Audiences know Francois Ozon more for his lighter genre fare, but he gets serious in By the Grace of God. And this is a proper approach since this is, after all, a film about the aggression. These aggressive behaviors, micro or otherwise, are things that sexual assault victims face. That’s especially true when they’re on the path to seek justice for what their rapists have done to them. One such person who is making that quest for justice is Lyon native Alexandre Guerin (Melvin Poupaud). The rape against him took place after the French statute of limitations against such a crime. His only path is to do it within the institution that victimized him – the Catholic Church. The Church proposed a mediation between him and his abuser. The latter is Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), and the mediation between the two seems like a civilized matter.
But it becomes too polite for Alexandre. During the mediation process, they pray, and Preynat actually reached out for Alexandre’s hand. He takes the hand, literally and symbolically. Much of the film’s first act shows the e-mail exchanges between him and a Cardinal Barbarin (Francois Marthouret). The cardinal tells him about his colleagues strongly speaking against the abuses that took place in the past. One of these cardinals is from Boston, which had its own history of abuse. However, he eventually realizes that this is all just talk. The Church is dragging their feet to punish Preynat, which makes him decide to file a legal complaint. The complaint will urge the police and the media. It’s up to them to seek out victims of that priest after the statute of limitations.
The police and the media, then, find two, who deal with their history in different ways. One of these victims is Francois Debord (Denis Menochet, Inglorious Basterds). His mother Odile (Helen Vincent) tells him about the police knocking on their door and asking her about these events. Learning about this, he originally wants nothing to do with it. But his wife reminds him that the same thing might happen to his daughters if he keeps silent. This remark, then makes him start pursuing justice. By the Grace of God, then, explores the different reactions that victims experience when facing their victim-hood.. Alexandre has a more buttoned up approach to his history while Francois experiences more emotional extremes.
Francois might also be slouchier than Alexandre, but that doesn’t mean he’s a passive guy. Both Alexandre and Francois actually go through waves of enthusiasm. Seeking justice and redefining their own histories isn’t eays for both. Francois is the movie’s only source of levity. And that comes as respectfully as it can in a movie with this subject. The only thing I’ll say about the film is that it leans into some of his cringe worthy moments. That’s especially true when he gets too enthusiastic about finding other victims. The film also uses a structure that I’m not the biggest fan of.
Alexandre disappears when Francois’ scenes begin. Both men, then take a step back when the third victim comes into the story, Emmanuel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud). But the film fixes that by looping each character within the other’s story line. Preynat here has more victims but the film, thankfully, chose three compelling ones to fous on. Besides, other filmmakers tackle this subject through those from the periphery of the abuse. But Ozon focuses on these survivors. Showing the different character trajectories also modulates the emotions on display. It’s not an angry film, so instead we feel anger for these characters, and righteously so.