Maybe some things are too good to be true. But can we still hope that against the natural progression of fate, our deepest and delicately sweet desires might still ring true? French actor and director Louis Garrel’s fourth directorial offering glimpses between the very dimensions and realities that panders to these wishful intentions. Taking home two 2022 César Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, The Innocent, or L’Innocent, is an intricate psychological synthesis that strays away from the French tradition of naturalism, proposing the question: where does the limit of reality end and fantasy begin? Why do we believe what is beyond belief? Louis Garrel imagines that it’s because we want to.
The Innocent, which plays exclusively on The Criterion Channel beginning May 23, follows Abel, a museum curator played by Garrel, whose mother decides to marry an ex-con. In the midst of his dismay, he discovers a new world and thus a story within a story ensues. Lies are told, schemes are conspired, and the limits of reality are tested. On the way, we witness a family farce, love is doggedly pursued, and a crime-centered comedy unfolds because of the games everyone plays. And while the blend of these likelihoods might seem unbelievable, and oftentimes surreal, the tonal and contextual changes remain seamless. Garrel shares from Paris, “Sometimes the story of the film is completely unbelievable. But the audience, because they love the actors, they love the characters, and they find the relationships charming, they choose to believe in the story. And this is the most fantastic thing when something is unbelievable—the audience knows that everything is a little bit fantastical and maybe too much—but they want to believe that it exists. That is cinema for me.”
Garrel is clearly passionate about ideas of the mystical meeting the mundane, but it’s evident that the real magic, to him, is the act of transcending what is on paper to true, real emotion. Atop numerous Made in France projects, the actor-turned-director became known to worldwide audiences as one-third of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 The Dreamers ménage à trois, the love sick Ismaëlin French Musical Love Songs, and, more recently, Jo March’s happy ending, Friedrich Bhaer, in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. And now with his directorial pursuits, he seems to be traversing the adventure of the archetypes one by one. His first feature film Two Friends (2015) follows a testament of friendship, after he comes A Faithful Man in 2018, wherein three characters speak on the bases of love, relationships, and cynicism. His 2021 ecological comedy, The Crusade breathes in the next generation’s duty to save a dying world.
With The Innocent, Garrel’s work becomes a new paradigm entirely. He is the narrator, exploring the super ego, whereby he unties himself from predetermined norms, ignoring what he believes might be “forbidden” in order to reach complete autonomy and freedom to simply react. “There is a small subject in The Innocent,” he explains, “where real emotion starts sometimes with a sense of faking that emotion. Even in real life, we are not full of emotion. We are overcome all over without any control sometimes of sadness. We’re trying to fake emotions, and then suddenly the real emotions come.”
The Innocent substantiates this tension between repression and catharsis, which Garrel attests can be the purpose of his chosen art form. “That’s because a movie reveals something to you. I’m not a poet,” he confesses. “I’m a narrator, but you know a movie can give you lots of energy, or a movie can suck your energy. I don’t want to affect the energy of people, I want to give energy to people.” And let’s be honest: sometimes the act of continuing, or even just the idea of tomorrow, can be dim. But while the moments of pure bliss are few and far between, Garrel finds a tendril of content in every emotion felt. “I can feel that the existence is an anomaly and you can feel that everything has a sense. You feel it when you watch the trees, the flowers. People are smiling, people are touching their hands, kissing in the streets, the kids are playing and everything is so...” he pauses. “The existence worth it.” With the idea of limits—and their hold on us—it is easy to see kisses from fate as luck, or something we were never meant to have or hold—that maybe we are meant to only play in the dark. Garrel reminds us to remember the poets when days are ridden with hopelessness. “This is why I’m not a poet at all,” he says, for perhaps the third time, “but this is why I like poetry sometimes, and also cinema. Sometimes, I look normally without seeing the beauty, and then the poet gives you the opportunity to see the beauty—showing you how to watch a thing that you didn’t know how to watch.”
Living in a city replete with clichés of poets walking every street, a half-lit Vogue held between their two fingers and a page from Baudelaire pinched in another, the sense to assert himself as a non-poet must feel necessary to Garrel. And while our conversation sees more of these disclaimers—that he’s no“genius” and “not so deep”—Garrel transitions from opposing states as smoothly as his awarded film, waxing lyrical about choosing to interpret the beauty in the brutal. And while he will never call himself a poet, I believe Louis Garrel to be one. And according to him, if I want it to be so, it must be true.
Photographed by Benoit Auguste
Written by Bree Castillo
Styled by Nicolas Klam
Groomer: Alan Antoine