Louis Garrel and Noemie Merlant in The Innocent. Image courtesy Unifrance

By © Jane Freebury

A comedy about a caring son caught up in a heist as he tries to protect his transgressive mother, has a lot going for it besides the presence of lead actor Louis Garrel. The tall, dark, tousled-haired actor eventually picks up the part of romantic lead that awaits, but only after a few things are sorted.

His mother, Sylvie, is played by diminutive Anouk Grinberg. She is still a flower child at 60 and may need to be rescued from the results of her life choices once again. In the opening scenes of The Innocent, she marries an inmate she has fallen for during theatre workshops she conducts in prison. Michel, who is played by lanky, innately charming Roschdy Dem, is soon due for release but concerned son, Abel (Garrel), doesn’t trust the guy.

Things go bonkers as he tries to protect his mum from the truth by taking part in a heist involving a truckload of caviar from Iran. At the same time, his repressed romantic feelings for a work colleague take off at last. It’s when Abel and Clemence (Noemie Merlant) become involved in the heist that the spark ignites.

Crime and romance sit well together on screen, after all

Think of the frisson between glamorous thieves from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, to Jacques Audiard’s less high-profile but equally wonderful Read My Lips.

The delightfully crazy scenario that Garrel and his co-writers have cooked up, The Innocent (L’Innocent), has produced a recent comedy hit at the French box office. It went with 11 nominations to the recent French film awards, the Cesars, but lost out to The Night of the Twelfth, Dominik Moll’s unsettling, fictional re-staging of the investigation into an unsolved murder.

In our interview over zoom, Garrel is modest and down-to-earth about his terrific film, co-written with eminent award-winning French crime writer, Tanguy Viel. It is his fourth fiction feature as writer-director.

In a roundabout way, The Innocent derives from a chapter of his own family history. During the time when his own mother, filmmaker Brigitte Sy, conducted theatre workshops in both male and female prisons, and got married to one of the inmates. Garrel was around 18 years old at that time.

“In the beginning I had wanted to make a film noir that could be comic sometimes. I didn’t want my film to be naturalistic, and super boring. So, I took this autobiographical element about my mother who married a guy in gaol, and mixed it with a variety of other genres.”

Roschdy Dem and Louis Garrel in The Innocent. Image courtesy Unifrance

The Innocent is a blend of heist, romantic comedy and family tragi-comedy. “It was made to give pleasure… I wanted to make it as light as I could,” delivered with a charming smile.

“I wanted to make the heist succeed. And, by creating characters who were relatable, make the audience follow them, making them complicit. Making them criminals, too.” Another disarming smile.

So we go along for the ride, as accomplices to the theft of a shipment of luxury goods…“Exactly.”

In life, as the son of actress-filmmaker Sy and Philippe Garrel, a filmmaker associated with the New Wave, Garrel has grown up steeped in cinema. His father has frequently cast him in his work, and he is the older brother of Esther (Call Me by Your Name).

It’s no surprise to hear him describe how he casts for his own films, selecting actors for the way they will fit with those they play opposite on screen. “I love to work directly and feel close with the actors. It’s why I love to play in my own films.”

In The Innocent, for instance, the dynamic between the actors playing his mother, with “her subversive way of adapting to a bourgeois institution”, and his new stepfather was critical. “From a cultural level, they were not coming from the same world, and I was concerned to get it right for both of them.”

As for his own character, Abel, he played him “straight, with the attitude of a policeman”

When we spoke, Garrel was working with Argentinian director Pablo Aguero, on Saint-Ex, a film that is a new take on a most intriguing character, the commercial and World War II pilot and writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Many will know his enchanting novella, The Little Prince. “Saint-Exupery had a strange life. He had eight or nine plane crashes and was also a writer. It was quite an intense life.” This film is about his relationship with friend and fellow aviator, Henri Guillaumet, who is played by Vincent Cassel.

In Garrel’s own work, he has consistently played a character called ‘Abel’. “I don’t k now why. I would love to have a sophisticated answer, but when I play in my own films, I am always Abel.  It’s a good game (to play).” Explaining that he doesn’t like immersive cinema where you disappear in a fictional world, and prefers a level of distanciation.

So, you want to be playful with your own characters. Self-aware and self-reflexive in the role? “Exactly.”

A highlight of The Innocent is the performance by his co-lead, Noemie Merlant. It is a revelation for audiences who have seen her before in Todd Field’s Tar and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. “In movies she made before she was much more austere, but I could feel this burlesque talent. She discovered a talent she didn’t know she had. A great moment.”

From the opening wedding at a theatre workshop to the hilarious scene at a diner between Abel and Clemence with a Turkish truck driver watching on, role-play has a central place in The Innocent. “The idea was to see a declaration of love in the middle of a fake conversation. When you fake feelings, sometimes feelings can come out for real.”

On many levels, Abel in the diner scene is trying to avoid giving the game away. Ah, the lot of the performer.

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 April 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes