Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! isn’t a whodunit; it’s a whydunit—without an answer. Set in poverty-blighted Roubaix, near northern France’s Belgian border, the film observes local police as they grapple with a number of crimes, led by the soulful, Algerian-born Commissaire Daoud (Roschdy Zem). Eventually, the film’s diffuse narrative rounds on two young women suspected of murdering their elderly neighbour.
Desplechin, a native of Roubaix, extracted his story from a Mosco Boucault documentary about the depressed city, where the killing actually took place. The filmmaker found himself sympathizing with the young women. “I couldn’t stop liking them, even though they did the worst,” he tells the Georgia Straight during a Skype call from Paris. “It reminded me of Dostoyevsky. When you start to like Raskolnikov, it’s too late. He’s killing the old lady, and you think, ‘Moron, stop doing that!’ ”
Oh Mercy! is otherwise distinguished from the common policier by the imperturbable presence of Daoud, “a superhero”, in Desplechin’s words, with an unusually intuitive approach to detective work and a philosophical apprehension of the troubled world around him. Cast against type, Roschdy Zem was told by his director: “You will have to find inside you the answer to the question ‘Why is Daoud going through all these terrible events but smiling and accepting and embracing the world?’ ”
Meanwhile, Desplechin saw Léa Seydoux’s defiant Claude as a thematic descendant of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, while Sara Forestier accepted the role of Marie by simply sending the director—to his great delight—an image of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
“An audience is harsher with a female character than with a male character,” Desplechin remarks. “I think you accept everything from a man. When you are looking at a Clint Eastwood movie, the meaner he is, the more you love him. And I would love to give that kind of freedom to a female character.”
As a work of radical compassion, Oh Mercy! does more than that. It’s perhaps significant that Desplechin—a consistent favourite of VIFF’s Panorama/Spotlight on France program—is eager to visit the Downtown Eastside when he brings the new film to Vancouver for his first-ever visit. “What I wanted to do,” he says, “was to take the very humble words which were said in this documentary and make them as precious and as full of grandeur as a Shakespeare line or a Chekhov line. To take this very humble material and treat it as if it was a sacred text.”