Eternally the rebellious loverboy of the Sarkozy era, Louis Garrel, now at 40, is seemingly easing into an elder statesman role. No longer too brooding a presence, and also at the point where paranoia about losing roles to younger, newer stars might necessitate a pivot to directing, the French idol has made his transition agreeable with a couple of likable pictures under this belt. 

The Innocent, certainly packing a lot at only 98 minutes, is the kind of film one can imagine being pushed to vintage Desplechin maximalism, with every tonal shift, piece of character backstory, and formal trick emphasized even further. But aiming for a familiar, if dependable narrative––albeit one that still involves romantic misunderstandings, botched caviar heists, even scuba diving––it more points to the promise of a great film coming one day. For now its modest, César-winning charms will do. (One can even kind of picture a mainstream American comedy remake starring Zac Efron and John Turturro.)

The romantic lead the director has created for himself is widower and ambiguously employed (either marine biologist or simply aquarium tour guide) Abel (Garrel), whose jealousy and anger is triggered by his theater director mother Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg) falling in love with the imprisoned con Michel (Roschdy Zem). Even going as far as to marry him in prison, the aging mother is totally smitten. Michel’s sensitivity as a skilled artist himself (the opening scene is him nailing a theater audition) seems to be what Sylvie sees in him, but Abel is instantly suspicious. With the aid of his good friend, co-worker, and inevitable romantic interest Clémence (Noémie Merlant), he begins peeking into Michel’s activities outside of his mother, taking the role of a hoodie-wearing amateur private investigator. This spying element is a carryover from Garrel’s 2018 feature A Faithful Man, wherein hijinks involving a love triangle were briefly interrupted by a young boy’s budding interest in sleuthing. The man nearing middle-age is the figure peering at an adult world he can’t totally comprehend. After all, why would his mother settle for a low-life like Michel?

Garrel’s budding auteur preoccupations and influences are clear. If the voyeurism theme wasn’t a giveaway, two more direct De Palma references––split-screen and a bold 360-degree shot––make it highly obvious. Combining French and American styles certainly is no innovation, but doing so in the romantic comedy genre at least points to something a little out-of-the-ordinary. The film has some further interest from its supporting cast, in particular Roschdy Zem, who has the kind of face that used to populate American noir but now isn’t really allowed in Hollywood. It’s refreshing that his and Abel’s strained relationship isn’t so much the standard alpha male competition, even as Abel’s insecurity is perhaps too familiar to center a film around.

Despite ending on a bit of narrative symmetry I maybe should’ve seen coming, Garrel isn’t doing anything particularly profound or surprising, but I came away, in some strange fashion, understanding him a little more, and frankly wanting to see another of his movies.

The Innocent opens on Friday, March 17.

Grade: B

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