I lost [my faith] when I was a teenage child because, discovering my sexuality, I saw the hypocrisy of the Church about sex.
This past March, a French archbishop was found guilty of covering up child sexual abuse by a priest in his diocese in what has been dubbed “the trial of silence” by the French media in yet another crushing blow to the Catholic Church. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, was handed down a six-month suspended prison sentence for failing to report to the authorities accusations made against Father Bernard Preynat. This is the subject of François Ozon’s most politically engaged and incendiary film of his career, By the Grace of God, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival—where it won the Silver Bear (the Grand Jury Prize)—a month prior to the verdict being delivered. The film’s title comes from a now legendary press conference given by Barbarin in 2016 (portrayed in the movie) when he shocked France: giving thanks to the lord that the statutes of limitations had run out on alleged abuse. The phrase became so well-known in Lyon, in fact, Ozon used a fake working title, Alexandre, while shooting his film there in secret.
Ozon once intended to make a documentary exposé on the subject, but the real-life victims suggested he make a different kind of journalistic inquiry instead, “a French-style Spotlight,” referencing Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner in which reporters at The Boston Globe expose a massive cover-up of child molestation within the local Catholic archdiocese. The difference here is that Ozon’s film is not from the perspective of journalists but the survivors.
The film begins in 2014 with 40-year-old family man Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) learning that the priest who abused him when he was a boy scout is still working with children. The revelation ignites almost 45 minutes of breathless epistolary action, as Alexandre and local church officials launch into a volley of emails that reach into the darkest corners of his past. The story widens from there, as Ozon fractures the case against Preynat into a tripartite narrative that’s passed from one character to another like the baton in a relay race. As Alexandre sparks fire in other survivors, the brunt of the story is shifted to François (Denis Ménochet), a jocular and darkly funny guy who’s been a devout atheist since the day the priest laid his hands on him. François proves more proactive in his search for other victims, one of whom is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who’s nothing if not the most fragile among them. A violent epileptic who can’t even read a headline about the priest without convulsing on the floor, his whole life has been tragically thrown off course as a result of the sexual abuse. From there, the indignities continue to snowball, uncovering hundreds of victims.
By the Grace of God bears little resemblance to anything Ozon has done before. The auteur has always enjoyed surprising audiences with transgressive content and in his commendable reluctance to pin his flag to any one genre, but this 18th feature is perhaps his most unexpected yet. The former enfant terrible and perennially playful director mesmerizes with his first no-nonsense film.
By the Grace of God is now playing in select theaters with a national roll out to follow.
This marks your 18th feature. You’re incredibly prolific, and you’ve shown a reluctance to pin your flag to any one genre. By the Grace of God charts new territory for you once again. It has also been called your most serious and most incendiary. Do you see it in this same way or is this simply the next film in your mind?
For me, it’s just the next film. I’ve made many films about strong women and this time I wanted to make a film about men. I wanted to show men expressing their sensitivity. When I was looking for a subject, I discovered by chance on the Internet the testimonies of the victims abused in Lyon. I read all the testimonies and I was very moved. So I met with the survivors and it’s then I decided to tell their stories.
I did read that you found your way into this subject online, first learning about the Lift the Burden of Silence Association. There are so many victims and accounts of abuse out there. What drew you to Alexandre’s story in particular?
Alexandre was the first one who began to fight. He was at first alone. Very often when you’re abused, you think you’re alone. But when he discovered that the priest was still closely working with children, he decided to start the fight in the church. Also, what I liked in his testimony was the fact that he’s very religious. He’s very Catholic. He trusted the institution of the Church. That was very interesting because you can see him changing throughout the film. First he believes the cardinal and that the Church will do something to this priest. Step by step, over the course of two years, he realized that they will do nothing and decided to take the fight to the press. After that, there’s a kind of relay race between different men and that’s what interested me in terms of the structure of the film. It was quite new to create such a structure: you lose the lead character after 45 minutes and you begin with a new one. That was the challenge of the script and the film.
Going back even further, I understand that you were originally intending to make a film about male fragility in more general terms—a movie tentatively called The Crying Man.
Yes. Maybe I was tired of women. [laughs] Maybe I wanted to focus my attention on men because I have more maturity and it’s easier for me now to speak about men. Maybe before it was more difficult for me. That’s why in the past I decided very often to explore themes about women.
More often in cinema, emotions are the realm of women and action the realm of men.
That’s true. More often, men in movies are action, you know? Women are experiencing emotions. I wanted to change a little bit this hue about men and women. But women also move in this film, too, and they’re very important. The wives and the mothers play a very big part in the stories of these men. They were very supportive.
Soon after the film’s premiere, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was handed down a six-month suspended prison sentence. Even if that was not your primary goal or intention in making By the Grace of God, which I understand was once envisioned as a play and then subsequently a documentary exposé, it’s undeniably ripped from the headlines with power to influence public opinion. Were you surprised by the verdict?
I was very happy with the verdict, you know? Very often people will ask a director, “Do you think cinema can change the world?” Very often we say, “Of course not”—except maybe the most pretentious directors. [laughs] Usually I say, “No.” But in the case of this film, things changed greatly. After the release and the success of this film, Cardinal Barbarin was condemned and the priest was defrocked, which is huge for the victims. We owed the victims that victory and that’s what we wanted from the start. The release of the film, some help from the media, and the fact that the film was very successful in France were very helpful in finding this victory for the survivors.
It’s clear that this film is not about good vs. evil. It’s about the complexity of the situation at hand, the victims, and the institution itself. It’s clear that the movie isn’t actually out to condemn the Church, but rather to expose its contradictions. Alexandre says so himself: “I’m doing this for the Church, not against it.” Have you received accusations about the film being too objective or maybe not being objective enough?
I think before watching the film everybody was nervous about it, especially the people from the Church. But once they saw the film, they thought the film was very honest. I think the success of the film also comes from the Catholics because they came to see the film, and it was respectfully done. They came undisguised. They know there’s a problem in the institution, and that because of the character of Alexandre it was possible for them to identify themselves with him and to understand the fight of these survivors. This is important: the Catholics know there is a big problem and they are very upset by it. There’s always this struggle between their religion and paedophilia. They want to turn the page.
It’s an impossibly big, important, and touchy subject to explore. Didier is a minor character who refuses to file a complaint because he fears of being branded a “pedophile victim for life.” This is the reason why so many victims of sexual abuse remain silent. You also reference in passing how pedophilia is sometimes linked to homosexuality. Were you overwhelmed in your research and writing process in figuring out what you would include and what you would leave behind?
No, I would say that it was very rich. I did an investigation almost like a journalist. I had so many elements for the script, which was great. Very often reality is stronger than fiction. There were things I didn’t have to invent! All the facts I discovered were very amazing. For example, I realized that some wives of the characters were abused, too. That was a surprise to me. In the writing, I wouldn’t have thought to invent something like that. Even if I had, maybe I would’ve thought that it was too much. It’s all truth. It was very interesting for me to use all of these real facts.
As for the people who aren’t able to come forward, it’s because very often you need to find maturity in your own life, you know? People very often are able to speak out when they’re 40 years old and they have a family and a job. At this moment they’re able to say, “You know what happened to me when I was a child?” Very often young people of 20 or 30 years old are not yet able to speak out. It takes a lot of time. For women, too. You see that women are able to come out about rapes much later. They need time because very often they think they were responsible for what happened to them.
Alexandre speaks out in his fatherhood. His children play a huge factor.
Of course. Very often people are able to speak out when they see their own children at the age when they were abused.
How have the real-life survivors responded after watching your film?
They were very disturbed because they didn’t know the script. Of course I met them for many interviews and they gave me many intimate details—maybe many secrets—about themselves. But when they discovered the film, it was a little bit strange for them because, you know, it was very near. The real-life events occurred between 2014 and 2016. It was very close in their minds. They didn’t have enough distance yet. But I think they were very moved. Some of them were afraid of the reactions from their families, their parents, their brothers… But actually, they were very touched by the film and had no problems. They were happy because the film helped the fight of a loved one. With the release of the film, some new victims came out and many people sent a lot of money to the Lift the Burden of Silence Association.
In Lyon, you filmed in secret with the working title Alexandre. The scandal around Cardinal Barbarin was very fresh in the public consciousness there. How much did that complicate your work as a filmmaker?
You’re right, we shot the film in secret. We knew it would’ve been impossible to shoot in the real places, especially inside the actual church. The shots outside the church were shot in the city of Lyon, but we lied about the script and the title of the film so people thought it was just a story between three friends. We decided to film all the interiors of the church in Belgium. If you were to shoot in Lyon, you would have to ask Cardinal Barbarin. It was impossible to ask him such a thing.
Are you religious yourself, François? I read somewhere that you grew up quite Catholic.
Yes, I had a Catholic education. But I lost it when I was a teenage child because, discovering my sexuality, I saw the hypocrisy of the Church about sex. So I lost my faith. But I have to confess: I’m very afraid when I’m on a plane. When I fly, I make a small prayer, and I believe in God again.
Regine Maire’s scenes are disturbing—simply the fact that a church psychologist appointed to provide support for victims actually exists. There’s a coldness to her presence, even though she sympathizes with the survivors. It’s an ambiguous space of morality and religion that enters a legal framework. In the end, when Alexandre’s son asks him, “Do you still believe in God?” I wonder if he’s really asking, “Do you believe in the Catholic institution?”
You’re right. You’re totally right. I think the real question should be, “Do you still believe in the institution?” I think faith and that are two different things. I have Alexandre’s answer because I asked him this question. But I decided not to put that in the film, you know? The purpose is to ask this question of the audience. It’s up to you to decide what’s what.
I had a chance to sit down with Melvil Poupaud, an extremely open conversationalist, a couple of years ago and he had something interesting to say about actors’ relationships to directors. Can I quote him for you?
“It’s a very subtle relationship that you need to have with your director. If you’re too close, it’s not good. If you dislike the director, it’s not good because you won’t want to give him everything you have. When a director looks at you, it shouldn’t be too seductive because then you feel uneasy, especially working with women. It happens with men, too. But if you feel too much sexual tension, for instance, it can make you feel like you can do whatever you want and overact. It’s a very, very strange relationship that should be analyzed at some point. This could be the subject of a next book. Also, sometimes you get very close to a director where he no longer hires you. He doesn’t think about you anymore as an actor, but as a friend. That can be disappointing.”
I think it’s different for each case, you know? You don’t have the same relationship with every actor. With Melvil, we’re very close now. He’s actually a little double of myself, I think. I heard this from a great actor whose name I’m forgetting who said, “If you don’t know how to act, you have to look at the director and act as he does in life.” I think Melvil is a little bit like this. I think he learned this when he worked with Éric Rohmer, a very important filmmaker in his career. I think Melvil is very clever, you know? He started out as an actor when he was 8—a child—so he has a lot of experience. I think he likes directors. If you look at his filmography, he very often tries to work with an auteur. Again, we are very close now. We trust each other.
You’ve worked with him three times now, four times if we include your next movie, Eté 84.
No, Summer of 85. I changed the year. You know—when we have a good relationship, when we understand each other, I have the feeling that, “Yes, I can have some new vision with this actor and I would like to work again with them.” Melvil, as I told you, is like a double of myself. I see him a little bit like that so it’s always a pleasure to work with him.