It’s June 2014. We are in the very classy home of Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a devout man, a caring husband, and a loving father of five. When the family goes to their church in Lyon, the softest of light falls around them through the stained-glass windows — but this slice of heaven is accompanied by a visitor from hell. To Alexandre’s dismay, he discovers that his childhood priest Father Preynat (Bernard Verley) — the man who molested him and many other boys, over years — has returned to the neighbourhood and is now teaching Bible Studies to pre-teens. As Alexandre writhes in torment, his wife says something unusual, unexpected: “You have to tell the kids.” What follows is a conversation around the dining table, an apt metaphor for how hurts from the past keep finding a way to slice through the life we’ve made for ourselves.
By the Grace of God — a matter-of-fact, Spotlight-like procedural woven around the Church and paedophilia — is new territory for François Ozon, whose sensual work typically embraces a different kind of carnality. At first, it appears that the film is going to dramatise Alexandre’s unrelenting quest to expose the priest and the institution that protected him. With the church’s psychologist in attendance, he confronts Father Preynat. Will the older man deny these charges? Will he ask for forgiveness? And even if he does, will that be enough to pour salve over Alexandre’s long-festering soul? To everyone’s surprise, Father Preynat says, simply, “It’s a blot on my life.” He admits he is attracted to children. And the affair turns more complicated. Preynat confessed to his superiors and begged them to not put him in charge of young boys anymore. But they did nothing. Who’s the bigger sinner, now? The doer? Or the enabler?
Alexandre becomes a man obsessed. His emails to the church superiors are not being replied to. And when he meets Cardinal Barbarin (Francois Marthouret), the latter says, ruefully, “Don’t use the word ‘paedophilia’. In the etymological sense, it means ‘love for children’, and God wants us to love children.” He has the decency to pause. “Maybe not too much.” This is all Alexandre will get. But he wants a public statement, a public denouncement of Father Preynat. The crux is this: Alexandre is a believer, but he is ashamed of belonging to a church that does not condemn a sinner. He files a case, and slowly, the subtle screenplay turns to other grown-ups who were victims like Alexandre.
This is as understated a movie as can be made from such an incendiary subject. Ozon keeps his scenes short. They jump quickly between people and events, and this (rather than dramatic fireworks, underscored by a dramatic score) provides the movie its momentum. From start to finish, I was gripped by the film’s delicate shifts in tone. Is it fair on Alexandre’s part to invade the lives of other victims who have moved on? Is he not inflicting fresh pain by making them remember things they have chosen to forget? (And a question from the investigator like “Was the kiss surface or interior?” is going to dredge up a lot from a victim.) Are these victims being fair to their families, expecting them to feel as much as they do about the issue? What if a sibling, say, is sick of how the victim, during family gatherings, keeps drawing all the attention to himself? Does that make the sibling a bad brother? Or merely one who feels neglected?
In his press conference, Ozon said he wanted to challenge his reputation as a maker of films about women. “I wanted to make a film with men at the centre, expressing their feelings and emotions. Often in cinema, emotion is the realm of women and action is the realm of men, and I wanted to turn that on its head.” By the Grace of God is, sadly, a true story. It concludes with a title card about Cardinal Barbarin’s trial. The verdict will be delivered on March 7, a few weeks from now — and the French courts will, no doubt, weigh in on the film’s release. But Ozon said he wasn’t concerned. “There is a trial underway, but [the film] won’t have an impact in that sense, because everything I talk about in the film has already been covered by the French press.” In any case, he said, he wasn’t looking at this story in terms of the legal situation. “I wanted to look at it with human eyes.”
A few days before the festival, Variety reported that Derek Kwok-Cheung Tsang’s Better Days — a Chinese drama about disaffected youth and a mysterious death — had been yanked from the lineup. “Sources say that the movie failed to receive the necessary permits from authorities in mainland China,” where censorship has tightened considerably in recent months, ever since the regulatory authority for the industry was moved to the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. “Since that time, there have been numerous calls for the industry to promote social harmony and ‘socialist values’.” Luckily, Wang Quan’an, who won the Golden Bear in 2007 for Tuya’s Marriage, faced no such problem. His seventh feature, Öndög (meaning “egg”), is part of the Competition.
This oddball film, like Tuya’s Marriage, is set in Mongolia, and in the opening scene, we see the headlights of a car mowing across the barely populated steppes, casting a golden glow, no more than a few feet ahead. Soon, the vehicle stops. A few feet ahead, there’s the body of a woman. She’s naked. Are we in for an eccentric, Fargo-like crime drama about a small community roused out of its stupor by a foul happening? Now, fast-forward to the end, and we get this title card: “Based on true stories.” Some might wonder whether, true or not, there was much story in the first place. After all, it took some 45 minutes for a stretcher to arrive and cart away the corpse to the autopsy room.
But at a time most world cinema has become only slightly removed from the mainstream, Öndög is a throwback to what we used to call “art cinema”. In other words, it’s not about the story. It’s about an 18-year-old policeman being assigned to guard the corpse, and keeping himself entertained through a long night with songs on his mobile phone. It’s about one of these songs, Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender, which starts tinnily, flowing through the phone’s speakers, and then begins to echo around the emptiness like an actual song playing behind the scene, and then retreats back into a tinny sound from a mobile phone. It’s about life and death: the butchering of a lamb and the birth of a calf, the end of a short-lived relationship and the beginning of new life inside a woman. The questions around the dead woman cease to matter. The earth keeps spinning. Life goes on.