By the Grace of God review: François Ozon confronts child abuse in the Catholic Church

This nimbly made story of three survivors bringing a predator to account is a rare film that understands the weight of both trauma and forgiveness.

Roger Clarke

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


By the Grace of God sees an important French director in mid-career pomp taking time out from a perfected style in the service of something sober and admirable. François Ozon, perhaps best known for his teasing psychodramas, here tackles a real-life case concerning the Roman Catholic Church and the failure of the diocese of Lyon to suspend a historical child abuser, one Father Bernard Preynat. This is a story whose consequences and momentum have continued long after the film wrapped.

From its epistolary opening words, By the Grace of God is based around three individuals in particular and more generally the activism of the group La Parole Libérée (known in English as Lift the Burden of Silence): an association with a strong online presence run by the survivors of Preynat’s abuse (his name coincidentally seeming replete with intimations of predation, prayer and the natal). Despite confessing to his activities, Preynat was permitted, against all decency, to continue working in the mainstream Church, and worse, allowed close proximity to children attending confirmation classes.

Ozon has cast Melvil Poupaud (who last worked with him in 2005’s Time to Leave) in the lead role of well-heeled, conservative Alexandre – the character with whom, one is tempted to speculate, he feels the greatest affinity. In dynamic counterpoint, he casts bearish actor Denis Ménochet as the more agitated, atheistic victim François. The third protagonist in this survivors’ trinity is Emmanuel, the most damaged of them all. He is played by the wiry Swann Arlaud (chosen by Ozon after seeing him in Hubert Charuel’s 2017 farming drama Petit Paysan), who delivers a fine, kinetic performance.

These three men are pushing for criminal charges to be brought against Preynat, who is in turn portrayed with steady, censer-swinging obstinacy by Bernard Verley. Verley is well prepared for such a role, having played the cardinal in La Reine Margot (1994), Pontius Pilate in Serge Moati’s Jésus (1999) and even Jesus himself in Luis Bunuel’s satiric Milky Way (1969). He is an actor who has been slowly working backwards from a point of charming divinity to one of priestly bestiality in the lower ranks.

By the Grace of God has a fine, quick purpose in its narrative, which grows more pointed as the story turns into a race against time – since, if the court process is not hurried along, the statute of limitations will disallow dozens of cases. François’s response to the situation is to push his atheism to the point that he wants to formally renounce his childhood religion, and is appalled by the stubborn moral inertia of his broader family. Alexandre discusses everything with his wife and family with uncomplicated ease. Emmanuel, meanwhile, thrives on having a purpose in life, suddenly and miraculously, as part of this campaigning group. He seems to pull back from disaster, even death itself, and removes toxic people from his life, while embracing a renewed relationship with his mother. His chronic illness is also depicted, every spasm and syncope.

There’s one especially good scene that is worth waiting for. At a mediation effort organised by the diocese, Preynat, bleary with self-pity, initially treats the men as the boys they used to be – as if he can’t process them as adults, as if he is hallucinating. But is he simply playing them all? Probably. It’s a haunting, angry showdown, during which Preynat declares that he has a sickness, claiming to be a victim himself and hiding deceitfully under his own self-diagnosis. The way that issues of health, illness and welfare are twisted and coerced by establishment players using the language of kindness and restoration is one of the most disgusting aspects of the tale.

From the very beginning, there is no ambiguity about the offences. Though Ozon was in close touch with the men he depicts, he decided against contacting the Roman Catholic establishment, as there is, given Preynat’s confession, only one side to the story. Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), whom we see in the first shot gazing across the city of Lyon like some latter-day Rhone-Alpes Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Régine Maire (Martine Erhel), the psychologist in charge of providing support to victims of priests, are depicted as deeply conflicted, part of an establishment simply refusing to learn lessons yet parroting the language of modern therapy.

By the Grace of God (2019)

By the Grace of God (2019)

Much of the film is speedily and efficiently established in voiceover by Alexandre’s correspondence back and forth with Maire and Barbarin. But it’s not all docudrama, and sometimes Ozon can’t resist a splash of stylisation, notably in the flashbacks to the scout camps of the 1980s, when the offences took place. These are dreamlike, their colours highly saturated. The camera lingers a few extra seconds on scenes of incipient predation with a delicacy that only a master like Ozon could achieve.

At one point Alexandre’s wife tells him he’ll be a victim all his life if he forgives Father Preynat. This is just one of a number of ethical dilemmas posed by the film, which doesn’t go with the idea of redemption in the usual default mode of Hollywood culture. The Church’s chief quandary here is not the crime itself, but the fact that Preynat will not ask his victims for forgiveness. No doubt some Church conservatives will characterise By the Grace of God as a takedown, but this is simply not the case. Ozon is not attacking the Roman Catholic Church, but chiding it from the perspective of someone who understands it. The film points to papal pronouncements on the subject that dioceses around the world are proving slow to adopt.

The film has more than one speed. Ozon adapts his editing and lighting to suit each of his three characters. Emmanuel’s sections are dynamic, almost like a thriller. For François, the tone is domestic, lower-middle-class melodrama; for Alexandre it’s cool and cerebral, reflecting his self-control and privilege. In what is an innovation for the director, two cameras are used for certain scenes to allow more fluidity and fewer retakes. By all accounts, Ozon made the film very quickly, with a small crew and with constrictions he hadn’t experienced since Under the Sand (2000). The score, composed by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine – best known for their work on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (2017) – resists the temptation to overdo the cheap sentiment of choral music featuring boy trebles to the fore, often using simple chords instead, cradling rather than dominating the film.

More than 70 alleged victims have been identified by La Parole Libérée as this case rolls on in the public eye. Most recently, in July this year, the 73-year-old Preynat was defrocked by the Vatican – though the date of his criminal trial has yet to be set at the time of writing. In the majority of cases, the statute of limitations has expired.

Ozon is not someone you would normally expect to eschew his usual gothic to make public-service announcements in the manner of this film, but what it shares with his other works is a deep understanding of the way trauma endures in the world. This film is an amazing act of generosity by a major director.


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