An elegant and powerful depiction of how abuse changes its victims and how it changes the people and institutions who choose to protect the perpetrators of that abuse.
By the Grace of God, François Ozon’s drama about a real Catholic Church child abuse case unfolding in France as we speak, is an elegant and powerful depiction of how abuse changes its victims and how it changes the people and institutions who choose to protect the perpetrators of that abuse. Though fans of Ozon’s prior work – particularly bolder films like 8 Women and Swimming Pool – may find themselves a bit underwhelmed by the film’s earnest, straightforward presentation, it will be a struggle for anyone to find fault in how sensitively and seriously the director treats his subject matter.
Though it will invite inevitable comparisons to Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Best Picture-winning chronicle of the child abuse coverup within the Catholic Church, Ozon chooses to focus on the victims where Spotlight focused on the “breaking” of the case itself. By the Grace of God narrows in on four men who were abused by real-life priest Bernard Preynat (portrayed here by Bernard Verley). These four men are semi-fictionalized versions of Preynat’s real victims, whose stories Ozon collected when he was intending to make a documentary about the case. Ozon’s primary focus is Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a 40-year Lyon banker. Alexandre and his wife Marie (Aurélia Petit) are the parents of five children, which factors in to his decision to finally come forward with his account of the abuse he suffered as a boy scout under Preynat in his youth. Poupad gives a beautifully measured performance, with his relatively plain Alexandre revealing deep wells of concealed emotion while telling his story to his children at his wife’s gentle urging, while confronting Preynat (who is still working with youth) and while taking his case to Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of Lyon who at first denies knowing about the abuse. These early scenes are the film’s strongest, as the show the damaged yet ever-faithful Alexandre’s sense of purpose and desire for justice grow despite his gentle demeanor.
When Alexandre fails to force change within the church, he seeks out other victims, which include atheist François (Denis Ménochet), calm Gilles (Éric Caravaca) and all-around-mess Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud). All of the men’s lives have been significantly impacted by Preynat’s abuse, but Emmanuel is out the most outwardly haunted. His relationship is emotionally abusive, he can’t keep a job and his eyes are simultaneously skittish and dead. Ozon eventually shifts his focus from Alexandre to Emmanuel, and it is a smart move as it enables Ozon to show how the ball that Alexandre gets rolling sweeps up and empowers even the most tragic of cases.
Though the film ends before the results of Preynat and Barbarin’s real trials came in, the trials themselves aren’t really Ozon’s point here, anyways. What he shows is how the change in these victims’ lives comes when they find one another. In sharing their stories with one another and supporting one another, they have the strength to speak out. In a beautiful moment towards the end of the film, Alexandre’s wife Marie reveals to Emmanuel that she, too, was a victim of abuse as a child. Alexandre having Marie enabled him to come forward, which then emboldened other victims to do so. Even though Ozon has a keen eye for injustice and doesn’t hesitate to show it, this theme of victims of abuse holding one another up and giving each other strength is the heart of the film.
François Ozon has been Hitchockian in his career: he’s been crazy, he’s been playful and he’s been edgy. But with By the Grace of God he puts a true-life story in the forefront in sensitive, elegant fashion, and the result is powerful and important. Though Preynat has been defrocked in the real world and Barbarin demoted, the true stories of how the church (including the Pope) have covered for and covered up these men’s crimes is shocking. Ozon’s telling will take the story further out into the world, and his version puts the power back in the victims’ hands.