French actor, writer and director Louis Garrel crafts a thoroughly charming crime caper co-starring 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' standout Noémie Merlant.
September 07, 2023
Is it possible to make a heist movie that's inspired by detective fiction but takes some cues from reality, including riffing on the director's own mother's experiences and her work as a filmmaker? Then, can such a flick become a charming crime caper that's effortlessly fresh and oh-so French, and yet also could've been made during both the French New Wave and American cinema's glorious 70s era? With his latest feature The Innocent, consider actor, writer and helmer Louis Garrel 100-percent guilty. Consider the film itself an utter delight, too. And, consider it gorgeously shot (by César-nominated Les Misérables cinematographer Julien Poupard), smartly penned (by Garrel, gumshoe novelist Tanguy Viel and Garrel's The Crusade co-screenwriter Naïla Guiguet) and winningly cast, with the latter including Little Women's Garrel himself opposite Portrait of a Lady on Fire's Noémie Merlant, plus Roschdy Zem (Other People's Children) and Anouk Grinberg (The Night of the 12th).
Actually, in his fourth stint as an actor-turned-filmmaker following 2015's Two Friends, 2018's A Faithful Man and 2021's The Crusade, Garrel hasn't just assembled a stellar core quartet of actors. In addition to that, he has them anchoring a movie that overtly explores the role of acting in everyday life. Sylvie Lefranc (Grinberg) is a theatre thespian and teacher, as initially observed showing imprisoned men the tricks of the board-treading trade. In her class is Michel Ferrand (Zem), who she swiftly marries — with Sylvie's thirtysomething son Abel in attendance but hardly approving, especially because this isn't her first set of jailhouse nuptials. He's worried about his mom and suspicious about his new stepdad, which gives him a distraction from grieving for his recently deceased wife and hearing about her best friend Clémence Genièvre's (Merlant) tumultuous love life. He knows that Sylvie's head-over-heels infatuation isn't a performance, but is the just-released Michel's claim that he's now on the straight and narrow all for show?
To answer that question, Abel gets a-tailing throughout Lyon with the game and eager Clémence's help. This couldn't be a heist film if they found nothing amiss, of course, with ex-con Michel's plans linked in with the cute little florist shop he's opened to make Sylvie's dreams come true — claiming that a friend had rented them the space for free, which is obviously far too good to be accurate. So, Abel is faced with his own spate of acting to protect his mum. Michel can't do the job without assistance from him and Clémence playing decoys, and his mother will suffer if he doesn't aid and abet an armed robbery pilfering lucrative Iranian caviar. Yes, as well as being a heist movie, a romance, and a drama about parents, children, love, loss, moving on and second chances all in one, The Innocent is a delicious and hilarious farce.
There's a clear contrast at the heart of The Innocent: women who love quickly and deeply, as Sylvie and Clémence do, and men who are hesitant and guarded, as Abel and Michel prove. In much lesser hands, that juxtaposition might be dated and cliched, not to mention needlessly and gratingly stereotypical. Thankfully, adding to the lengthy list of things that The Innocent manages to be, and breezily, it's also an intelligent, textured and savvily scripted character study. Even when they're overtly acting a part — for work, for each other and, in the widowed Abel's case, often with himself — Sylvie, Abel, Michel and Clémence are each lived in to the point of seeming ready to walk right off the screen. Crucially, every move they make is steeped in their fleshed-out stories and backgrounds, rather than mere convenience, too. Garrel, Viel and Guiguet have penned these characters with nuance, intricacy, and realistic emotions and motivations.
Thoughtful touches abound around The Innocent's stars; see: Abel's job as a marine biologist at a local aquarium, where Clémence also works, which nicely stresses the difference between analysing and diving in — and also provides a dazzling setting for pivotal scenes and shots. The film makes wonderful use of Sylvie and Michel's florist in a comparable way, the space literally blooming with colour and life but its roots not what they seem. The Innocent's casting can't be underestimated, though, as particularly seen in Grinberg, Merlant and Zem's efforts. Grinberg steps into Garrel's IRL mother Brigitte Sy's shoes, given she too is an actor who got married in prison, and does so with a gregarious and yearning spark. With a sense of lightness here, Merlant keeps showing her exceptional range, boosting a growing resume that also includes Jumbo, Paris, 13th District and Tár. And Zem, a director himself — including of 2011's Oscar-shortlisted Omar Killed Me and 2016's Monsieur Chocolat — is sincere, determined and charismatic, and also helps turn a bit with a bowtie into something special.
As for Garrel, he enlists himself for the fourth time as the fourth character called Abel (although in A Faithful Man and The Crusade, they're the same figure), and he's again ace under his own direction. When your godfather is Jean-Pierre Léaud, one of the faces of the French New Wave ever since starring in the movement's seminal film The 400 Blows, perhaps being drawn to spirited and soulful movies about emotional chaos just comes with the territory. Garrel keeps writing, directing and performing in them, with The Innocent his most entertaining instance yet. Cinema was always in his blood as well as his orbit, seeing that his father is French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, whose pictures he often features in (such as 2013's excellent Jealousy); Sy clearly has an acting history (including 2018's Invisibles); his sister Esther also pops up on-screen (as seen in Call Me By Your Name); and his grandfather is the late actor Maurice Garrel (César-nominated for La Discrète and Kings and Queen) — and it shows.
As conveyed in celluloid dreams, heists, crime capers, mysteries and noirs frequently involve throwing an array of moving parts together in high-stakes circumstances, then seeing what fits, sticks, struggles and leaks. French greats Rififi and Bob Le Flambeur, both of which The Innocent feels tied to, knew this. US highlights The Long Goodbye and The Last of Sheila, which it similarly brings to mind, capitalised upon it as well. In all of their many guises, these narrative setups and mainstays strike a chord because they so vividly reflect life's mess, just in heightened circumstances — and Garrel is equally well-aware of that. The Innocent's French pop-synth soundtrack gifts the already fast-paced film with a marvellous sense of bounce, but also reflects exactly what the movie is: a supremely finessed, funny, endearing and engaging flick that echoes for everyone.
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