‘Misericordia’ Review: Alain Guiraudie’s Darkly Comic Backwoods Fable of Pansexual Desire and Small-Town Sociopathy

Marking a welcome re-embrace of the streamlined murdery perversities of his terrific “Stranger by the Lake,” Alain Guiraudie gives the Cannes Premiere section one of its darkly sparkling standouts with the unsettlingly offbeat “Misericordia.” In the director’s best work, Guiraudie’s trademark is to infuse genre dalliances with mordant wit and a deliciously peculiar, defiant queerness. And while it may initially appear to be  straightforward — and while it thankfully avoids the wild tonal swings of muddy tragicomedy “Staying Vertical” (2016) and rather baffling terrorism sex-farce “Nobody’s Hero” (2022) — nobody could ever accuse this increasingly twisted psychodrama of playing it straight.

From the start, there’s something off. The prologue is a driving sequence, shot from the point of view of the unseen driver, through the narrowing country roads of hilly southwestern France. There is nothing overtly odd going on, even the landscape is banal, shot in hazy earth tones by Claire Mathon’s clever, unromanticized camera. But something in the absolute silence from the driver (no humming, no car radio) and in this stretch of Marc Verdaguer’s vaguely sinister score is reminiscent of a Hitchcock following scene, delivered with the cool precision of Claude Chabrol. It feels like there’s malice here, or a least an uncanny absence of kindness.

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The impression is dispelled, however, at journey’s end. Jérémie (Félix Kysyl), a polite young man with a boyish, obliging air, has returned to the small town where he spent his teenage years, to attend the funeral of Jean-Pierre, the baker for whom he used to work. He is met warily by his old playmate Vincent (Jean-Baptiste Durand), Jean-Pierre’s son, but more warmly by Vincent’s mother Martine (Catherine Frot), the new widow. She insists, over Jérémie’s apparent reluctance to intrude, that he stays with her in the house above the bakery, in the bedroom that used to be Vincent’s before he got married and started a family of his own.

The roots of Vincent’s animosity soon becomes clear: He suspects Jérémie of wanting to put the moves on his still-attractive mother. Meanwhile, Martine believes that Jérémie had actually been in love with her dead husband. But then, the first person Jérémie makes an overt pass at is Vincent’s best friend Walter (David Ayala), a rotund loner, fond of pastis, who lives by himself in his family’s old house and seems to take pride in not working or engaging with the world very much. Vincent and Jérémie’s relationship is also underlain with a homoeroticism that crackles through their wrestling matches and through Vincent’s habit of showing up at the crack of dawn to hover by Jérémie’s bed. Add into the mix a local priest, Father Philippe (Jacques Develay), an avid mushroom-forager whose earthly passions are enflamed to a very unpriestly degree by the new returnee, and you have a heaving, mulchy mass of sexual possibility for Jérémie to navigate. Who will he seduce or be seduced by? Why not all of them, à la “Teorema”?

A grubby little murder occurs in the forest nearby, complicated by the rather wonderful detail that much-sought-after morels apparently thrive on soil nourished by decomposing human remains and will pop up overnight in the shape of the shallow-buried victim. Or perhaps that is just the guilt party’s fancy, like a fungal version of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” simply another red herring designed to gradually unpick our own preconceptions about guilt and innocence and bumpkinhood in this strange village.

Abetted by a brilliantly cast set of oddballs, from Vincent with his 1950s prizefighter frame to the unkempt Walter with his dirty undershirt straining across his belly to Martine with her air of elegant sexual worldliness to Father Philippe who hides his excitement beneath his cassock, there hasn’t been a more exaggeratedly eccentric vision of French provincialism since Bruno Dumont established his “Li’l Quinquin” universe.

And so our natural sympathies are redirected and redirected again as the comparatively engaging and telegenic Jérémie becomes the Guiraudie equivalent of an unreliable narrator. “Misericordia,” we eventually realize, between the absurdist gags about sexuality and the sardonic sideswipes at religious hypocrisy, does not follow a fish attempting to swim in unfamiliar waters, nor even an out-of-towner cat set loose amongst the local pigeons. Instead it’s a slippery, changeable parable about a particularly amoral cuckoo looking to feather a new nest.

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