the city, to trial, alleging he has knowingly sheltered Reverend Bernard Preynat, a self-confessed paedophile priest who abuse them as children.

A film inspired by a famous court case is nothing new, but so fleet-footed is Ozon as a filmmaker – this is his 17th feature since his 1998 debut Sitcom – By the Grace of God’s production was actually concurrent with the trial. In fact, he’s raced ahead of the real-life case, with the Berlinale premiere taking place a month before the verdict is due.

Nine victims of Preynat’s abuses have summoned Barbarin, but Ozon’s film centres on three of them. We begin in 2014, with 40-year-old banker Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) learning in passing that the priest who abused him when he was a boy scout is still working with children.

Poupaud as Alexandre

Poupaud as Alexandre

Alexandre appears to have a perfect life, the beautiful wife, the happy brood of five, but his trauma runs deep. Poupaud plays him with an almost supercilious demeanor. He’s so calm and put-together that it’s all the more devastating the few times his façade breaks and his handsome features crumple – he pulled off a similar trick in Ozon’s Time to Leave (2005), where he played a swaggering photographer who has to come to terms with his own terminal illness.

Poupaud is a compelling presence, but the opening stretch devoted to his initiating of the case is the most fibrous of By the Grace of God’s generous runtime. Told through the series of written correspondences Alexander has with the Archbishop, it becomes clear during the back and forth that the church would like to sweep the issue under the carpet. Anger should be bubbling, but a series of strongly worded emails, each dictated in voiceover, does not a compelling drama make.

By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu, 2019)

The film gains some heat with the introduction of the more proactive Francois (Denis Menochet), who takes the baton from Alexandre to go public to the press about the cover-up. Francois also seeks out more of Preynat’s victims, one of whom is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), whose whole life has been tragically thrown off course as a result of the sexual abuse. Arlaud’s wiry, melancholic performance brings plenty of poignancy, you just wish we’d gotten to his character’s story much earlier.

Despite this lack of an emotional thrust, this is forceful stuff from Ozon, and calls to mind the unfussy filmmaking of Ken Loach, as well as Thomas McCarthy’s Oscar-winner Spotlight, both in its subject matter and attention to procedural detail. Whether this will prove to be a lasting piece of social justice filmmaking might depend on the result of the real trial on 7 March. For now, By the Grace of God is a welcome act of solidarity with a group of men who have been betrayed and ignored by the very institution sworn to protect the helpless.

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