Thursday 21 November 2019

By the Grace of God (François Ozon, 2019)

François Ozon is a filmmaker who almost always comes up with something interesting.  Some of his earlier works were associated with the New French Extremity, and for many years this prolific, mischievous director has seesawed between high frivolity (8 Women, Potiche) and more sombre concerns (5x2, Time to Leave).  While sitting down to watch an Ozon film, you're pretty confident you'll find him working in one of these modes - or maybe even both, as in In the House and Young & Beautiful.  His most recent film prior to By the Grace of God was Double Lover, which played almost as a self-parody: borderline transgressive, trashy and sloppy, it was a film which saw Ozon treading water as he went through the motions of adapting Joyce Carol Oates' 1987 novel Lives of the Twins.  While admittedly rather fun, it was cookie-cutter Ozon which presented nothing especially new.  But the throwaway Double Lover provided no hint as to what Ozon would do next: his latest film is a truly staggering work, one quite unlike anything else in the director's filmography.

As with the terrific Oscar-winner Spotlight, By the Grace of God is concerned with the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and Ozon is quite open about the similarities between the two films.  However, By the Grace of God does differ from Tom McCarthy's movie, not least in that Ozon's film was made as the trial of one of its characters was still in progress; an unusual move, certainly, yet one which imbues the film with a sense of freshness and immediacy which is almost palpable.  By the Grace of God was not only made while these court proceedings were underway, but the film itself was dragged into the courts as Bernard Preynat, the priest depicted in the film, attempted to block its release.  Incredibly, this €6 million production was only cleared for release the day before it was due to hit cinemas.  Indeed, the story of By the Grace of God's production would make for a gripping film in itself.

Ozon's film follows three grown men, all of whom were childhood victims of Preynat (Bernard Verley).  The first chunk of the film is devoted to Alexandre (Ozon regular Melvil Poupaud), a calm family man who's shocked to learn that Preynat, under the Cardinal's protection, is still working with children.  As a result of this discovery, Alexandre decides to take action, and a church psychologist arranges a meeting between victim and abuser, which is intended to aid the healing process.  Preynat doesn't deny what happened, and while he seems pleased to see that Alexandre has grown up to be a well-adjusted member of society, the priest doesn't seem especially sorry for the crimes he committed, merely stating that they were the symptom of an illness; he's certainly not looking for forgiveness.  The slightly surreal meeting ends with the truly sickening, horrifying sight of Alexandre being persuaded to take Preynat's hand as a concluding prayer is recited.

The more cautious Alexandre then gives way in the narrative to the headstrong François (Denis Ménochet), another victim, yet one who wants to cause maximum damage to the Church.  Like Alexandre, François has grown up to become a content and fulfilled adult, yet his atheism drives him in a way which Alexandre - who still attends church with his young family - can't fully relate to.  Nonetheless, Alexandre and François have more than enough in common as they look to take on Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who seems chiefly concerned with putting his institution's reputation ahead of its victims.  The film's title comes from a quote from the Cardinal, who stated that it was "by the grace of God" that the statute of limitations precluded most of the abuse cases making it to court.  Make of that what you will.

Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), the third and last of the film's main characters to be introduced, is by far the most damaged of the Church's victims.  Prone to seizures which are linked to the trauma of his abuse, the unemployed Emmanuel appears to have spent his entire adult life on his uppers, and lives in a shabby apartment with a girlfriend he constantly argues with.  But through meeting Alexandre, François and other victims, Emmanuel gains a sense of purpose as this trio of very different men join forces in order to seek justice.  While the three main actors are all terrific here, it's Arlaud who steals the film with a truly incendiary performance, with his Emmanuel representing the impact of the Church's crimes at its worst: for every Alexandre (or François) who managed to get on with their life, there are many Emmanuels out there, stuck in a rut, broken and forgotten - if they're still alive.

By the Grace of God is an immaculate, quietly devastating work which continues telling a story the world needs to hear.  While someone might suggest you should just watch Spotlight instead as it covers a lot of similar ground, By the Grace of God's existence is hugely important, as it serves as a European angle on a problem which has affected many parts of the world; hopefully, there will be more films which highlight the Catholic Church abuse scandal in other territories.  While it may well be Ozon's best film, By the Grace of God is also the least typical of the director's works, and his fingerprints are nowhere to be found here; it provides final proof, if any were needed, of this genre-hopping filmmaker's versatility.  While normal service will most likely be resumed with his upcoming Eté 84 (which also stars Poupaud and has already finished shooting), this welcome departure for François Ozon is a vital, urgent work, and one of 2019's best films.

Darren Arnold


Monday 11 November 2019

Monos (Alejandro Landes, 2019)

Alejandro Landes' absorbing, unsettling Monos has received no end of rave reviews since it debuted at the beginning of this year.  Before it made its way into cinemas, it picked up numerous festival awards, including the top prize at last month's London Film Festival.  As with two other notable LFF 2019 titles - Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lighthouse - you just know that the Dutch-backed Monos won't quite live up to the hype that's preceded it, but it is a taut, muscular and impressive work.  Landes' film appears to have been primarily designed as a sensory experience; admittedly, there's not much of a plot here, but that's not too much of a hindrance in a work which requires you to do little more than buckle up before it takes you on its nightmarish, hallucinatory journey.

The title refers to a group of child soldiers who are based at the top of a windswept, rain-lashed mountain, where they guard their American hostage Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).  The members of Monos, who are only identified by code names, receive their orders from a murky organisation known as, er, The Organisation, who frequently send a messenger known as - yes - The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) to oversee some of the soldiers' training.  The Monos and Doctora are joined by a dairy cow named Shakira, and the soldiers make a point of treating their bovine companion with great care - the logic being that supporters will no longer lend them things if they don't look after them.  It's a hard life for all on the mountaintop - wet, cold and very muddy - yet the Monos stick to their orders in a manner which belies their age.

Just as we're getting used to this setup, the Monos' compound comes under attack, and the group are forced to flee to the jungle, where the conditions they must endure - mosquitoes, mudslides and so on - make their erstwhile home seem like a luxury resort.  From this more makeshift base, Doctora realises that her odds of escaping have increased, as the Monos and their prisoner are now housed in less secure surroundings and, more crucially, the group is now characterised by in-fighting; among the many squabbles, a break from The Organisation is mooted.  Gone is the previous unity, and it could be argued that the children are now merely returning to something resembling their natural state.  Lord of the Flies is an obvious comparison point here - so much so that we even get to see a pig's head on a spike; refreshingly, Landes is quite transparent about his influences.

Monos is such an immersive experience that you soon forget to keep asking the many burning questions about the Monos, including: Who are they fighting?  Are they involved in a much bigger conflict?  Are they heroes or villains?  Why are they holding Doctora?  Context is lacking, which only adds to the argument that Landes wants us to respond to his film on a more primal level; a thunderous, unnerving score by British composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin) plays a huge part in conjuring an oppressive atmosphere, one in which you constantly feel as if you're on the verge of witnessing something terrible.  Monos really has to be seen in a cinema, as any stepping back from its enveloping madness only leads us to deal with the film in more logical terms - and this thrill ride can't withstand such scrutiny.  While Monos isn't quite as convincing a waking nightmare as those we've come to expect from Gaspar Noé (Irreversible and Climax being prime examples), Alejandro Landes' film is nonetheless a compelling, idiosyncratic and highly singular work. 
Darren Arnold

Images: trigon-film

Friday 1 November 2019

Intimate Audrey in Amsterdam (1/11/19–31/1/20)

Beurs van Berlage in the heart of Amsterdam welcomes the acclaimed living biography of Audrey Hepburn.

From November 1st to January 31st, walk behind the screen and through Audrey's life as a Flemish child, wife, mother and ambassador. 

Audrey was born in Brussels and spent her youth in the Netherlands. Her roots are Flemish. After the war, she returned to launch and bestow a trophy bearing her name for the BNMO veteran organization.

This extraordinary exhibition, which successfully brings Audrey home to her roots, was made possible by NH Collection hotels.

600m2 featuring hundreds of original and re-printed photographs, memorabilia, dresses and accessories as well as her never before seen fashion drawings and humanitarian writings. 

Words/image: Intimate Audrey