The Innocent


Street Date 10/17/23;
Box Office $34,822;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Louis Garrel, Roschdy Zem, Noémie Merlant, Anouk Grinberg, Jean-Claude Pautot.

Louis Garrel was born with filmmaking in his blood. Grandpa Maurice Garrel was a prolific stage and screen actor who cut his teeth behind the footlights before making the move to cinema, where he racked up 147 credits to his name. His mother, Brigitte Sy, was an actress and director, but it was dad, writer, editor, and director Philippe Garrel who gave 5-year-old Louis his first shot in front the camera. The Innocent is Louis’ fourth feature as a director. With the exception of two of Louis’ films as an actor (The Dreamers, Rifkin’s Festival), The Innocent is my first introduction to the Garrels, and while it’s not wise to judge a film by its genealogy, The Innocent left me lacking the curiosity needed to explore more titles hanging from the family tree.

Abel’s (Garrel) initial fears over his mother Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg) marrying convict Michel (Roschdy Zem) are allayed when his stepdad presents him with a quick, but hopelessly illegal, manner in which to pick up a stack of spending money. Sounds good, but much of the blame for my lack of enthusiasm over the storytelling can be found in the “Meet the Filmmakers” interview contained in the special features. A 17-minute talk with the younger Garrell confirms many apprehensions.

It was during an opening night performance of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia that I learned an essential lesson in cinematic appreciation. A gentleman seated in the row behind was taken aback by one of the cars in the picture. How did I know the auto was the exact same make and model as one owned by his uncle? Because the nitz made sure to remind his cohort every time the car appeared in frame. I was 18 the night the film debuted and already aware that only imbeciles, weaned on television, carry on running conversations at the movies. That lesson was first instilled when mom turned and shushed the couple on the aisle who couldn’t keep from yakking during a matinee performance of Help! It was the chatterbox at Alfredo Garcia who first planted the seed that the least important part of appreciating a movie was personal identification and that anyone who goes to a movie simply to experience life as they know it would best be served standing before a mirror.

One can only wish that Garrel had a similar experience. “Up until the age of 25,” he confessed, “if the movie was not autobiographical, I was not interested.” By his own admission, Garrel devoted many years as an actor to playing himself. What’s changed? As a director, he had the good sense to hire a vigilant cinematographer (Julien Poupard). As an actor, his performance packs as much tang as a bowl of cottage cheese. Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire) was his mentor, but Garrel is a safe distance from Luis Buñuel. Don’t you hate when a character riffles through a drawer in search of a pencil only to coincidentally stumble across the murder weapon? Why did Abel put on Michel’s jacket if for no other reason than to establish a gun planted in his breast pocket? For that matter, why would an experienced criminal attending a party leave a gun in his pocket unattended to begin with?

According to Garrel, a film must be surprising even if its execution defies logic. Everything presented toward the beginning of the picture — from the recording device in a dog collar and the gun tucked in Michel’s leather coat to a prison acting class — amounts to little more than two-reels of clumsy, wall-to-wall foreshadowing waiting to mirror and inform the final third of the film. The pacing and structure skip around like a tennis ball in the spin cycle. Abel, a tour guide at an oceanarium, gets his co-worker and semi love interest Clémence (Noémie Merlant) involved in Michel’s nefarious dealings. Knowing that Michel is lunching with goons, Clémence enters the cafe while Abel waits in the car. Think L.B. Jeffries, with binoculars in hand, watching helplessly as Lisa breaks into Thorwald’s apartment in Rear Window. (Prior to this, Abel drives around spying on his stepfather backed by a vertiginous Bernard Herman string section.) Clémence and Michel have never met, yet he makes her the second she walks through the door. This must be one of those logic-defying moments Garrel warned us about. And how does one explain two lightweight sing-alongs better suited to a Sandra Bullock comedy?

On the plus-side, there’s Poupard’s exceptional location work, split scene bursts that never overstay their welcome, and Sylvie practically ripping out Abel’s sideburns the moment he demands that she not marry Michel. (Poor Sylvie. There’s no one more sheltered and pathetically unknowing than a gangster’s gal.) These isolated moments are barely enough to build and sustain a forward momentum. If The Innocent is guilty of anything, it’s a propensity for silly behavior.


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