MOVIES Ozon layer, French director’s new film looks at church coverup

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A few years back, French director Francois Ozon, whose films—among them Swimming Pool, 8 Women and L’Amant Double—had largely centered on female characters, decided that his next project should focus on men and their emotional fragility instead.

As Ozon, who is gay, researched potential subjects, he chanced upon a website comprised of testimonials from people who’d been subjected to abuse from clergy within the Catholic Church—particularly persons who allege they’d suffered at the hands of former Lyon, France-based priest Rev. Bernard Preynat.

Preynat, who was mainly active from the ’70s through the ’90s, oversaw many scouting trips for young boys. He admitted to a number of the allegations and was eventually defrocked. Cardinal Phillippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, was convicted in 2019 of covering up Preynat’s crimes and received a six-month suspended jail sentence that he has appealed.

Ozon brought the film resulting from his research on the case, By the Grace of God, to the Chicago International Film Festival ( CIFF ) on Oct. 22. The film’s Chicago release begins Nov. 8.

“I was very moved by their testimonies, so I decided to meet some of the survivors,” recalled Ozon the day after the CIFF screening. “They told me their story, and I decided to do some research. I understood—very fast—that what interested me most was the families. The child abuse was like a ticking time bomb that reached everybody. But it was not my first idea to make a film about pedophilia in the church. It was not my goal at all.”

By the Grace of God, which is Ozon’s 20th film, is different both thematically and stylistically from the director’s previous repertoire. While Ozon has previously never shied from stylistic flourishes or pronounced tweaks to genre conventions, as well as graphic depictions of violence and sexuality, the new film is by design a straightforward, character-driven docudrama.

“It was the first time I made a film about true events,” he said. “It was a new adventure.”

By the Grace of God centers on three principal characters, all adult survivors of abuse by Preynat ( played in the film by Bernard Verley ). They’ve each struggled and adapted to their residual trauma differently: Banker Alexandre ( Melvil Poupaud ) is still an observant Catholic; Francois ( Denis Menochet ) has for most of his life shrugged off the episodes; and Emmanuel ( Swann Arlaud ) has struggled both professionally and in his interpersonal relationships. Each man receives varying degrees of support from different members of their family.

All the characters were based on real people, Ozon said.

“I respected reality,” he added. “You don’t need to invent anything. For Alexandre and Francois, I kept to reality. For Emmanuel, I made some small changes and mixed some [stories from] survivors who suffered a lot.”

By the Grace of God depicts how the men and their families got the message out, mainly via the internet, about Preynat, as well as their efforts to hold the church accountable for the priest’s actions. Ozon kept a low profile while filming the story, knowing the subject matter was likely to engender controversy. He filmed exteriors in Lyon, but church interiors—which would have required approval from Lyon religious officials—were shot in Belgium and Paris.

The film’s subject matter invites comparison to 2015’s Spotlight, which detailed investigations into abuses by Boston church personnel. Ozon said that he welcomed the connection from viewers, and one character has a movie poster for Spotlight on their wall, just as their real-life counterpart did.

“I like to think of the two films as complementary,” he said.

Ozon said that he’s had no career repercussions for his being openly gay within the French film industry, adding that, in fact, the idea of being “openly gay” is very much a U.S. construct.

“In France, I’m first a director, and we don’t speak about the sexuality of directors,” he explained. “That’s a way to catalog [people] that is more Anglo-Saxon than in French culture. But of course I’m openly gay, I have no problem with that. But I’m always surprised to be described as a ‘gay director.’ I’m a director, but in the film, I can be ‘straight’—I can show straight people. Though I’m gay, I’m able to not only show gay people in my films. It gives me a sensitivity.”

Indeed, in a 2005 interview with the Independent, Ozon jokingly described his cinematic perspective as being “polymorphously perverse”; in its classical and clinical sense, that term refers to getting sexual gratification outside normative sexual behaviors. But Ozon used the phrase to refer to writing from the disparate vantage points of his characters. Now, years later, he thinks that his particular usage of “polymorphous perversity” still applies to his process.

“When you make a film, you have to adapt to all points of view,” he explained. “For example, with this story, I realized everything was complex. It was not black and white, the good guys against the bad guys. It was complex within the families and the church. It was interesting for me, because everybody had their reasons. As a director, when you want to tell the story, you have to show the point of view of all the characters.”

He is now at work on his next film, which is to be titled Summer of ’85.

“It’s a coming-of-age film,” he said. “It’s a love story about teenagers, in the spirit of my first movies, my short films. I really needed some light and love after this story.”

See musicboxtheatre.com/films/by-the-grace-of-god .

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