A Pity Beyond All Telling
By Susannah Gruder

NYFF 2019:
Oh Mercy!
Dir. Arnaud Desplechin, France, no distributor

In Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s latest portrait of Roubaix, the city he grew up in, the residents keep to themselves. Here, in one of France’s poorest communes, neighbors don’t check in on each other, friendships aren’t easily formed, and no one wants to get involved in anyone else’s business. For Desplechin, Roubaix has long been an idea as much as a place. In the imagination of Paul Dédalus, the cerebral protagonist who pops up throughout his body of work, generally in the form of wild-eyed Desplechin mainstay Mathieu Amalric, the northern French city represents memory and childhood, his modest upbringing and the feeling that despite his numerous academic degrees and well-connected friends, he’ll always be an outsider. In Oh Mercy!, Desplechin discards Dédalus and plunges us into a more authentic version of the city, taking up the perspectives of its populace at large. Oh Mercy! is Desplechin’s attempt to recreate the stories behind the crimes he saw in Mosco Boucault’s 2008 television documentary, Roubaix, Commissariat Central, which charted the day-to-day events of the local police station in 2002. While a police procedural may be uncharted territory for Desplechin, the director’s roots in the region provide a solid foundation for his extremely committed experiment in the genre.

Guiding us through this shadowy city of locked doors is Police Commissioner Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), whose job it is to open them, whether gently or by force. Like Desplechin, Daoud is powerfully drawn to this place, and is himself a personification of the city, having firmly established his own steely exterior that periodically gives way to compassion. Daoud is framed as a workaholic and an insomniac with no personal life to speak of. He’s far from his family in Algeria, aside from a nephew in prison who refuses to speak to him for reasons that go unexplained. But this serious cop has a soft side—while he’ll dodge personal questions from colleagues, he takes joy in riding horses and feeding milk to the cats that gather outside his door at night. The events of Oh Mercy! take place at Christmastime, and like in A Christmas Tale (2008), the cold, otherwise bleak city is illuminated by lights, only here they’re at once radiant and menacing. Street decorations crossfade into police car lights, revealed to be heading towards a burning car. The film alternates between the sterile, indifferent light of a police station or jail cell, and the golden, burning moonlight that falls over the city after dark, accented by the sparks of flicked cigarettes. The film’s French title, Roubaix, une lumière (Roubaix, A Light), is mysterious. Is the light leading the way or is it a warning signal? Is it a light of recognition? A light in the dark? For Daoud, perhaps it’s the light of truth, which he hopes will emerge from the murky details of each case.

Oh Mercy! has a uniquely narrow focus for Desplechin, whose works tend to span multiple time periods, storylines, and genres, containing barrages of allusions to everything from Greek mythology to Hitchcock. Here, Desplechin again consults the master of suspense, but says he was only guided by one film: The Wrong Man. Desplechin isn’t as heavy-handed with his references as in past films, like Ismael’s Ghosts and A Christmas Tale, which sample character names and musical themes from Hitchcock’s works in a constant stream. The film’s influence is felt most significantly in its opening lines, which state, like at the beginning of The Wrong Man, that “Here, all the crimes, big or small, are true.” And while there are subtle nods to The Wrong Man throughout (Daoud, like Henry Fonda’s character, likes horse racing but never bets), Desplechin says his goal was simply to make “a film that sticks to reality, in every way.” In attempting to tell a true story, he ends up giving us his most deceptively straightforward film yet.

By doing away with narrative tricks or genre bending, Desplechin puts the focus on the performances, which provide a multifaceted and devastating study of urban desperation. The first half is concerned with establishing a relationship between Daoud and his eager new lieutenant Louis Cotterel (Antoine Reinartz) as we follow them from one emergency to another. We come face-to-face with the locals of Roubaix: the drug addicts, teenage rebels, and others to whom life has not been particularly kind. In a sense we’re undergoing the same hazing as Louis, with this first disjointed half of the film feeling as unwelcoming as the city itself. Each sequence registers as random, and there’s no indication that these episodes will add up to anything worthwhile. This first half serves as a portrait of a city’s prejudices, and how Daoud has learned to unearth the truth amid false accusations. An early scene shows him easily able to poke holes in the testimony of an alleged witness (Philippe Duquesne) who says a group of turban-clad “Arabs” burned him with a blowtorch before screaming “Allahu Akbar.” Daoud listens to him calmly, shuffling a deck of cards behind his desk before threatening to arrest him for fraud. Louis, on the other hand, is eager to make an impression, but slow to get his bearings, as we ascertain from letters and journal entries read in voiceover—sometimes, in true Desplechin fashion, straight to camera. There’s a trace of Dédalus in Louis, as he sits at his desk stacked with books, decorated with photos and maps, describing the city as “austere” and “violent,” saying he feels right at home.

Oh Mercy! gets its bearings in the second half, as the unrelated plot points momentarily fade. Here Desplechin slowly teases out the relationship between two women who live together in an alleyway apartment, near where an arson occurs, which is soon followed by a murder. Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier) barely peek out from their house to answer Louis’s questions about the arson, but when they do, Claude’s nonchalance is effectively destroyed by Marie’s obvious jumpiness and one-word answers. Once their connections to both crimes emerge, Seydoux invokes her well-honed side-eye, trying in vain to give away nothing. But it’s Forestier’s face that’s clearly the film’s most captivating visual. Marie’s meek anger is no match for Daoud and his entourage—it’s impossible not to feel for her as she’s swallowed up by the system. In a sequence no doubt drawn from The Wrong Man, Desplechin shows the indignities of arrest—being photographed, fingerprinted, searched, swabbed for DNA (“Lick the lollipop,” the police officer tells her), and told to remove her bra. “I don’t like this,” she whines pitifully. By the end of her overnight stay in jail, you can practically smell the stench of her clothing and feel her exhaustion as she struggles to stay awake during questioning. Later, Daoud shows us his compassionate “good cop” side as he breaks from the interrogation and speaks tenderly to Claude and Marie separately. This is the first and only time Daoud seems to open up, perhaps finding it easier to speak frankly to an alleged criminal than a family member or colleague. Daoud has built his reputation as a cop on his ability to discern the truth in a suspect’s statement, a skill developed by sympathizing with whomever he’s questioning. But these feelings don’t disappear for him once a criminal confesses—he’s learned to relate to Claude and Marie on a much deeper level than the average officer, embodying the lines of Yeats, quoted by Louis in a journal entry, that “A pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love.”

As Claude and Marie attempt to get their story straight, their relationship, up until now ambiguous in nature, unravels before our eyes, their power dynamic becoming clearer. Asked to reenact their crime for the police in a bizarre exercise that doesn’t seem altogether legal, words and gestures seem to take on secret meanings for the two; it suddenly feels as though we’re interrupting something unbearably intimate, like a love scene. Desplechin manages to draw our allegiances in different directions—we are at once tied to the criminals, the victim, and the investigating officers. It’s an unusual position for the spectator to be put in for a procedural, which are often firmly one-sided. Here Desplechin succeeds at turning a fairly simple plot ripped from the headlines into a complicated picture of his hometown, and the tangled web of sympathies that appear when you look a little deeper.