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Alain Guiraudie’s Tale of Rural Sex and Murder

Alain Guiraudie’s Tale of Rural Sex and Murder

Revisiting the murder mysteries of his award-winning 2013 feature, Stranger by the Lake, but with a more darkly comic tone found in much of his other work, French writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s latest feature, Misericordia (Miséricorde), plays like two films at once: The first is a sinister, small-town homicide story in the vein of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which a man shows up to wreak havoc on the seemingly innocent. The second is a twisted variation on Pasolini’s Teorema, in which a family is torn apart by a visitor’s pervasive sexuality and refusal to leave them alone.

The two movies don’t always crystallize into one, and if you’re looking for a credible crime thriller in which everyone behaves logically, Misericordia may not be for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for an exploration of repressed sexual desire and religious hypocrisy in backwoods France, Guiraudie’s strange and sober new film does the trick.

Misericordia

The Bottom Line

Provocative, if not always plausible.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Première)
Cast: Félix Kysyl, Jean-Baptiste Durand, Catherine Frot, Jacques Develay, David Ayala
Director, screenwriter: Alain Guiraudie

1 hour 42 minutes

It all starts when Jérémie (Félix Kysyl) rolls into the sleepy southwestern city of Saint-Martial, where he attends the funeral of a local baker for whom he worked as a teenager. The baker’s wife, Martine (Catherine Frot), is in mourning, but she’s happy to see Jérémie back in town. The baker’s son, Vincent (Jean-Baptiste Durand, director of last year’s excellent Junkyard Dog), is less enamored by Jérémie’s sudden return, and it’s clear these two have some kind of past that Vincent doesn’t want to revisit.

Guiraudie keeps their backstory vague, although from the way they look at each other we can imagine they were romantically involved. Something may have also happened between Jérémie and Martine’s dead husband, whom we only see in a suggestive photo taken at the beach. All of these people are meant to be straight — Vincent is married and Jérémie claims to have a girlfriend back in Toulouse — and yet the latter’s arrival in town seems to open up discomforting questions about their true sexual preferences.

Things take a nosedive when Jérémie and Vincent run into each other one afternoon in the woods — everyone takes long walks in the woods around Saint-Martial because there isn’t much else to do there — and wind up getting into a scuffle, even if it’s unclear at first if they’re going to fight or fornicate. Jérémie ends up killing Vincent and then buries the body, after which he ditches the latter’s car in another town and makes his way back to Martine’s house, where he’s become a long-term guest.

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The lengthy murder sequence is impressively handled, with day gradually giving way to night as Jérémie tries to cover his tracks and create an alibi. Much less credible is the ensuing investigation, where two local cops try and miserably fail to blame Vincent’s disappearance on Jérémie, who changes his story way too much. He’s the number one suspect and yet is only casually questioned a few times around Martine’s dinner table: It’s as if the entire town knows who the guilty party is but doesn’t want to admit it.

Indeed, guilt, whether criminal or sexual, seems to hang over everyone and everything in Saint-Martial, with Jérémie’s troubling presence unearthing emotions that had long been buried. (The unearthing motif comes back big time at the very close of the film.) As in any self-respecting Catholic French town, such guilt is under the moral jurisdiction of a local priest — in this case Father Grisolles (Jacques Develay), who shows up in the woods as well and is clearly not someone to be trusted.

The twists Misericordia takes in the third act are not worth spoiling, but let’s just say that Jérémie finds an ally where he least expects it, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s better off in the end. It’s hard to believe many things that happen during the denouement, which involves those two feckless gendarmes, a massive erect penis, and the most unpleasant mushroom eating scene since Phantom Thread. And yet in Guiraudie’s semi-twisted vision of French rural repression, it all makes perfect sense.

Like for his other films — eight features and nearly as many shorts — the director creates his own unique tone, combining stark naturalistic performances reminiscent of Robert Bresson with the macabre humor and underlying suspense of Hitchcock. Talented cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) captures that mood in a series of gloomy, rain-soaked set pieces in which the sun never seems to come out once.

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