Although I didn’t get to write about this year’s French Film Festival, our national love affair with French cinema shows no signs of abating. As usual, a good percentage of the movies shown during the festival will get a local release. This comes as something of a relief, as we have gone into the annual post-Oscars lull, when good mainstream movies are as rare as the Mountain Pygmy-possum. Instead, we get a sprinkling of quirky smaller films, the odd horror or superhero flick, feature-length documentaries, and lots of golden oldies.
And so it’s merci beaucoup to the French for a film such as The Innocent, a stylish, fast-moving tale that flirts with several different genres, from the family drama to the heist. It’s largely the work of Louis Garrel, who directed the film, co-authored the script, and stars in the lead role. Tall, dark and handsome, with a nose that would not be out-of-place on a Roman coin, Garrel is one of France’s favourite heartthrobs. It’s bonus that he also seems to be a talented actor and writer.
Garrel’s mother spent years organising theatre groups in prisons, and this is where The Innocent gets its start. Sylvie (Anouk Ginsberg) is a middle-aged theatre director who works with prisoners. She is also a sole parent, whose chequered romantic history has been a life-long source of anxiety for her son, Abel (Garrel). And so, when Sylvie announces that she has fallen for one of the prisoners, Michel (Roschdy Zem), and intends to marry him, all Abel’s alarm bells start ringing.
Abel has his personal problems, as he is still mourning the recent death of his wife and finds it hard to connect with people. His closest friend is a young woman named Clémence (Noémie Merlant), who regales him with accounts of her on-line dating experiences.
Abel is suspicious that Michel, upon release from prison, will simply revert to the life of the hardened criminal. He becomes even more concerned when his new step-dad secures an impossibly cheap lease on a property from an old friend, and starts a florist shop with Sylvie.
Enlisting Clémence to assist in his espionage efforts, Abel spies on Michel, until he gets confirmation of his worst fears, and the story takes a different turn. I won’t elaborate any further, as we are now in a heist movie, with all the careful planning and hair-raising incidents that are characteristic of the genre. Garrel is treading on sacred ground here, because the French are responsible for some of the best heist scenarios of all time, from Rififi (1955) to Le Cercle Rouge (1970). His achievement is to add a new twist to a well-worn formula.
The Innocent is essentially a film with four strong characters who each get their share of good lines and have shifting claims on our sympathies. Not the least of these is Zem’s Michel, a charismatic figure for whom crime is a profession rather than an offence. Even Clémence is attracted to the risk and romance of it all. It’s Abel who has to overcome the greatest scruples. One presumes he is the “Innocent” of the title, but each of the main characters might lay claim to the description. Apart from Abel, no-one seems to take crime very seriously.
Abel’s personality is perfectly matched to his day job as an education officer in an acquarium. He spends his working hours wreathed in the eerie blue light of the fish tanks, giving lectures to tourists and school children. His emotional life is completely ‘underwater’, as he grieves for his wife and frets over his mother’s bad choices. It’s ironic that the object of the heist turns out to be a shipment of caviar.
One clever aspect of this film is the way the experience of acting is integrated wthin the plot. Sylvie falls for Michel when she sees he is the best actor in his prison group but doesn’t realise he is still playing a role when released. Clémence relishes the opportunity for a little theatre as her contribution to the heist. It’s only Abel who finds it difficult to separate the real world from the make-believe, yet his failure to do so will also be his success.
The Innocent was nominated in no fewer than 11 categories in this year’s Césars – the French equivalent of the Oscars, although it won only two – for best original screenplay and best supporting actress (Merlant). The big winner was The Night of the 12th (reviewed in October), which won six awards from ten nominations. Put the two films side-by-side and it’s clear the superior movie won the day. Dominik Moll’s stark, existential police drama has a sense of psychological profundity, whereas Louis Garrel has given us a superior entertainment.
If an Australian director had made The Innocent we’d be acclaiming it as a masterpiece, but in France it’s just one of the quality movies turned out by highly professional industry. Perhaps the appeal of French films to Australian audiences lies in supplying those things that are largely missing from the homegrown product, namely dialogue, plot, humour and suspense. If we could manage to recapture these building blocks of a successful cinema we might be able, once again, to send our own stories out into the world instead of merely exporting our actors and cinematographers. On the other hand, maybe we could just import Louis Garrel.
Directed by Louis Garrel
Written by Louis Garrel, Tanguy Viel & Naïla Guiguet
Starring: Louis Garrel, Roschdy Zem, Noémie Merlant, Anouk Ginsberg, Jean-Claude Pautot, Yanisse Kebbab
France, M, 99 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 April, 2023