Louis Garrel’s heist comedy is a treat—for its metacontext as much as its craft.
“We can’t change ourselves, only what surrounds us.” Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg) says to her son Abel (director Louis Garrel) in the opening minutes of The Innocent. Louis Garrel has appeared in movies since he was 6 years old, making his debut in a movie directed by his father, Philippe Garrel, the last French New Waver, and his mother, actress Brigitte Sy, (1989’s Les baisers de secours aka Emergency Kisses) about a director and his actress wife. Louis Garrel appeared in seven of his father’s films, several directed by his former partner Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, directed movies with ex-wife Golshifteh Farahani and current wife Laetitia Casta, and played his father’s peer and champion Jean-Luc Godard in Le Redoubtable, based on the memoirs of Anne Wiazemsky, whose niece Léa is in The Innocent.
The Innocent is as comprehensive a step away from the kind of cinema for which Garrel’s ever-expanding cohort is known as he has yet been involved in, if still pretty firmly in his wheelhouse. It follows a young man who learns his mother plans to marry a convict named Michel (Roschdy Zem), who’s on the verge of completing a years-long sentence. Abel’s also in a very intense friendship with his colleague at an aquarium, Clémence Genièvre (Noémie Merlant), who was his wife’s best friend before her death in a car accident (Abel was driving, and his guilt is always visible). He takes all his pent-up frustration out on his mother, scolding her for her impulsiveness and worrying that her marriage will lead to despair and misery. “I was like a father, a brother…” he tells Michel, who knowingly replies, “And you just wanted to be a son?”
The Innocent’s manic pace and screwball situations feel just far enough away from the naturalistic, ever so slightly-presentational style of Garrel’s father that it’s clear he’s forging his own path. He does, however, seem less concerned about cribbing ideas from collaborators like the great Christophe Honoré and Arnaud Desplechin. If you must steal, I can think of few better to steal from, but there’s no denying that the appearance of a vignetted spotlight can only mean one thing: someone’s been watching Desplechin movies. And frankly, the idea that Garrel has, in his four directorial efforts been playing a character named Abel whose life mirrors his own and is married to the women in Garrel’s life, is right out of Desplechin’s own playbook, to say nothing of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel movies starring Garrel’s godfather Jean-Pierre Léaud.
It would be, in other words, something of a fool’s errand to expect Garrel to step conclusively away from his artistic heritage and frankly, this fourth-generation new-wave style he’s developed, like a healthy coating of ivy around an old suburban home, is diverting in the utmost as it is. As they say, if it ain’t broque don’t fix it.
Truffaut is a useful a reference point, as the further Abel descends into the mire of Michel’s criminal lifestyle and schemes the more The Innocent comes to resemble one of the director’s many Hitchcock riffs, albeit with a lighter, defter touch. I was not infrequently reminded of the homegrown nth gen screwball antics of Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries and Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Mistress America, though with a more precise, more impatient camera. Garrel uses perspective with much more engaging specificity—from split screens that match eyeliner to objects, to zooms that change the dynamic of scenes-within-scenes.
The Innocent’s acting workshops are as thematically resonant as the desire to become a writer in Mistress America, with Michel trying to teach Abel and Clémence how to act in order to help out with a warehouse con after the latter has begged the latter to be more courteous to his mother to help her live her dreams—and kudos to Garrel for seeing untapped comic energy in Noémie Merlant, who is criminally good in the part of a woman learning how much she loves being devious – it’s a performance that reminds me of Mary Holland’s best work. Those dreams seem meagre to Abel but they mean everything to someone, which is ultimately what The Innocent is about. From its vivid color scheme to its frenzied handheld camera work to its fourth wall breaking editorial choices; nothing is too far out for Garrel in telling the story of the people who mean the most to him, in giving them the fantasy they so richly deserve.
The Innocent is now streaming on the Criterion Channel and rentable digitally.