In a career spanning four decades and eight features, Alain Guiraudie has cemented himself as one of our most astute chroniclers of desire. If there’s any leitmotif to his libidinous body of work, that’s not homosexuality (prevalent as same-sex encounters might be across his films) but a force that transcends all manner of labels and categories. His is a cinema of liberty: of vast, enchanted spaces and solitary wanderers who wrestle with their passions, and in acting them out, change the way they carry themselves into the world. Desire becomes an exercise in self-sovereignty, a way of reasserting one’s independence––a rebirth. It is often said that cinema is an inescapably scopophilic realm, where the act of looking is itself a source of pleasure, but Guiraudie has a way of making that dynamic feel egalitarian, as thrilling for those watching as it is for those being watched. 

And why his latest, Misericordia, may not be as unapologetically graphic as some of its predecessors––nowhere near the sex-fueled Stranger by the Lake (2013), his most successful picture to date––it still speaks to similar preoccupations, positing lust as an all-encompassing, unifying power. Everyone gets to yearn in Guiraudie’s cinema; whether those urges are ever satisfied, there’s something almost disarmingly fair about the way his films treat that most cardinal of human drives. Like Stranger, not only does Misericordia meld sex with death––it also kicks off with one. A young baker stationed in Toulouse, Jérémie (Félix Kysyl) returns to the remote countryside village of Saint-Martial in Southern France for the funeral of his former boss, Jean-Pierre (Serge Richard). The owner of the hamlet’s only bakery, where Jérémie once worked as a teen, Jean-Pierre is survived by his wife Martine (Catherine Frot), who welcomes back Jérémie as a prodigal son, going as far as to suggest he should take over her late husband’s joint. It’s a plan that triggers her only son, Vincent (Jean-Baptiste Durand), whose animosity toward the intruder and childhood pal grows more violent until a deadly brawl forces Jérémie to spend the rest of the film covering his tracks, aided and abetted––of all people––by a local priest, father Grisolles (Jacques Develay). 

Written by Guiraudie, Misericordia ushers in Jérémie as a lunar creature, a figure whose backstory remains shrouded in mysteries. If Claire Mathon’s close-ups of a suggestive beachside picture of Jean-Pierre are anything to go by, he and Jérémie might have shared something other than a work relationship, but as is usually the case with Guiraudie, the film doesn’t traffic in pat explanations so much as secrets and intimations. Was their love––if it was love at all––ever consummated? Conversations around the director’s filmography tend to gloss over how often his characters’ carnal longings fail to be fulfilled––how “blueballing” is as paramount to his oeuvre as actual intercourse. Here, too, people ache with unsatisfied needs, but what sets Misericordia apart from its predecessors is the way Guiraudie seems determined to map and dissect desire on a much wider scale. There are all kinds of it in Misericordia: Jérémie’s sexual attraction for a local farmer and old acquaintance, Walter (David Ayala); Martine’s love for her late husband; her near-maternal affection for Jérémie. And then there’s the love of the title, Latin for mercy, a Christian principle you’d expect to be most convincingly embodied by the local priest; then Guiraudie reveals the clergyman is no less susceptible to those primal stimuli as the rest of us. 

That equanimity is a hallmark of the director’s artistry, and the reason why his films feel authentic in a way so many others do not. Guiraudie’s drifters––a pantheon that groups together traditionally “attractive” young people and more corpulent, older figures––are never the urban-chic types that have become a staple of much commercial and arthouse French cinema. Set worlds away from Paris, most of them in that rural corner of southern France where he grew up, his works pullulate with folks who share a near-molecular relationship with the places they inhabit. Which is to say that forests, lakes, and hills never operate as simple backgrounds, but in the same way landscapes do in Romantic paintings: as extensions of the characters’ inner lives, canvases that reflect and refract their tempestuous emotions. 

Part of that in Misericordia owes to Mathon’s cinematography, which employs long shots and deep-focus to turn the woods into cavernous, fairytale spaces, open terrains that echo the characters’ thirst for lawless experiences. Guiraudie is so steeped in the topography of his films that you often leave feeling like you’ve lived inside them, too. Repetition is key to foster that proximity; Misericordia returns to those recurring few frames in the woods with the same eagerness that Jérémie revisits the crime scene, tethering you to those settings even as it blurs your sense of time. 

Riddled with guilt, the thirtysomething runs around in circles, his restlessness not propelled by lust but far gloomier thoughts. And yet, for all its morbid undertones and philosophical ruminations, Misericordia is neither a dirge nor a lofty symposium. Strange as it may be to say for a story that begins with a burial and then shatters after a heinous death, this is a supremely and surprisingly funny film, where humor gradually accrues a subversiveness not unlike desire’s own. Nothing can ever trump that in Guiraudie’s cinema––certainly not the law, here represented by a couple of hapless cops struggling to decode the suspicious bond that forms between Jérémie and father Grisolles. “I suppose that’s the force of desire,” one of the officers sarcastically offers as a possible explanation as to why young man and priest should keep crossing each other’s paths in the woods without ever actually agreeing on a date. “Yes,” the clergyman replies. “Don’t underestimate it.” It’s the closest we get to a mission statement––for this luminous film, and for its director’s galvanizing view of the world. 

Misericordia premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by Janus Films and Sideshow.

Grade: A-

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