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The Innocent ★★★★
(M) 99 minutes
Sylvie, a woman of a certain age (Anouk Grinberg), teaches drama in a French prison. Because she’s an optimist and a vivacious dreamer, she falls for one of the inmates. Her son Abel (Louis Garrel) is appalled at her third prison marriage. She is a recidivist, a serial romantic, with the emotions of a teenager.
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 the prison. “I am still your mother,” she tells her disapproving son. “Yes, and you are crazy,” he replies. At which point they zoom up behind a prison bus and Sylvie brings the car in, recklessly close. She wants her lover to meet her son, even if it’s through the window. He’s right, she is crazy.
The first part of this – a mother who teaches drama to convicts – is autobiographical. Louis Garrel grew up surrounded by men of a certain experience. He sticks close to his real self in all his movies; 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, that is not complimentary.
Abel number four is self-absorbed and suspicious, racked with grief since the death of his wife. The beautiful Clemence (Noemie Merlant) was his wife’s best friend. She and Abel are bound together by sorrow but Clemence is his opposite – brimming with life and love, an adventure waiting to happen. Abel starts to follow Michel, his mother’s new husband, played beautifully by Roschdy Zem. Abel soon discovers what he suspected: Michel is planning a job.
Louis Garrel and Noémie Merlant in The Innocent, a delicious hybrid of comedy and drama.Credit: Palace Films
The Innocent is a delicious hybrid, like Garrel’s other films – a drama, because the emotions are played straight; a romance, because the characters are looking for love; and above all a comedy, because Garrel pushes it quietly towards logical mayhem. This produces a lovely sort of surrealism in which situations are constantly reversed and inverted, as in French farce. So in order to protect his mother from bad men, must Abel become a bad man? Clemence can’t wait to join in – what could be more fun than armed robbery?
This produces a classical comedy of mirth rather than gesture. It’s funny because of depth of character, rather than comedic acting. The performances are all dead straight, the situations real enough to bring jeopardy. The mix of the characters generates the elevation into fairytale, where suddenly, everything is completely haywire. What I am describing here used to be common, but it’s now rare – except perhaps in France, which has its own comedic traditions to uphold, going way back. And as any French person will tell you, the French do not like change. Plus ça change, as they say.
The Innocent is in cinemas from April 13.
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