In his fourth feature film, writer-director Louis Garrel explores with wit and tenderness the risk and worth of second chances
“No one talks in general,” insists Abel, played by Louis Garrel who also directs The Innocent, his fourth feature film in that capacity. Abel’s story will in fact prove to him that, indeed, generalities fail to account for the specificities of any situation and anyone’s life. His mother Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg) has been refusing all generalisations and prejudice about people for a long time as an animator of theatre workshops in prison – so much so that she’s often fallen in love with and married inmates she met through her work. None of these stories have ended well, so it’s no surprise that Abel would be very sceptical of her new beau, Michel (an incredibly compelling and delicate Roschdy Zem), whom she weds near the end of his five-year stint in jail.
Garrel walks a fine line between the tragic thriller and the hopeful family comedy, bridging the two with a dry, typically French sense of humour. When Michel and Sylvie open a flower shop in the centre of Lyon (a nice change from Paris and a city that looks wonderful in Julien Poupard’s camera), Abel wonders where the money came from but, as his best friend Clémence (a radiant and carefree Noémie Merlant) points out, his mother hasn’t been this happy in a long time.
Everyone criticises Abel for his lack of trust in Michel’s rehabilitation into society, and together with co-writers Tanguy Viel and Naïla Guiguet, Garrel gives a more emotional and personal resonance to that legal and sociological question. Abel’s main concern isn’t necessarily for the law, although he always brings it up, but for his mother and her already fragile heart. As the story develops and matters become more serious, the connection between the personal and the political becomes increasingly apparent and complex: the law seems at once reasonable and ill-fitted to the rich contradictions and imperfections of human nature.
Abel – Garrel’s recurring alter ego in his films – has a detached and pessimistic attitude which at first seems like nothing more than a smart narrative choice to inject the story with more conflict. Through his difficult and ambiguous interactions with Michel, however, the depth of his condition is slowly revealed and brings an existential dimension to this otherwise lighthearted tale. If Abel doubts whether Michel can reinvent himself, it’s because he wonders the same about himself, too.
Just as it bounces between a more realistic register and a 1960s heist movie style – complete with split screens and iris shots – The Innocent refuses to stick to one moral lesson. The emphasis instead is on the virtues of hope and determination, as well as play. Ironically, it is through role-playing that Abel will begin to unburden himself of his pain and see the love around him, much like Michel and Sylvie did in jail.
The Innocent is released in UK cinemas on 25 August.Where to watch