Cannes 2024 review: Misericordia (Alain Guiraudie)

“Just like real life often grows more tangled than untangled, nothing is truly resolved at the end of Misericordia, but what we experienced along the way is very much worth the ride.”

Alain Guiraudie’s previous film, Nobody’s Hero, took place in an important provincial town in France. Misericordia, as its opening credits roll, leaves such urban surroundings along with its main character, Jérémie, as he goes back to his home village in the deep countryside. The somber music accompanying his road trip leaves us with no doubt that this is not going to be a happy return for him. The circumstances are sad indeed – the funeral of his former boss, the town baker – yet it soon becomes clear that it is Jérémie’s interactions with the people still alive that will make his time there complicated. There is Martine, the widow in whose house Jérémie stays after the ceremony; two of his childhood friends, Vincent, the dead man’s son, and Walter; and the village priest, whose main interest appears to be mushrooming in the woods (bathed in a stunningly gorgeous autumn light crafted by cinematographer Claire Mathon). If ‘two is company and three is a crowd’, as the saying goes, in such a hamlet five is clearly overcrowded and can only lead to trouble.

To this opening in a western film style – a stranger comes (back) to town – the escalating tension between the characters adds a Hitchcockian turn, when it leads to an abrupt and brutal murder. The lengthy and wordless scene showing the murderer’s efforts to hide the corpse in the forest, cover his own tracks, and set up his cover story, is an impressive display of Guiraudie’s abilities when it comes to the thriller genre, which he had already embraced superbly with Stranger by the Lake. However, unlike the latter, starting from the day after the murder Misericordia defuses more than it builds up the tension. Even though there is a police investigation (and quite an invasive one, which forces the culprit to alter his story several times) regarding the disappearance, the movie plot is less driven by Cartesian reason and logic than by human emotions and desires, which are by nature unpredictable, uncontrollable, to the point of defying even what seems to be common sense.

The longer Jérémie stays in the village, the more the relationships among the characters become blurred. Desires of all sorts (love, hate, tenderness, sex) arise, even between unexpected people, and to make things even more complicated, these intimate desires can be unrequited, or clash with the public image one wishes to convey. As always with the filmmaker there is a great deal of intelligence at work here, so as to maintain our connection with the characters in all conditions, and to keep his story running smoothly as it undergoes several tone shifts. One scene will bring to mind Pasolini’s Teorema, with Jérémie as the spark igniting the repressed desires of the townsfolk, and the next will feel like a bedroom farce. All of this leads the film into the place Guiraudie enjoys exploring the most: a grey area of complete amorality, not in the sense of depravity but rather of actions taking place outside the social construct of morality. The most powerful manifestation of this occurs when the strongest obstruction of the police inquiry comes from no other than the man of the cloth, supposedly another authority figure himself.

The numerous twists and turns might, at times, place Misericordia on the verge of inconsequence, but the film has loads of qualities to avoid that. There is Guiraudie’s attention to details that make the script so rich (the mushrooms revealing the location of the body); the compelling and complex performances he gets from his cast – Félix Kysyl in the lead, Catherine Frot, Jacques Develay, David Ayala and Jean-Baptiste Durand, the director of last year’s French indie sensation Junkyard Dog; and his just as impressive use of sudden close-ups to capture the feelings and mood swings on their faces. Just as real life often grows more tangled than untangled, nothing is truly resolved at the end of Misericordia, but what we experienced along the way is very much worth the ride.