At this moment, I’m re-reading the introduction I wrote last week for the 28th French Film Festival, which already serves as a window into an innocent past. The event has of course been canceled, like many events throughout the country, as coronavirus sets about wrecking the economy and underscoring once again the profound limitations of our health care system, not to mention the ongoing disease of our divisive politics.
Despite the advice of Fox News, which seemingly manages to turn every event in this country into a blood sport, you should stay in for a while, assuming you are lucky enough to economically handle seclusion. For a time, at least, perhaps our addiction to the internet will save us, as we can converse with one another from the cocoons of our homes. With countless numbers of streaming sites, and, for some of us still, DVDs and Blu-rays, we can even stage impromptu film festivals as a way to fill a potential cultural void, staving off cabin fever.
Luckily, the best film I previewed in anticipation of the French Film Festival, François Ozon’s blistering and anguished “By the Grace of God,” is available on Amazon Prime. I’ve left my coverage of that film below, unchanged, and have added a few other thematically apt and widely streamable titles to go along with it.
“By the Grace of God”
Ozon, an audacious filmmaker known for bending genres with wild subjective flourishes, embraces an economic and matter-of-fact aesthetic in “By the Grace of God.” The result is one of his greatest and most deceptively straightforward films, a procedural character study that examines the pedophilia that has been long enabled within the Roman Catholic Church, and which has risen to the fore of public consciousness in several court cases.
Each scene is subtle and tightly sculpted — Ozon avoids emotional histrionics, allowing the lingering damage suffered by the victims of an accomplished priest to seep into your bones. One of Ozon’s subjects here is the casualness of atrocity on two fronts: how the victims learn to deceive themselves in order to survive, and how the Roman Catholic Church in turn deceives itself, and its flock, for an altogether more cynical form of self-preservation.
Yet, and this is a mark of the film’s ambition and empathy, “By the Grace of God” isn’t a fashionably atheist denunciation of organized religion. One of the men who exposes a priest’s sex crimes, Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), is still very loyal to the church, which nourishes his and his family’s sense of identity. He wants to foster change within the system, while a firebrand, François (Denis Ménochet), mounts a more vigorous public assault. More vulnerable, and somewhat stuck between these poles of reformation, is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who suffers from seizures at the mention of his childhood abuse and who appears to be in danger of committing suicide.
Ozon alternates between these men unpredictably, and details of the church’s evasion feel chillingly, tellingly right. Rather than denying a priest’s crimes, as well as its role in covering them up, the church apologizes incessantly while fostering no actual changes to procedure. Ozon offers a study of infrastructure, both of the Roman Catholic Church and of the activist group, Lift the Burden, which simultaneously serves as a devastating story of trauma. “By the Grace of God” is a must-see that sadly came and went in the United States last fall This month, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, played in the film by François Marthouret, was allowed by Pope Francis to resign for his complicity in the abuse of dozens of Boy Scouts.
This 2003 film by Ozon is probably his most famous in the United States, a meditation on the creative process of a British mystery writer, Sarah, played with peerless anal retentiveness by Charlotte Rampling. Borrowing a house from her publisher in the South of France to knock out a new novel, Sarah is thrust into an erotic odd-couple buddy situation with the free-spirited and often unclothed Julie, played by Ludivine Sagnier, who somehow managed not to be the second coming of Brigitte Bardot. At the time, “Swimming Pool” felt repetitively in sync with the head games of Americans like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but Ozon’s sun-dappled imagery and dry humor has its own poignant logic. In a heightened way, Ozon captures the longing caused by self-isolation, a career hazard of writers with which many more people are about to become familiar.
This 1965 sci-fi noir by Jean-Luc Godard famously utilized the modernist buildings of Paris at the time as a stand-in for a dystopic future, and the simplicity of this effect remains unmooring, especially as we survey newly empty streets. The time has rarely been more apt for such a poetic dose of French ennui, with a bit of political outrage on the side.