By Alex Ramon.
Speaking with Film International last year, François Ozon asserted that, for him, “the story comes first” when choosing a project. In his new film, By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu) Ozon draws for the first time on current events for the narrative, telling the story of how a group of men from Lyon have brought Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of the city, to trial, alleging that he has knowingly protected Reverend Bernard Preynat, a paedophile priest who abused them as children. While nine victims of Preynat’s abuses have summoned Barbarin, Ozon’s film centres on three protagonists: the 40-year-old banker Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), the combative atheist François (Denis Ménochet) and the vulnerable Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud). A sober, sensitive film, that, in typical Ozon fashion, contrasts markedly with its predecessor, the twisty erotic thriller Double Lover (2017), By the Grace of God won the Silver Bear Grand Jury prize at this year’s Berlinale and constitutes another distinguished addition to the director’s body of work. I spoke to Ozon at London Film Festival, where the personable filmmaker talked about reactions to By the Grace of God, how basing a film on real events impacted upon the creative process, his admiration for Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel (2018) and Frank Beauvais’s Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019), and how his forthcoming film represents a return to his roots.
When we spoke last year about Double Lover you’d just finished shooting By the Grace of the God but couldn’t reveal much about it, except that the film was about men and based on a true story. So what drew you to this story and encouraged you to make a film based on current events for the first time?
It wasn’t so much that I was looking to make a film about current events, more that I wanted to make a film about male fragility, one in which you would see male characters expressing their emotions and sensitivity. So I was searching for a subject in order to do that. Then by chance I discovered online the testimonies on the La Parole Libérée website. I was very moved so I got in touch with the survivors. They told me their stories and I used this as the basis to create the script.
How did making a story based on real events change your creative process? Did you feel any restriction or simply a sense of responsibility to tell this story?
Actually, in some ways creation is easier when you have to respect strong facts. I didn’t have to invent anything. Indeed, many of the details I couldn’t have invented myself as the scriptwriter, for example the discovery that Alexandre’s wife was abused too. I thought, “Oh my God, it’s too much!” Truth is stranger, and stronger, than fiction sometimes. So it was very interesting for me to make this work because usually everything comes from my head, from my imagination, or from books. This time the events were so strong that it became more about the construction. I realised that it was like a relay race: Alexandre starts out alone then the policeman begins an investigation, he finds François, François decides to start the association, and so on.
The film does feel like a relay in which the baton passes from one character to another. In that sense it’s quite fresh in terms of film form.
Yes, exactly. It was challenging because I didn’t plan to make a film in which, after 45 minutes, the lead character disappears! Of course I had Psycho in mind, but this is hardly the same kind of movie! But I liked the idea that, after 45 minutes, you lose Alexandre, discover another character, and then Alexandre reappears – and you’re happy to see him back. I can’t think of many films that have this structure; it’s more common in certain TV series, in which one episode is about one character and then the focus shifts in subsequent episodes. In fact, my producer and I decided that if we couldn’t get the money to make the film, we’d make it for television as a series. But we found the money, fortunately.
How was the process of meeting with and interviewing the survivors?
It was like a journalistic investigation. I spoke with them a lot and they trusted me. Spotlight had just been released at the time and they were very moved by that because it was the same kind of story. In a way they were waiting for a kind of “French Spotlight” from me, I think. They told me very private things, things they’d never told journalists. Actually the families had never spoken to the press at all, so it was very interesting to have all these point of view to make the script. The process was so strong that I thought I’d make a documentary about them, but they didn’t want to speak on camera again in that way and to tell all these private things. So I decided to make a fiction film out of the interviews.
And what do you feel that making a fiction feature adds to our understanding of the case? What does it give us that other media accounts don’t, or can’t?
I think it’s important because it gives you the victims’ points of view in a detailed way. When you read a report in a newspaper or magazine, it’s short and you can’t identify in the same way as when you’re watching a film. I realised, too, that the power of cinema is strong, and that some people are afraid of it. For example, Preynat’s lawyers tried to stop the release. They knew there was nothing new in my film – all the facts were already in the press – but they were afraid of the power of a cinematic representation.
That must have been stressful.
Yes, it was, very, because we didn’t know until the day before if the film would be released. We were lucky to have won a prize at Berlin, and the French press supported us and said it was important that the film was seen. And actually many people from the Church attacked the film before even seeing it. Once they’d seen it, they often said that there wasn’t a problem, that the things shown in the film were already known. And in fact many Catholics said they loved the film, because it made them understand the victims’ situation.
And it’s not an anti-Catholic film, per se.
You’re right. The fact that the lead character, Alexandre, is Catholic was very helpful; if all the characters were atheists like Francois, it would be more problematic. But Alexandre retains his belief in God, even as he loses faith in the Church as institution. As such, it’s more a film against the power of institutions in general.
How was the casting process? You’re reuniting with Melvil Poupaud for the third time after Time to Leave (2005) and Le Refuge (2009) and you worked with Denis Ménochet before on In the House (2012). Did you write with these and the other actors in mind?
No, because at first I wrote with the real people in mind. To be honest, it was quite complex to make a casting when you know the real people – and even a bit disturbing, because I had so much contact with the survivors and knew them and their families. At some point I had to say “Stop!” to that, and to start thinking about the characters and actors. For Melvil and Denis it was quite obvious, because I’ve known them for a long time. Melvil is very Catholic, very religious, so I knew he was touched by the character, and Denis is so powerful, with a big presence, but such child-like fragility too, that I knew he would be great in this role. I didn’t know Swann Arlaud before but I saw him in a French film by Hubert Charuel called Petit Paysan in which he was beautiful and very sensitive, so I wanted to meet him for Emmanuel.
Did the actors meet with their real life counterparts?
No, I didn’t want them to, and they didn’t want to, either. They wanted to create characters. They had enough in the script, and they saw some TV interviews but they they didn’t meet until the premiere, which was quite a shock for everyone! Because they actually ended up very close to the real life people.
You’ve said in the past that working with male actors can be more difficult than working with actresses because men can be more resistant and less open to the process. How was it this time?
This time it wasn’t a problem, actually. Maybe now I’m more “macho” myself so I have fewer problems with men than before (laughs)! And I knew some of these actors very well. They have no problem being the object of the gaze. Of course I’m generalising, but some actors have a problem of male ego; they want competition with the director, they’re not always willing to be open and fragile. These three actors have no problems of that kind.
What’s beautiful about the film is that you allow us to enter the different perspectives of the protagonists. You’ve said before that in all of your films there is a character who represents you, or that you feel particularly close to. Is that the case here?
I think I’m closest to François, appropriately enough! He’s a little bit brutal… When there’s a problem, maybe I’m like that. I can relate to his attitude.
You mentioned the idea of the film as a “French Spotlight.” Is that a description that you welcome?
I like that film, but mine is very different. Spotlight is from the point of view of the journalists but mine is from the victims’ point of view, with the journalists used to start the organisation and to help the fight.
Have you seen the Polish film, Kler (Clergy) by Wojciech Smarzowski, which is from the priests’ point of view?
Not yet, but I’m going to see it. Is it good?
I wouldn’t say that. But it was an important film to be made in Poland and was phenomenally successful. You probably also heard about the documentary Tell No One by Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, which is also about child abuse by Polish priests.
Yes, I was told about it. The reaction to By the Grace of God has been very good in Poland, though I had the feeling that the Poles are a bit bored with paedophilia as a topic after these films. Although at the Q&A, one guy said: “I thought paedophilia in the Church only existed in Poland but I see it happens in France too. We’re not the only ones with this problem.”
How was it to show the film to Pedro Almodóvar in Madrid?
He’s one of my favourite directors, so I feel proud whenever I go to Spain and he comes to see my work. I think he was very touched by the film; of course, he made his own very beautiful film on the topic, Bad Education, and from his background he knows these kinds of stories very well. Like Poland, Spain is a very Catholic country. I think things change slowly there; there have been many Church scandals in Spain which were covered up. In France, we moved forward faster in bringing these stories to light.
Thinking of connections to other directors, I also recently saw Christophe Honoré’s new film Chambre 212 and I noticed that the poster for By the Grace of God is featured.
Yes, I haven’t seen the film yet, but he told me about that! If you meet him, you must ask him why he put my poster there! I don’t think there are any connections between the two films, are there?
Well, certainly, for me and, I’m sure, for others, you and Honoré are linked as filmmakers: in particular, by the ways in which you both continue what Armond White calls “French cinema’s legacy of erotic and romantic sensitivity,” which American film sorely lacks. Do you yourself feel a bond with him and other French filmmakers? Do you look to each other for support, inspiration?
Yes, of course Christophe and I have different backgrounds, but we are of the same generation. I think many of his films are very touching and I do think there is a good connection between French directors generally. We’re always interested to see each other’s work. I told Christophe how proud I was of him when he made Sorry Angel, his very personal film about the AIDS period. I told him I would like to do something like this, something more autobiographical. But it’s difficult for me. Christophe, I think, is more able to make films about his own life and experiences. I need more distance. Maybe one day I will, but I don’t know if people are interested in my private life, you know!
I saw some speculation online that your new film, Summer 84, is autobiographical…
(laughs) Oh, really! It’s interesting that people are speculating about that! You know, I feel like it’s my new first film, a return to my roots, very much in the spirit of my early shorts. I’ll finish the editing when I go back to Paris. By the way, we changed the title and it’s now called Summer 85. Next time I’ll tell you why!
Which films did you see recently that inspired you?
I loved Frank Beauvais’s Ne croyez surtout pas que je hurle (Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream). It was at Berlinale and recently released in France. It’s a mash-up of many different films and through the voiceover he talks about his private problems. It’s very powerful.
A final question: you’re so prolific, and I wonder if making films still gives you the same pleasure and satisfaction as when you started. And what is the best part of the process for you?
I like the shooting and editing best of all. And yes, I still get great pleasure and satisfaction from the process. On the new film I loved working with young actors; it brought a lot of freshness and felt like going back to the beginning, in a way. I don’t feel fatigue because I make sure that each film is different and a new adventure.
By the Grace of God is in US cinemas from 18th October, and in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 25th October.
Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has written and presented papers on Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, and Samuel Adamson. His current projects include a study of novel-to-film adaptations. He writes for PopMatters and British Theatre Guide and blogs at Boycotting Trends