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On the animated “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show of the 1960s, its lead characters once lampooned Marlon Brando by going on about what they called his “ultry-sultry” sex appeal. The first time I saw Louis Garrel on screen was in Bertolucci’s 2003 “The Dreamers,” in which he played one-third of a partially incestuous menage-a-trois enacted in a cinema-crazy Paris dreaming headlong into May ’68. A heady film in which the then-20-year-old Garrel, with his jet-black hair, broad shoulders, and blocky Romanesque facial features, never turned off the smolder. I’ve thought of him as “ultry-sultry” ever since.
There’s more to him than looks—there’s lineage. He’s the grandson of the remarkable French actor Maurice Garrel—check him out burning a hole through the screen in Arnaud Desplechin’s 2004 “Kings and Queen”—and the son of indefatigable, more often-than-not inspired director (and sometimes actor) Philippe Garrel, who’s got more than a few minor-key masterpieces to his credit, several of them starring his kids—Louis of course, and also his sisters Esther, and, more lately, Lena.
Now approaching 40, Louis has tamped down the ultry-sultry vibe and worked on his directing chops. His third feature, “The Innocent,” is an often-disarming story that sees him communicating with a voice that seems more interested in reaching an entertainment-hungry audience than his father’s often austere and dour pictures tend to be.
At heart, this is a story of filial devotions going above and beyond. Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg) is a lively middle-aged woman who teaches acting at a prison outside Paris. She’s fallen hard for a convicted thief, Michel (Roschdy Zem), the most talented student in her class. It never occurs to her that his acting skill might make him a good liar. Sylvie’s adult son Abel (Garrel) is very skeptical of this relationship but throws in his support when the newlyweds, with Michel now out on parole, open a flower shop together.
Abel is a young widower who is a tour guide at an aquarium, and his best friend—who was also the best friend of his departed wife—Clémence (Noémie Merlant), who works there as well, is a bit of a hellion (socially and sexually) who encourages Abel to lighten up about Michel. But Abel’s doubts are justified. The flower shop has been “rented” on unusual terms, to say the least, and Michel has to pull a heist to maintain the status quo. Or so he tells Abel, who he enlists as a reluctant accomplice. When Abel confides to Clémence about what’s up, she hilariously demands to get in on the crime. Their job—to distract a truck driver at a diner while Michel and his accomplice swipe a bunch of caviar from the rig—sees them acting out against each other with a little more reality than they’d bargained for.
While Garrel the director is guilty of an occasional coy or cute overreach, he keeps the story bouncy (he wrote the screenplay with Tanguy Viel and Naïla Guiguet) and is exceptional with the characterizations. He underplays somber and hapless as the loving son, while Merlant, known for intense work in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “TÁR,” is possessed here by screwball-comedy energy that makes her character a superb “opposites attract” foil for Abel, among other things. As it happens, veteran actors Zem and Grinberg have worked for Louis’ dad in the past. Family connection aside, they’re perfect in their respective roles, giving performances that feel wholly lived-in. “The Innocent” is quirky, touching, and well-played fun.
"The Innocent" will be screening at this month's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York City and will be available in select theaters on March 17th.
Roschdy Zem as Michel
Louis Garrel as Abel
Noémie Merlant as Clémence Genièvre
Anouk Grinberg as Sylvie
Jean-Claude Pautot as Jean-Paul