Film Review: The Innocent

The innocent ★★★★
(M) 99 minutes

Sylvie, a woman of a certain age (Anouk Grinberg), teaches acting in a French prison. Because she is an optimist and a spirited dreamer, she falls in love with one of the inmates. Her son Abel (Louis Garrel) is appalled by her third prison marriage. She’s a repeat offender, a serial romantic with teenage emotions.

Anouk Grinberg, Louis Garrel and Roschdy Zem in The Innocent.

Anouk Grinberg, Louis Garrel and Roschdy Zem in The Innocent.Credit: Emmanuelle Firman

There’s a funny scene in a car on the way to prison. “I’m still your mother,” she tells her disapproving son. “Yes, and you’re crazy,” he replies. At this point, they speed behind a prison bus and Sylvie recklessly brings the car close. She wants her lover to meet her son even if it’s through the window. He’s right, she’s crazy.

The first part of it – a mother teaching drama to convicts – is autobiographical. Louis Garrel grew up surrounded by men of some experience. In all his films he stays close to himself; he has made four since 2015. The others are Two friends, A faithful man And The Crusade. In each, Garrel’s character is called Abel: one of his trademarks. He plays himself, with variations. This time it’s not free.

Abel number four is self-centered and suspicious, wracked with grief since the death of his wife. The beautiful Clemence (Noemie Merlant) was his wife’s best friend. She and Abel are bound by grief, but Clemence is his opposite – full of life and love, an adventure just waiting to happen. Abel follows Michel, his mother’s new husband, beautifully played by Roschdy Zem. Abel quickly finds out what he suspects: Michel is planning a job.

Louis Garrel and Noémie Merlant in The Innocent, a delicious blend of comedy and drama.

Louis Garrel and Noémie Merlant in The Innocent, a delicious blend of comedy and drama.Credit: palace movies

The innocent is a delicious hybrid, like Garrel’s other films – a drama because the emotions are acted out directly; a romance because the characters are looking for love; and above all a comedy, because Garrel quietly pushes it towards logical chaos. This creates a beautiful kind of surrealism, in which situations are constantly being reversed and reversed, like in a French farce. So does Abel have to become a bad man to protect his mother from bad men? Clemence can’t wait to get involved – what’s better than an armed robbery?

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This creates a classic comedy of hilarity rather than gesture. It’s funny more for the depth of the character than for the comedic acting. The performances are all dead straight, the situations real enough to be dangerous. The mixture of characters creates the elevation into the fairytale-like, where suddenly everything goes completely haywire. What I’m describing here used to be common, but now it’s rare – except maybe in France, which has to uphold its own comedic traditions that go way back. And as any Frenchman will tell you, the French don’t like change. Plus ça change as they say.

Jaclyn Diaz

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