The Innocent (Boston French Film Festival)

Morose young widower Abel Lefranc (Louis Garrel, 2019's "Little Women") loses his mind when his mother Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg, "The Night of the 12th") marries Michel Ferrand (Roschdy Zem, "Other People's Children"), a felon in her prison acting class.  When Michel is released, Abel tails him everywhere until his best friend Clémence (Noémie Merlant, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire") convinces him that his mother is happy.  It will also be Clémence who gets him involved in the secret heist they discover Michel is indebted to carry out as part of the deal he struck to get Sylvie a flower shop in “The Innocent.”

Laura's Review: B+

Cowriter (with Tanguy Viel)/director/star Louis Garrel ("A Faithful Man") garnered nine Cesar nominations for his fourth feature, including Best Picture, Best Director and acting nods for his four principals, with Merlant winning Best Supporting Actress and Garrel winning for his screenplay.  Having begun acting in his father’s films as a child, the second generation filmmaker shows a wealth of influences in his latest, a genre mashup of romantic comedy and heist thriller. If initially the latter seems weighted a bit too heavily against the former, rest assured it is also serving it.

Clémence, a live wire and bit of a prankster who also works with Abel at Lyon’s aquarium, is the type to boldly ask him ‘When did you last unload?’  She tells him he reminds her of his deceased wife, presumably a friend of hers, while he tells her he forgets her when with Clémence.  He may not be aware of their connection, but she’s clearly waiting him out.  So it is characteristic of her to celebrate his mom’s marriage, declaring Michel hot and cheering her on while he acts like his mom’s parent.  Michel, it should be noted, remains calm, Insists Abel take the wristwatch he’s admired, and gets a job moving furniture.  Sylvie has a personality more like Clémence, having raced after Michel’s prisoner transport blaring music and darting in and out of her lane as her son panics.

There are two main set pieces featuring Abel colluding with Clémence.  In the first, he sends her into the restaurant where Michel lunches with his coworkers to spy on him and his obvious subterfuge is amusingly unveiled.  In the second, more elaborate heist scheme which comprises the film’s last act, they are in cahoots with Michel, acting as distraction at a truck stop diner so Michel and Jean-Paul (Jean-Claude Pautot) can break into a truck as its driver (Yanisse Kebbab in a solid supporting role) eats his customary three course meal. 

Garrel’s script continually references the art of acting, his own character amusingly the least convincing at pretending, Clémence’s confident bravado saving the day.  The film is garnished with quirky flourishes, the axolotl needing a third film to have a moment as the amphibian featured in Iñárritu’s “Bardo” is the subject of Abel’s impassioned aquarium talks.  Penguins are casual extras and prison weddings bookend the film.  Grégoire Hetzel's ("Incendies") score weaves between Hitchcockian suspense and light hearted comedic accompaniment.

“The Innocent” is a sly romantic comedy that sneaks up on you while Garrel is playing sleight of hand.     

Robin's Review: B

Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg) teaches theater to incarcerated prisoners in Lyon. She marries one of the inmates, Michel (Roschdy Zem), and then springs the news on her judgmental son, Abel (Louis Garrel). Michel’s past catches up with him and he relies on his brand new stepson to help him in “The Innocent.

Louis Garrel directs, stars in and writes his fourth film about a doting mother and her overprotective son who, when he learns of his mom’s marriage to a convict, freaks out. His sole responsibility is to protect his mother. This is when “The Innocent” shines, with it likable and quirky cast.

Abel knows his mother, who has had other unsuccessful relationships with convicted felons. And he knows in his heart that Michel is not to be trusted. This is the point where the story takes off and all of the characters get their 15 minutes of fame.

Abel enlists the help of his friend, Clemence (Noemie Merlant), who steals the film every time on screen) and they set out to surveillance Michel and find out what nefarious criminal deeds he is up to. It does not take the amateur sleuths long to find out their suspicions are genuine. Michel IS involved in a caper and here is when the near-slapstick comedy takes hold, especially with Clemence on the scene.

This often comedy of errors has a lot of different things going for it, particularly the angst ridden relationship between mother and son, with him always looking to protect his easily-falls-in-love mom. Sylvie exudes neediness and is clinging, both to Abel and Michel, who dotes on his new wife. Clemence, though, raises the fun quotient in this dramedy and makes me want to see this actress again.

“The Innocent” deals with serous things, like the prison system, crime and the throes of middle-age marriage. But, its heart is in the humor and it is where the pleasure is.

Janus Films released "The Innocent" in select theaters on 5/26/23.  Click here for play dates.  It is the opening night film of the Boston French Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts on 7/6/23 - click here for the schedule.