Francois Ozon has all the charms of a true French gentleman: intellect, sensitivity, humor and grace. That’s a good thing: his latest film, By the Grace of God, required all his faculties. The story of French survivors of Catholic sex abuse, it’s now playing in select theatres in the US.
By the Grace of God recounts the true story of three men: Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), Francois (Denis Ménochet) and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) who come together to expose the crimes of Father Priyat (Bernard Verley), the priest who abused them all as children. The film indicts the Catholic church on its complacency in the ongoing scandal, and on its constant maneuvering to equate pedophilia with homosexuality.
Spoiler alert: the two are not related.
With a resume that includes 19 feature films like Swimming Pool and In the House, Ozon ranks as one of the most prolific and acclaimed out-gay directors in the world. By the Grace of God also qualifies as his best film to date.
Queerty caught up with Francois Ozon to discuss the film, the scandals that inspired it, and the scandals it brought to its production. By the Grace of God is now playing in select theatres in the US.
Congratulations, Francois. The film is wonderful, and very moving.
What made you select this story as your film? How did you connect with it?
I never had in mind making a film about pedophilia in the church, you know? I just wanted to [do a film] to focus on men, on male fragility, on male sensitivity. I’ve made many films before about women, and this time I was able to make a film about men. So I was looking for a subject, and by chance, I discovered, on the internet, the testimony of some survivors. I was very moved. So I decided to meet with them, and they told me their stories. I made some research about what happened to them, and I thought it would be a great idea for a film. I wanted to make it a documentary at that time…
But I realized they had made so many interviews before, they were tired. They wanted to turn the page. But when I met them, I was relieved. I realized they were waiting for a French spotlight from me. They knew I was a director of fiction, so I decided to make it [a dramatization].
Wonderful. Now pardon my asking, but were you raised Catholic?
Ok, so obviously you have a personal connection there since you grew up in the church.
Yes, I know very well that world. But I lost my faith when I was a teenager. But I still have respect for the church.
Of course. So in the United States we’ve had several films—notably Spotlight, which won a Best Picture Oscar—that have confronted the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The church, or certain Catholic groups, will often interfere with the making of or release of the film. I know you had an issue with that yourself…
Yes, the lawyers of the priest [Father Priyat] tried to stop the release of the film, because he was not judged. So they said the presumption of innocence had to protect him from the film. So they tried to stop it, but fortunately, the judge decided with this film the freedom of creation was more important than the presumption of innocence, especially because the priest never denied it. For 30 years, he told everybody he had a problem with kids. So everybody knew, and the judge considered it, but the film got to be released. So we learned that at the last moment: one day before the release.
That’s amazing. Now, when you were casting the film and hiring actors, was anyone reluctant—because of their religious beliefs—to take part in it? France is a very heavily Catholic country.
No, because I know no one who is for pedophilia.
Well that’s good.
Though it was not easy to produce the film, because we decided to make it secretly. We did not communicate on the film. We lied to people who’d stop the shooting. We decided to change the title; it was not called By the Grace of God, it was called Alexandre. And I said to the press, it’s a film about friendship between three different men. So we were free to shoot as we wanted. The problems arrived after when the trailer was released and when people knew the real title of the film.
Wow. I’ve never heard of a director who had to work in that kind of secrecy to get the film made.
In France it’s possible. In Hollywood, I don’t think it’s possible.
There are few secrets in Hollywood, that is true. So, in one scene in the film Alexandre confronts a priest about the abuse, and the priest refuses to accept the word “pedophile” when discussing the behavior of the clergy. He also seems to want to lump pedophiles in with gay people. As a queer person—as I believe you are—this makes me very angry. But it also is a bit confusing. I do not understand why or how the church seems to think that abusing children is normal.
I think they are very confused, but things are changing. I think for a very long time, the hierarchy of the church considered pedophilia a sin like homosexuality, like abortion. They didn’t see a difference. They didn’t realize it was a crime. And there was this confusion between homosexuality and pedophilia because they didn’t understand homosexuality is a sexual orientation. Pedophilia is a crime. I think now that’s understood, but it took them a lot of time.
When I made my investigation, I tried to find some survivors who were gay. I realized, because I asked many [survivors] if they knew anyone who came out as gay after [being abused]. Very often, they said to me “You know what? They committed suicide because it was so difficult for them to accept their sexuality after what happened to them as a child.”
Oh my goodness. That’s horrible. So why has it taken the church so long to understand?
I think they made this confusion for a long time. I don’t really understand. I think they are like in the Middle Ages. They don’t live in the world today. I think, fortunately, the liberation of speech [in the church] changes things, and I think the movement teaches some new people to speak out. Society is moving on in a good way. People are able to speak out. You have to be brave, but now you know you can be supported by many people. So things are changing, and if the church wants to survive, they have to change too. If they don’t change, they will disappear. I think some of them know that.
They need a revolution about sexuality, about social things, about many things. The problem is when you meet the bishops or the cardinal, they are very old people. You don’t make a revolution with old people.
Support should be younger instead of 75 years old. And it’s paralyzed by the government of the Vatican.
The other big question is why the church doesn’t just defrock these priests. Why not? Why are they allowed to continue? This is something very common in the United States as well, and in South America. It seems to be everywhere. I think, for a lot of American Christians like myself, most of whom are protestant, it’s dumbfounding that these people are allowed to keep their jobs.
I don’t understand too. That’s why I decided to make the film. When I made my investigation, what I did uncover was that everybody knew about these priests. In certain years, they left these priests with children. It’s impossible to understand such a thing. So that’s why I decided to make the film, and I know it happens everywhere, all over the world.
One other subtle detail in the film is the way several other characters—parents, siblings—of the victims seem so reluctant to discuss the abuse. It’s “in the past” they say. They can’t understand why victims want justice, or to prevent the abuse from happening again. Where does that attitude come from?
Very often, the people around [the victims] feel guilty. The parents feel guilty because they did nothing. They were not able to protect their children. I think things are changing, and it’s a question of generations. I think now parents are able to listen to a child. For a very long time, the words of a child were not considered important. You didn’t believe the words of a child. Now it’s changing. I think parents today are able to teach children their bodies belong to them.
I was never told that when I was a child. We never spoke about sexuality. So, I think things are changing. I speak in the film about people of all generations. For siblings, it’s something else. I discovered very often the brother or sister can be jealous of the abused child because the parents try to protect them. So it’s very complex. When I did the research and did the interviews, I discovered many complex relationships between all these people. It’s not black and white, it’s very ambiguous.
Obviously this is a film with very heavy subjects, some very shocking details. What was the biggest shock to you in telling this story?
I think it was the discovery that child abuse is a ticking time bomb that damages everybody, all the family. I didn’t know that, so it was a surprise to add to the script.
So for you personally, when you deal with a subject this heavy, how do you keep going? How do you prevent yourself from getting so depressed that it hurts your work?
You know, the irony is very often you’re more depressed when you make a comedy than a drama.
Why is that?
When you make a comedy, if you are not able to laugh, if it’s not funny, it’s a disaster and you feel depressed. When you decide to make a drama about strong feelings, you are more confident in your work, especially if you have great actors. I think it is more difficult to make a comedy than a drama. With this film, I knew I had strong material and lots of emotions to develop the script and shooting. And I had very good actors with me. I had everyone involved with the film. So I felt very thankful. I felt strong during shooting. I was never depressed. I knew it was important to do, so I felt good.
That’s terrific. So what has the international reception been to the film? I know you won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, but what has the reaction been from audiences? In particular, Catholic audiences?
In France, the film was a huge success thanks to the publicity of the church since they tried to stop the release.
Many Catholics came to see the film because they understood the film was respectful to their faith. It was an attack against the institution, not the faith. So many priests, many Catholics came to see the film, and I think it was very strong to see their reactions. The film was sold all over the world, especially in Catholic countries like Italy and Spain, in South America. So now we are waiting to see if it will change things. In France, it did change things: the priest was defrocked after of the release of the film, and Cardinal Barbarin was condemned. So it was a strong victory for the survivors.
That’s marvelous to hear. Now, in looking at your filmography, I noticed something. All your films are about people with secrets.
What’s the allure for you?
I think I’m just interested in life, you know? Life as a fantasy, as imagination. Very often to support your life, you have to live in lies or live in fiction. As in this film, people decide not to lie anymore. You have to tell the truth. You have to be brave to speak out because it can be helpful for yourself, but it can destroy many things around you. I want to show that in film.
You’ve directed 19 feature films now, which is damn impressive. That’s more than some Hollywood directors will make in a career. And you’re still rather young!
Oh, I’m not so young. You can’t see me on the phone.
I’ve seen pictures. 51 is not very old. Do you ever rest? You just keep going. Where do you find your passion?
I love to make movies. It brings me a lot of pleasure. Many of my friends who are directors prefer to take time before they make a movie. I don’t. I like to shoot. I prefer it more than when I don’t shoot. It’s my way of surviving.
Last question then, Orson Welles used to say every artist should have that one work that when they meet God and ask to get into Heaven, they can say “Because I made this.”
Oh my God.
For you then, looking over your resume, what is that one work you would offer, that makes you proud?
That’s a difficult question. You know, once a film is shot, I turn the page very easily. If my films are like children, I’m a very bad father.
So it’s not up to me. I think I would say to God “I’ve made many films. Choose one I’ve made.” For me it’s difficult to make a choice because I have some big link to each one. But I’m proud of all the work, not any one piece.
By the Grace of God is now playing in select cities.