The film depicts the day-to-day operations of the Roubaix police department through the eyes of new recruit Louis (Antoine Reinartz) and his older, stoic commissaire Daoud (Roschdy Zem). Zem is pitch- perfect in what’s already a captivating and well-written role, managing to convey that Daoud has seen it all without coming across as smug or resting on his laurels. This is particularly clear during OH MERCY!’s interrogation scenes, where Zem keeps the pressure applied even as his hunches appear more and more likely to be true. Here, Daoud simmers with rage, revealing the cracks in his calm exterior, leaving the audience in anticipation to see whether the perp will give in before he erupts. He’s truly the archetypal crime genre protagonist, complete with a sombre yet ambiguous backstory about a broken family that’s practically begging to be explored in a follow-up.
From the second half onwards, director/co-writer Arnaud Desplechin dedicates an increasing amount of focus to Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), two roommates who become suspects in a murder case Daoud investigates. Although it’s a somewhat jarring shift (more on that below), Seydoux and Forestier are more than up to the challenge, bringing serious emotional heft as the pair’s backstories and complex, symbiotic friendship are revealed. I found them to be equally captivating for different reasons: Forestier is certainly showier; the fear in her voice alone during questioning strikes a balance between relatable and suspicious, casting her as someone who knows more than they’re letting on. By contrast, Claude is icy and calculating, wanting to avoid the investigation for fear that her relationship with her young son could become further strained. Seydoux is wonderful opposite both Forestier and Zem, using long pauses and an unflinching gaze to punctuate her early scenes and subtly disarm her co-stars.
Despite its strong leads, I found OH MERCY!’s structure confusing and misguided, preventing it from leaving a stronger impression. Simply put, there is no discernible reason why the writers divided the story between cases in such a linear fashion. There are no overarching thematic threads, nor does it feel like a cinema verite-esque attempt to realistically portray the case by case nature of police work. Given the Claude and Marie case dominates the latter half and ending, I can’t imagine why it wasn’t the entire premise of the film, or at least foreshadowed from the beginning. Similarly, the first case shown (a burn victim supposedly attacked by jihadists) is interesting, but Daoud quickly solves it and it’s just as swiftly forgotten. Once again, these ideas could’ve stood out with more breathing room, and it’s a shame for them to go to waste.
OH MERCY! is above all an acting showcase, with a trio of dynamic performances sure to command the viewer’s attention. Even though its structure feels like a failed experiment, I suspect crime buffs might relish the opportunity to unravel several cases at once. I’m not sure I’ll come back to this film any time soon, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for what its leads do next.