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The Innocent ★★★



Director: Louis Garrel

Cast: Louis Garrel, Noémie Merlant

Release: 25th August 2023

Although he is known for his acting roles in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Louis Garrell is a Caméra d’Or-nominated filmmaker and screenwriter. Premiering at Cannes 2022, his latest film, The Innocent (OV: L’Innocent), marks his fourth directorial feature and sees the actor star alongside Portrait of a Lady on Fire actress Noémie Merlant.

Set in Lyon, widower Abel (Garrel) is immediately suspicious when his mother Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg) falls for and quickly marries convict Michel (Roschdy Zem), whom she meets through prison theatre school. Upon his release, Michel tries to bond with Abel and for the sake of his mother, the latter agrees to be cordial. But his suspicions linger under the surface, and, with the help of his free-spirited friend Clémence (Merlant), Abel aims to seek out the truth behind his mother’s new husband.

The Innocent immediately establishes a consistent theme – not everything is as it seems. The film opens with a shady guy trying to organise a job, with his gravely voice and threatening demeanour setting up a chilling tone – only for the camera to pan out to an encouraging and collaborative prison theatre class. One of the prisoners, Michel, shares his probation update with teacher Slyvie, who is more than happy about this news. So much so the scene ends with her excitedly yelling a declaration of love while following Michel’s prison van at full speed – with her perplexed son Abel cowering in the passenger seat.

Whether it is certain characters pretending to be something they are not or shady developments in the background, the collaborative screenplay creates waves of intrigue that sway between paranoia and plain stubbornness. Most of this is driven by Abel’s mission to discredit Michel and protect his loved-up mother, which causes inklings of comedy, but these are balanced by fleeting yet morose moments from his past. Abel is not over the loss of his late wife Maud (especially due to his involvement in her death) and cannot connect with others, with only his colleague (and Maud’s best friend) Clémence tolerating his rundown demeanour. His immense guardedness subsequently extends to other characters, so it is easy to see the characters’ discontentment with their lives. Ranging from Clémence’s string of failed dates to Slyvie stepping away from her love of the theatre and her increasing emotional reliance on Michel, every character subsequently hides a part of themselves during the film’s neon-lit appearances. As a result, this overly secretive nature occasionally causes the first half of The Innocent to drag its heels through Abel’s clumsy attempts to spy on Michel – despite Clémence and Sylvie’s attempts to chill him out – while failing to refine the presence of supporting characters.

In terms of performances, it is a mixed bag. Amid Garrel and Zem’s broodiness and Grinberg’s quirkiness, Merlant is a standout piece of casting, as she conveys eccentricity, confidence and quiet contemplation through her performance. Nonetheless, the collective strength of these actors comes into full force during the second half of The Innocent, which sees Michel, Abel and Clémence embroiled in a tense situation involving a heist. Competing against the clock, Garrel elevates the tension in not only the screenplay and intimate direction but also among the characters, as they have to now rely on each other to avoid getting killed. The risks of the job at hand cause the masks on certain characters to slip, essentially exposing the unspoken truths of the small ensemble. Sylvie comes to terms with the life as a humble shopkeeper, while Michel contends with settling scores in his past to ensure his future. However, Abel and Clémence are the ones most affected by the need for home truths, as they are forced to improvise when plans go awry. Highlighting Garrel and Merlant’s talents, the two friends unexpectedly to pour their hearts out to each other (in the hope of distracting a lorry driver), which ends up becoming an impassioned and engrossing tearjerker of a scene – paving the way for this straightforward caper to descend into mildly comical chaos.

When the film comes to a bittersweet climax, it concludes the strange balance between comedy and drama amid Garrel’s family crime caper. While its unpredictability delivers sporadic laughs, The Innocent’s strongest weapon is its unexpected heart, which is reinforced by its solid performances.

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