the life of a saint, unfolded without surprise

Benjamin Lavernhe (left) in “L’Abbé Pierre.  A life of fighting”, by Frédéric Tellier.


In France as elsewhere, the epidemic of biopics seems to say a lot about the state of health of an industry and the image it has among the public: why take risks when you can, at will? , return to the past, curl up there and resurrect a golden age and its most revered media figures? Why invent something when you know what the public likes and, above all, who they like?

And, basically, what does a film about the life of Abbot stone (1912-2007)? It is, in essence, with this last question that we struggle for 2 hours 18 minutes, seeing clearly how Abbot stone. A life of fighting is perfectly calibrated for an audience who would be served what they came to see, no more, no less: the edifying life of a saint, served on a chiaroscuro platter dripping with religiosity.

Because its director, Frédéric Tellier (Save or perish in 2018, Goliath in 2022) defends himself, arguing that he wanted to avoid hagiography at all costs: however, his film is one, and even in the etymological sense of the term. We follow the man, born Marie Joseph Henri Grouès in a bourgeois family, who freed himself from his social extraction to take a vow of poverty by integrating the very austere Capuchin convent of Crest (Drôme) – he was ordained a priest in 1938. The The story thus follows a clic upward trajectory while pretending, at regular intervals, to dig into gray areas (the sin of the flesh) and discouragement.

Perfectly academic

True to itself, the biopic heads at full speed towards its pre-ordained trajectory: here is Henri renamed Abbé Pierre by Lucie Coutaz, a comrade in the resistance to whom the film gives all its importance. Resistance fighter, deputy, defender of the homeless and soon a media figure when one evening in February 1954 the abbot launched his famous appeal on Radio Luxembourg (future RTL) which would provoke an unprecedented wave of solidarity.

Before, in 1949, the creation of the Emmaüs movement, founded with Lucie Coutaz, then its international expansion – nothing that is not already found in a biographical note. Here and there, again and again, doubts and demons, it’s true, but Tellier’s look is constantly astonished; its staging, perfectly academic.

Read the archive (2007): Abbé Pierre, media star

There remains the crucial question of incarnation, directly imported from an all-American tradition (the Actors Studio) which has been contaminating our dear actors for some time, a way of engaging in the role which is a priesthood: melt into the character, adopt his accent, his facial expressions, disappear completely behind the icon. In this game, Benjamin Lavernhe (he also enters the film as in the convent) proves to be of perfect technical skill, in a precarious balance between imitation and naturalness – at his side, Emmanuelle Bercot appears impeccably sober.

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