L’Innocent is not really sure what kind of film it is. It’s a kind of stylish mystery/thriller/family drama, like Sophie Marceau’s latest, Une Femme de Notre Temps, but it’s also a kind of heist film, a kind of comedy and a kind of rom-com. There’s no reason why a director, in this case, Louis Garrel, shouldn’t mix genres, and it mostly works here, but the jokes and romance are sometimes jarring in the midst of a supposedly serious tale.
The film starts with a tight closeup on the rough-looking but handsome and sexy – what the French would call a “beau-moche” – Michel (Roschdy Zem), who is making a scary, threatening speech to an unseen person. It sets a disturbing tone until the camera pulls back, revealing that the speech was given in the context of an acting class. The attractive teacher, Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg), is deeply moved by Michel’s brilliant performance and says so.
We soon discover that the class is taking place in a prison and that Sylvie is in love with Michel. In fact, they get married while he is still in prison. She is required to leave immediately after the service, however, and is accompanied by her son, Abel (Garrel), a mild-mannered young man who gives tours of an aquarium to children for a living. Not surprisingly, he is highly troubled by this development in the life of his 60-something mother.
Michel has served a five-year stretch for grand larceny and is released soon after the wedding. Sylvie gives up her acting career to open a flower shop with him. Where did the money for the shop come from? From a “friend,” says Michel.
Intensely upset about the situation, Abel begins to ineptly tail Michel to find out what he’s really up to. He confides in his friend Clémence (Noémie Merlant), who jumps wholeheartedly into helping Abel uncover the truth about Michel.
I’ll stop the plot summary there, but there are still many surprises in store, as well as a few less unexpected developments.
It turns out that Garrel’s real-life mother, the actor Brigitte Sy, did teach an acting class in a prison and did marry one of her students. And, she made her own film, Les Mains Libres, in 2010, based on the story. Garrel (son of the esteemed filmmaker Philippe Garrel), who co-wrote L’Innocent, explains that he wanted to tell the story from the son’s point of view and that, unlike his character, he got along well with his ex-con stepfather.
The movie manages to avoid most of the histrionics and silliness of French comedies. As noted above, however, the humor and romance do not always blend smoothly with the drama in this hybrid film. It is still eminently enjoyable throughout, however, and worth seeing for the unusual storyline; the flock of good-looking, kooky characters played by talented actors; and the loving, picturesquely misty shots of the city of Lyon (whose region contributed to the financing of the film).Favorite