Cannes 2019 review: Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)

Poverty in Roubaix is ravaging society, with a rate of 45% of the population below the threshold. There are stories behind that cold statistic, but they are not what really interests Arnaud Desplechin. Oh Mercy! could easily be seen as a different route for the French director, even if his tireless effort at expanding cinematic codes is nonetheless intact. Between social realism and the structured genre of ‘thriller’ we can find this work, the complexity of which makes it quite an interesting attempt at redefining both those languages by merging them into one peculiar thing.

The first part of Oh Mercy! plays out as if it was a documentary: Captain Daoud (Roschdy Zem), the central character, has to deal with many kinds of crime, and it is here that Desplechin starts to introduce not just a character but a tone. The way Daoud reacts to these crimes, his calm behavior, all are elements that give us a chance to infer where Desplechin wants to go. We just don’t know when. The change happens when the police find the corpse of an old lady, possibly killed by Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), the two young lovers living next door. From here on Oh Mercy! becomes something else: a quiet argument about misery.

The whole plot and the way it is told tries to showcase the thin line that separates poverty from the aforementioned misery. Two totally different concepts, despite the analogies we think are sufficient proof that said concepts coincide. A false notion, Desplechin explains, not without flaws but with a clear idea about the direction his characters have to take. To accomplish this he employs a risky structure, splitting the film in two halves, then following two rigid schemes for both. As already stated, the first part feels like a documentary, with almost no dramatization; just a list of crimes, some heinous, others more ordinary. The second part is in fact one long interrogation, simple in the way it is presented to the audience but complex in its implications.

Besides the well-known dynamics of bad cop versus good cop, Desplechin strives to extrapolate more from the central premise of Oh Mercy! To a certain extent it is almost like it doesn’t matter who did what, not to us viewers anyway, as much as we are interested in understanding more about the relationship between Claude and Marie and what their sad circumstances have done to them. How much have they changed? How much were they harmed by the harsh reality of their lives? And how deeply?

Sara Forestier is most believable in portraying the damaged, psychologically unstable Marie. It is interesting that at the same time her behaviour is more authentic than Claude’s, calling into question the so-called normality that is radically challenged by the events. A priori, Léa Seydoux’s Claude is the more normal one, so to speak: a single mum who now lives with another woman, capable of making up stories, while Marie is a victim of her own clumsiness. Claude is manipulative; Marie is led by her love for Claude. Marie is willing to be treated as a pawn if this pleases Claude, while Claude, on the other hand, is able to display an unimaginable cruelty to her so-called lover.

According to Desplechin this moral massacre has just one culprit: none of the people involved. For even if they act badly, do something which is intrinsically awful, that doesn’t mean they are at all evil. In fact, Oh Mercy! doesn’t make any statement in this regard, so much as it tries to show how it is possible for anyone to be driven to the bottom by circumstances. What prevents Oh Mercy! from being truly accomplished in the end is not its blurred moral code, which is so on purpose, neither is it the mild cynicism it barely avoids (“One day you turn your head and realize life is not free. That you were wrong all along. I think life should be as wonderful as it was back when you were a child, but it’s not like that,” says Daoud). The form Desplechin chooses, and its inherent uncertainty floating between two cinematic approaches, is the real limit here. Something that makes a full exploration of the potential of this story almost impossible. Beneath the surface there is a truth that wants to be unveiled, and it is frustrating that Desplechin only partially succeeds in the admirable task of unveiling it.