François Ozon on By the Grace of God

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

(NOTE: This interview was originally published here.)

In his newest film, By the Grace of God, French director François Ozon takes an axe to the reputation that he’s cultivated as a director of risqué films about female sexuality. A meticulous recounting of a scandal that was front-page news in France, the film tells the story of three men – Alexandre, François, and Emmanuel – who were all molested as kids by a Catholic priest named Bernard Preynat.

Admittedly, By the Grace of God lacks the unabashedly irreverent tone that has in some ways become Ozon’s hallmark. But the film more than makes up for that with the intensity of its narrative and the quiet, focused outrage that it brings to its denunciation of the Catholic Church. Whether you end up liking it or not, Ozon’s latest film is one that deserves to be seen and discussed.

Recently, Ozon visited Chicago to promote By the Grace of God, which screened at the city’s 55th International Film Festival. Here’s what he had to say about the film, its reception, and its relationship to his career and life.

This interview was conducted in French. Questions and answers have been translated and edited for clarity.

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

Q: I wanted to start with a basic question. Why did you decide to make a film about pedophilia?

A: In reality, I never “decided” to make a film about pedophilia – that was never my goal. In the past, I’ve made many films about female characters. But I always wanted to make a film about men, particularly men who express emotions and sensitivity. In most movies, particularly American ones, men are associated with “action,” while women are associated with “emotions” instead. So I guess you could say that I wanted to invert the normal way of doing things.

At the start, I already had a title for the film in mind – The Crying Man [L’homme qui pleure]and I was looking for a story that would fit with this title. One day, while browsing the Internet, I stumbled upon the website of La Parole Libérée [organization that collects testimonials from Preynat’s victims]. I read the testimonials of several victims, and there was one by a man named Alexandre that particularly moved me. I arranged a meeting with him in my office in Paris. When he came, he gave me a huge folder containing all of the e-mail exchanges he had had with the Church regarding Preynat, and he told me, “Do whatever you want with them.”

The materials that Alexandre gave me were truly incredible. With them, I embarked on what you could call a “journalistic investigation.” I met other victims, did more research, and eventually used my findings to write a script for the film. But I did not go into this project thinking that I’d be making a film about pedophilia. That was not my original intention.

Q: When I saw By the Grace of God, what struck me the most was the difference between its tone and the tone of films you’ve made in the past (like 8 Women, for instance). Do you see any relationship between these various films in your oeuvre, even if they seem completely different?

A: Well, there’s the fact that both films were made by me – so in that sense, there’s necessarily a relationship. (laughs) More generally, however, I’m not one to analyze my works. It’s the job of critics and journalists to make connections between my films. My job is just to make the movies.

Personally, I’ve always identified with those directors in the 1930s and 1940s who could make a comedy, and then a Western, and then a musical – you know, those European directors who’d come to work in Hollywood and end up making all sorts of different films. So in that sense, you could say that I’m a director who’s very open to trying new things. With every film I make, I try to do things differently, to not repeat myself.

Of course, if you really wanted to find a connection between By the Grace of God and something like 8 Women. you could say that By the Grace of God is a sort of “3 Men.” And then both films are in a sense critiques of the patriarchy. But it would be a stretch to say that there are any greater similarities between the two. Because one [8 Women] rests on artifice, while the other [By the Grace of God] is predicated on the idea of identifying and empathizing with real people. So they’re in reality quite different.

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

Q: Many American critics have said that By the Grace of God is the “French version” of Spotlight. Were you inspired at all by Spotlight when making your film? Or is it a comparison that you don’t particularly appreciate?

A: Personally, I really enjoyed Spotlight. In fact, when I first met Alexandre and several other victims, they had all seen Spotlight because it had just been released in France. For them, it was a very affecting film. You remember how the film ends with a list of places around the world that have been affected by pedophilia scandals? Well, several French cities were on that list, and that affected Alexandre and the others quite deeply.

I think that part of the reason why Alexandre and other victims agreed to speak to me and tell their stories was that they expected that I would make a “French Spotlight.” Even though the two films are actually quite different. For me, the two films are complementary. Spotlight is a film about journalists who fight to uncover the truth about victims, whereas By the Grace of God focuses on the victims themselves. So it’s actually a completely different point of view.

Q: How did you choose the actors for this film? What were the “criteria” that you used to select them?

A: Well, in terms of criteria, I had met all the real victims. I had photos of all of them on one wall, and then I had photos of all the actors on another. But I didn’t really care that much about physical resemblance – I was mainly interested in actors who could capture the victims’ emotional sensibility. For instance, Melvil Poupaud [actor who plays Alexandre] is himself Catholic, so I thought he’d be interesting in the role of Alexandre, who remains Catholic despite his experience with Preynat. With François, meanwhile, he has a kind of physical force and bulkiness that belies his emotional fragility. And Denis Ménochet [actor who plays François] really captured that tension.

So in general, I’d say it was a rather intuitive process. At the end of the day, selecting actors was pretty simple.

Q: How did you choose an actor for the role of Preynat? He’s a tricky character…

A: Well, Preynat was known to be a rather seductive individual. He had a kind of charisma and force that easily enthralled children. So in casting and portraying Preynat, I didn’t want to reinforce the stereotype that pedophiles are inhuman monsters. It was necessary to depict him as a human being who had force and conviction.

Bernard Verley [actor who plays Preynat] is an actor who was very well-known in the 1970s. He had worked with directors like Éric Rohmer, and he had a reputation for being a bit of a playboy. When I met him and ran him through some tests, what I liked about him was that he brought humanity to his character. In a way, every actor is a sort of “lawyer” for his character, and Verley tried to find and express the psychological motives behind Preynat’s behavior. I found that interesting, because it creates a kind of rapport between Preynat and the viewer. 

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

Q: I wanted to talk about how the film was received in France. To start, how did Preynat’s real-life victims react when they saw this film?

A: For them, it was an overwhelming experience. All the events described in the film took place between 2014 and 2016, so everything still felt very fresh. Naturally, they were afraid of how their families and parents would react, since the film is very interested in how families and relatives of victims react to efforts to denounce sexual abuse.

But ultimately, it went much better than they [the victims] initially expected. After the premiere, more victims got the courage to speak up, and La Parole Libérée ended up getting more donations for their cause. So on the whole, it was very positive.

Q: In the film, the protagonists’ campaign against sexual abuse ends up dividing their families. How did Frenchpeople react to the movie in general? Were their reactions as divided as those of the families in the film?

A: Actually, no. Before the film came out, I think a lot of French Catholics were afraid – but after the release, people realized that the film is in fact quite respectful of Catholicism. It’s not a film that attacks the faith itself. Rather, it’s a film that attacks an institution, and Catholics know that the institution has failed and made a lot of mistakes.

So ultimately, the film was very well received, and it was very successful at the box office. Several people sued to postpone the film’s release – notably, Preynat himself – but they only gave us more publicity. When people learned that our film was at risk of being censured, they got a desire to see the film that they otherwise would not have had. So I should thank Preynat for how he actually ended up helping us.

Q: How was the film received by the Catholic Church?

A: Well, as I mentioned, Preynat tried to push back the film’s release date because he claimed that the film would affect a then-ongoing court case against him. But the French justice system thought that the freedom of artistic expression was more important than whatever presumption of innocence Preynat was entitled to. Especially since Preynat had never denied the fact that he was a pedophile – as the film suggests, he always readily admitted that he had a problem with kids.

I admit I made a pretty naïve mistake when making the film. I decided to keep Barbarin’s and Preynat’s actual names, and if I had changed them, I wouldn’t have been subject to such lawsuits. But everything had already been covered and reported on at length in the French press. Everyone knew what had happened, so for me, changing the names would have been something very hypocritical to do.

Q: In the film, Alexandre tells his children everything about his relationship with Preynat – and in an interview, you noted that you think it’s good that “kids and parents can communicate these days about sexuality.” Do you want children to see this film? Do you think they’d appreciate a film about such a serious subject?

A: Well, to start, a lot of French teenagers saw the film by themselves, so that’s good. With regard to children, I’d say children aged 9 years and older would benefit from seeing it. Of course, they should see the film with their parents – that way, parents can provide kids with the context and the mental framework to understand everything that happens.

In any case, I was quite surprised when Alexandre told me that he told everything to his kids. But he said that he wanted to break with tradition, since he had never talked about these sorts of things with his parents as a kid. Naturally, it’s hard for the children to hear about everything their father went through. But well, it’s a new generation and a new way of doing things.

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

Q: I wanted to ask you a slightly more personal question. In preparing questions for this interview, I read on your Wikipedia page that you “received a Catholic education” as a child. Could you describe your personal relationship with Catholicism?

A: Well, I’m really glad I got that kind of education because, culturally speaking, the Catholic tradition is quite rich. With its obsession with sin, moreover, Catholicism also gives you the desire to commit transgressions – and transgressions are always interesting for an artist. At one point, actually, I realized that all of my favorite filmmakers were Catholic. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock was Catholic. Luis Buñuel was obsessed with Christianity, and Ingmar Bergman was also deeply fascinated with the idea of God.

Eventually, however, I lost my Catholic faith when I discovered my sexuality. I realized then that there’s simply too much hypocrisy in the Church’s teachings regarding sexual desire.

Q: In your opinion, what are the “takeaway lessons” for this film?

A: Well, I don’t know. That’s up to you to decide, I’d say. I’m not a politician – I don’t make films with “messages” or “lessons.” What I try to do is convey a story about emotions. If you remember, the film ends when Alexandre’s son asks him a question: “Do you still believe in God?” I don’t show Alexandre’s response because I’m not interested in finding answers. I just ask things, and it’s up to the viewer to interpret my questions and come up with responses as he or she sees fit. 

Q: Did you learn anything new as a result of making this film?

A: Yes. I learned that a sexually abused child is like a ticking time bomb. It’s just one child, but the abuse he suffers ultimately ends up affecting everyone around him – his parents, his siblings, his future children, his future spouse, and so on. I wasn’t aware of how this kind of abuse can have effects on so many different levels, and that’s something that working with Alexandre, François, Emmanuel, and other victims taught me.

Q: Finally, I wanted to close with a general question. Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

A: I can’t say it was a conscious, thought-out process. Some people spend a long time trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. I was lucky to have discovered at a young age that I loved being behind a camera. It’s there that I express myself best. The cinema, in a way, is my natural language. I communicate better through films than I do through words and in other areas of life.