A sullen aquarium worker becomes suspicious of his mother’s new husband in Louis Garrel’s pleasingly offbeat familial drama.
The word ‘quirky’, flung wantonly at things people consider a bit hokey but inoffensive, often seems like a veiled insult – generally I flee from it, hissing like a wronged cat, and use it with caution. But The Innocent, appealingly idiosyncratic, is quirky in the best and truest sense.
Director and lead Louis Garrel’s latest feature follows Abel, a handsome but sulky widower who works in an aquarium, as he grows suspicious of his mum Sylvie’s fresh husband Michel (Roschdy Zem), one in a long line of criminals with lorry-back Rolexes who she’s fallen in love with whilst teaching theatre in prisons. Assisted by his fish-wrangling colleague and long-suffering best mate Clémence (Noémie Merlant), Abel attempts to investigate what dodgy activities Michel has gotten involved in to fund the flower shop he’s bought for his new bride to run. Abel reluctantly gets roped into the shady action, and starts to shed his fuddy-duddiness in the process.
The melodramedy madness of the plot (prison nuptials?!? Caviar heist?!? Aquarium sex scene?!?) which would otherwise be too much is made sleek by lived-in performances and good pace. Garrel is endearingly surly, conveying but not overplaying Abel’s grief and guilt after losing his wife in a car accident, whilst Merlant flexes her comedic muscles as bubbly love-interest Clémence. Anouk Grinberg plays Sylvie as softly-spoken and delicately nuts without being irritatingly ditzy, except in Abel’s eyes. Zem’s Michel slowly grows on you as he does on Abel. The evolution of the crime-tinged stepfather-stepson relationship from one of suspicion, to collaboration, to affection is shown lightly but convincingly (one scene in which Michel attempts to teach Abel salsa whilst they paint walls is particularly winning) – and neatly parallels Abel’s increasing capacity for warmth with Cleménce.
The film’s lighting is striking – kudos to gaffer Julien Gallois. It predominantly exhibits the washed out denim tones of wintery Lyon, the wobbly blues of the aquarium and the weak neon of late night petrol station diners, but frequently features one bright flash of colour, often in the form of Clémence’s clothing. Visually beguiling, this is also an effective way of signifying her as the real hero, a hot mess beacon of boredom-refusal and Abel’s salvation from being a grumpy git.
The Innocent might have been a more nuanced film had it developed the platonic friendship between the two leads rather than accelerating the growth of romance between them, but their chemistry is fun (see; aquarium sex) and sits harmoniously within the rest of the story, so no real complaints there. Altogether, the Innocent is a relatively low stakes story of ordinary people doing humbly ridiculous if fairly illegal things – and all the more charming for it.
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Published 21 Aug 2023
Prison weddings and filial sleuthing? Alrighty then.
A fun, soapy caper – earnestly silly and very warm.
Shag in aquariums, do crimes.