As much as France likes to think of itself as a secular society, the country still remains, in many ways, Catholic. Beyond the fact that anywhere between 40 percent to 80 percent of its population identifies itself as such, it’s a place where the majority of bank holidays celebrate the life of Jesus — Christmas, Easter, the Assumption, the Ascension and the Pentecost, as well as All Saints’ Day — and where you can hear church bells ringing everywhere on Sunday morning, even in the most Bobo parts of Paris.
At the same time, French people generally practice a more restrained brand of Catholicism, going to mass once a year, if at all, while fully endorsing the laic policies of the state. And yet, there are some French communities which, in the 1970s, began to embrace a much more extreme form of Catholicism as part of the “charismatic” movement imported over from the U.S., with traditions bordering on those of full-blown sects.
Actress-turned-director Sarah Suco (Invisibles) grew up in one such community and has now made it the subject of her debut feature, The Dazzled (Les Éblouis), which explores the damaging effects that sectarian practices can have on a close-knit family. With a strong cast led by Camille Cottin (Tom McCarthy’s upcoming Stillwater), the film is best when it concentrates on the blurred lines between love of one’s kin and love of god, and how parents engulfed in fanaticism can often confuse the two. But Suco then commits a major sin in the last act by trying to sensationalize her material, transforming a potent drama into something closer to a movie of the week.
Told from the point of view of 12-year-old Camille (the promising Céleste Brunnquell), a gifted young acrobat whose parents, Christine (Cottin) and Frédéric (Eric Caravaca), join a charismatic church in their rural city of Angoulême, The Dazzled functions like a typical coming-of-age narrative — except Camille comes of age in a devout commune that sits somewhere between the wholesomeness of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the horrors of Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Indeed, not everything about the Community of the Dove, as it’s called, seems hellish at first. There’s a joyous air about the place, with a mixed, multicultural congregation cooking collective meals, singing, dancing, playing soccer and reveling in the Holy Spirit. And yet, their leader, a man known only as The Shepherd (the effectively creepy Jean-Pierre Darroussin), exerts a David Koresh-ian level of control over his flock, making them bleat like sheep whenever he enters a room and performing exorcisms to cast out deep buried psychological traumas, whether they’re real or not.
Camille is against the commune from the very start, and does her best to protect her younger brothers (Armand Rayaume, Jules Dhios Francisco) from its more outré rituals. But there’s little she can do in the face of her mom Christine’s total devotion, which grows increasingly fanatical as the family gets sucked into the community. Meanwhile, her wishy-washy dad, who at first seems skeptical of The Shepherd’s ways, winds up accepting everything out both love for his wife and pure cowardice.
Suco, who co-wrote the script with Nicolas Silhol (Corporate), does a credible job, at least for the first two acts, in showing how communes like the Dove can brainwash people into ceding their personal and professional selves for what appears to be a greater, spiritual calling. Somebody as fragile as Christine was clearly in need of help, and the community serves its purpose by surrounding her with sanctity and affection.
Camille, on the hand, is a free spirit. We first see her performing an impressive circus routine for a class she’s been taking, and the teacher encourages her to keep training. When she signs up for a clowning program, Camille meets an 18-year-old juggler, Boris (Spencer Bogaert), whose life is as ordinary as hers is isolated and strange.
And yet the two hit it off, with some of the film’s best sequences showing how hard it is for a girl like Camille to do things most teenage girls want to do, such as wearing trendy clothes or going out on on a date. (Forget about receiving a weekly allowance, which Camille has to steal from the church’s coffers, leading to a confrontation with the entire commune.)
Had the narrative merely concentrated on Camille’s growing opposition to both The Shepherd and her own parents, it could have blossomed into an unsettling family drama set in a world seldom depicted in French movies, which in recent years have focused almost solely on Muslim sects rather than Christian ones. But then Suco introduces a very predictable, and very unnecessary, twist in the last act — one that’s been handled more convincingly in a host of other films about church scandals. Whether the twist was based on her own experiences, or whether the director simply didn’t think her story had enough gravitas, it winds up sapping the movie’s credibility during the finale.
Still, The Dazzled offers a rare and mostly worthy glimpse of religion gone haywire in a country that likes to vaunt its secular ways, showing how a cult that exists in broad daylight — one of the more disturbing things about the Dove community is that it sits right at the center of town — can ruin people’s lives with both their consent and that of the authorities. Of course, such places can also make people’s lives better, at least for women like Christine who trust in the will of their lord. In that case, it’s a matter of what you believe.
Production companies: Mon Voisin Productions, Épithète Films
Cast: Céleste Brunnquell, Camille Cottin, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Eric Caravaca, Spencer Bogaert
Director: Sarah Suco
Screenwriters: Sarah Suco, Nicolas Silhol
Producers: Dominique Besnehard, Michel Feller, Frédéric Brillion
Director of photography: Yves Angelo
Production designer: Manu de Chauvigny
Costume designer: Nathalie Raoul
Editor: Catherine Schwartz
Composer: Laurent Perez del Mar
Casting directors: Elsa Pharaon, David Bertrand