Anthony Hopkins inspired him to act, Quentin Tarantino dubbed him “the French Robert Mitchum” and it’s not so long ago that he was terrifying audiences in the domestic thriller Custody. But this year Denis Menochet has found himself in the midst of the storm created by Francois Ozon’s By The Grace Of God, a film based on fact that the actor describes as being “beyond cinema”.
When he and Ozon first discussed the film, which turned out to be the Silver Bear winner at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Menochet hadn’t heard of the child abuse scandal rocking the French Catholic church. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon was convicted this year for concealing the conduct of Father Bernard Preynat, who had abused children in his parishes over a number of years. “Since Barbarin’s sentencing, and since the release of the film, all the priests and all the members of the diocese have had to watch and read the testimonies from the victims,” explains Menochet. “It’s not often you get to make a film that can really make a difference and change things so when Ozon told me the story, it was a no brainer. I just had to be part of it and try to help in my own way. It went beyond being an actor in a film. It’s incredible and I’m still in awe of it today.”
That’s since the film was released, but even more astonishing is when he describes the opposition from the church in the run-up to launch. “They tried to silence us when we took it to the Berlin Film Festival, they tried to block the release of the film and it was infuriating,” he recalls. “They didn’t try to stop the film actually being made, because Ozon lied about the title and the subject! He said it was about three men and their friendship, but they did try to put a stop to it being released when they discovered that he was using the real names of the Cardinal and the priest. They tried to silence us, because they didn’t realise the harm done to at least 100 children. Once somebody’s been abused as a child, they’re a ticking bomb. They trust adults, they go with them, they’re abused and it takes years – usually by the time they have children of their own – until they more or less explode. It’s like an invisible disease inflicted on them.”
Seeing his role as “just an actor” meant that Menochet wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of emotion that accompanied the film’s release in France. “A million people went to see it and the response was overwhelming,” he remembers. “After it was released, people stopped me in the street to thank me. A woman and her son stopped their cab, got out and said thank you. And there was the time I was waiting for my Eurostar train, surrounded by thousands of people because there was a strike, and a guy in a Eurostar uniform looked at me and burst into tears. He’d been to see the film with his wife and afterwards confessed to his wife that he’d been abused as a child by his uncle and he’d been carrying that with him.”
The response was such that he decided to stop using social media. “I had so many messages from people telling me their own stories and I didn’t know how to respond to that – I’m just an actor serving a story that’s way bigger than I am.” The role affected him in other ways, particularly when he was doing his research. He concentrated on reading the testimonies of the victims, some 70 men, who described in detail what happened to them. He describes it as “harrowing.” “In the film, it’s quite soft, but one related how he was abused by the priest before mass. I really wanted to understand trauma as well, so I researched that on the internet, especially how it affects their lives, how they deal with it, how you can forget the cause as a self-defence mechanism – and when you have kids, it all comes back because you realise how wrong that was.”
After the pressures of By The Grace Of God, Menochet has just finished filming The French Despatch with director Wes Anderson, an experience he describes as “amazing.” “I can’t really talk about it because it would ruin the film, but I’ve never acted like this in my life. He made us act in so many different ways and it was all new, like being on a rollercoaster of fun.” Asked whether he’s likely to be joining Anderson’s unofficial repertory company of the likes of Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton etc, his reaction is swift and enthusiastic. “I bloody hope so! The film was like the Avengers of acting. All the super powers of acting were there!” We have to wait until next year to find out exactly how super.
Denis Menochet was talking to Freda Cooper.
By the Grace of God is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday, 25 October.