Thanks to a number of hit films that have centered almost exclusively around female characters and narratives driven by sly wit, wild plot developments and a frank and oftentimes transgressive attitude towards sexuality, French filmmaker Francois Ozon has become one of the most distinctive and celebrated voices on the international cinema scene over the past couple of decades. And yet, even devoted fans of such oddball treasures as “8 Women” (2002), “Swimming Pool” (2003), “The New Girlfriend” (2014) and “Double Lover” (2017) might have a hard time looking at his latest effort, “By the Grace of God,” and recognizing it as being one of his. Eschewing virtually everything that he has been known for as a director in the past, he has elected this time to tell a straightforward and serious story taken from real life and revolving around a trio of male characters. The film tells the startling true story of the victims of Bernard Preynat, a former Catholic priest who reportedly sexually abused 70 children over the course of three decades, and how they managed to finally call attention to his crimes after years of the Church doing nothing despite being fully aware of the accusations via a website where his victims were able to give their testimonies. The focus of the story is on three former victims who have all processed the experience in different ways—Alexandre (Melvil Poupard) is a family man and still a loyal Catholic who nevertheless starts the ball rolling when he realizes that Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (Francois Marthouret) intends to sweep everything under the rug (the film takes its name from when he infamously responded to a question about why he allowed Preynat to remain by saying “By the grace of God, most of these cases are now out of date”), Francois (Denis Menochet) is still consumed by the anger he feels over what was allowed to happen to him and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) has essentially been shattered as a person ever since the time of his abuse years earlier—and Ozon lets the whole thing unfold in a simple and direct manner that in no way dilutes his anger and horror over what happened to these children at the hands of someone they were supposed to be able to trust.
After fighting off a couple of last-minute legal challenges to become a big hit in France, “By the Grace of God” is now slowly opening in America. The film recently played as part of the Chicago International Film Festival and while in town to present it at its screening, Ozon sat down to talk about it, the issues it raises and the radically different filmmaking approach that he employed this time around.
You have been making feature films for more than twenty years now. What was it that first inspired you to become a filmmaker and do you find that those particular concerns that drove you back then are still the ones working for you today or do you now have different forms of focus and inspiration for your work?
That is a very good question. I think it is always the pleasure of telling a story. When I started, I was excited to try to find a new way to tell a story and share it with the audience. Maybe when I was younger, I tried more to be provocative because I had to find a place to exist as a director. Now I feel more mature, fortunately. Maybe when I was younger, I was more of a force and came through the stories with a more personal point of view and strength. Now, I prefer to stay more behind the story.
“By the Grace of God” is a marked change from practically everything you have done before as a filmmaker for any number of reasons, perhaps the key one being that while your previous efforts have focused almost entirely on female characters, this is told through the perspective of male characters. Were you consciously look for a male-centered narrative to work on or was it just a by-product of this particular narrative?
I was really looking for a subject about men. As you said, I have made many films about strong women and this time, I wanted to focus on men—men exposing their fragility and sensitivity. Often in cinema, especially American cinema, men are about their actions and women are about their feelings. I wanted to find a subject that would let me show men crying, for example, and by chance, I discovered on the Internet the testimonies of the many survivors of this priest and I was moved and touched by their stories. I decided to meet them and they told me their stories and I decided to write a script about that.
Did you find your approach as a filmmaker changing at all with the shift from a female perspective to a male one?
It was different because it came from a true story. Usually it comes from my imagination or from books but this time, it came from real people. I felt responsible because I admired their fight, so I wanted to show them as victims and not betray them. It was important to work differently and while I maybe had less freedom in the script, I had enough strong elements that actually happened to make up for it because truth sometimes is stronger than fiction. I realized I didn’t have to invent new things because what they told me was already incredible.
The structure of the screenplay is also interesting. You have three characters who were all molested by Bernard Preynat but who all processed it in very different ways. One has somehow managed to deal with it—he is married, has kids and is even still a devout Catholic—another continues to be consumed with anger over what happened and the third has been haunted by the incident ever since it happened. Instead of moving back and forth between their stories, you spend about forty minutes or so centering on one of them in particular before shifting on to the next. What inspired you to take this particular approach to the material.
It was the story, really. Alexandre really began the fight alone when he discovered that the priest was still close to children. He decided to fight within the institution because he thought that the people in the Catholic church would remove him and change things but after two years, he realized that things would not change. He decided to go to the police and an investigation began where they discovered Francois and other victims who were younger than him like who could testify because of the statute of limitations was too late for him. So for the first two characters, it was obvious to have Alexandre and Francois because Alexandre started out alone and Francois started the association. The big choice was to decide who should be the third. I talked to Alexandre and Francois and asked them who I could find who was different from them—perhaps a different social background—and who was perhaps not able to have a family or a job. They told me I had to meet Emmanuel. I did and he was perfect for what I was looking for because his life was so different from theirs and it was interesting to have the three differing points of view. In terms of structure, it was a real challenge because, as you said, after 40 minutes, you lose a character and discover another one. I didn’t have in mind some other older film with this construction, except maybe for “Psycho.” It was the challenge of the film. I didn’t know if it would work or not, but it was exciting for me to try that.
As this is the first time you have done a film based on a true story, what was it like to try to do a screenplay that would honor the truth of what happened while at the same time work as a dramatic narrative?
I stayed very close to the reality. There were some small things that I had to change because the victim asked me to do so. For example, Alexandre’s wife asked me not to tell exactly the truth of what happened to her when she was abused when she was younger. It was a secret that she had never spoken about before and so she asked me to change some small elements. It was always for the survivors—I did not want to betray them.
In the film, there are a couple of flashbacks to the incidents where the boys were molested by Preynat, though you take care not to show anything specific about what happened. Can you talk about your approach to these scenes, which are enormously troubling to watch regardless?
I had the feeling that it was important to have these flashbacks to show the abuse. I could not actually show the abuse, because it would be impossible for me to shoot that, but it was important to show to the audience that a child is paralyzed before an adult who is a pedophile and does not know what is happening. I wanted to show the situation where the child is like the lamb going to the wolf because he does not know that it can be dangerous. The imagination of the audience can work because you can imagine far worse than you see on the screen. It was funny because I was in a debate with some survivors and some people said “Why did you show that the priest did that?” and I told them that no, there was nothing and that they had only seen it in their heads.
There were a number of legal maneuvers launched against the film around the time that it was about to be released in France. Was there any blowback from the Church during the actual production?
Not during the shooting, because we shot it secretly. I didn’t give out a synopsis, I gave out a fake title, “Alexandre.” I told the press it was a film about the friendship between three men and that was all. People did not know and so we were totally free to shoot whatever we wanted with no problem of censure or of people trying to stop the shooting. The problems arrived after when the trailer was released and when people discovered the title of the film, because the words of Cardinal Barbarin, “By the grace of God,” are very famous in France. It was at this moment that people realized what it was about and some lawyers, especially those for the priest, tried to stop the film. It didn’t happen because the judge decided that in the case of this film, the freedom of the press was more important than the presumption of innocence.
Didn’t that judgement come down maybe the day or so before the film was scheduled to premiere?
Yes. Fortunately, we won the Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday and the release was on a Wednesday. On Monday, we knew that the suit from the priest was rejected and on the Tuesday, the suit from the church psychologist, who wanted us to change her name in the film one day before release, was refused by the judge. It was very stressful for us but it was very good publicity because all the French came to see the film and it was a big success in France.
What is interesting about the film is that it is not especially against Catholicism from a religious standpoint—it takes pains to show that Alexandre has somehow remained a dedicated Catholic—while saving its anger and rage for the institution of the Church and its willingness to shield this priest despite knowing full well what he was doing. In making this film, did you ever get any insight into what would drive them to go to such lengths to keep such a monstrous individual on hand despite having so much evidence of his misdeeds?
I do not understand. It is a mystery for me because this priest never denied what he did. He always said “I have problems with kids” for more than 30 years and they did nothing. They would just move him and tell him that what he did was not good. It was so surprising for me when I discovered that and it gave me more strength to make the film. I think one of the problems of the Catholic Church is that for a long time, they considered pedophilia as a sin like homosexuality and abortion and did not see a difference—it was not really a crime. Now I think that they know that pedophilia can really destroy a person but it has taken them a long time to understand that.
What was it like to show the film to the survivors and what was their reaction to it?
It was very disturbing for them because what happened in the film had happened so recently—between 2014 and 2016—and they did not have enough distance to consider what was on the screen of their lives. I think they were a bit afraid of the reactions of their families because I show in the film how an abused child is a ticking time bomb that can damage an entire family. Overall, it went very well, and some of the parents said that it helped to change their point of view of what happened.
What has it been like to show the film to American audiences who may not be familiar with the details of this particular story but who are certainly well-versed in scandals involving pedophile priests and the Catholic church on the home front?
I don’t know what will happen. I am curious, actually. It was interesting to travel with this movie throughout many countries, especially Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, where we got a strong response. I think many Catholics are upset with the situation and angry at how the authorities didn’t move. For example, when Barbarin was condemned after the release of the film, he went to give his resignation to Pope Francis and it was refused, leading to another big scandal. You realized that the words of the institution were strong against pedophilia bu the acts don’t follow the words. I am curious to see how people will react in America. I know that the American church paid the survivors and that didn’t happen in France. The French consider that if you are paid, it will keep the silence about the acts. It is a different way of fighting.