Louis Garrel on turning his mother’s marriage into heist comedy The Innocent

Louis Garrel has been a likeably brooding fixture of art-house cinema for about two decades. The French actor first broke through in 2003 in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers as part of an impossibly nubile trio alongside Eva Green and Michael Pitt. 

Playing vexed romantic leads and the odd historical figure, he has since acted in dramas by other auteurs such as Christophe Honoré, Roman Polanski, Pietro Marcello and his own father, Philippe Garrel. For Greta Gerwig, he played a German professor in Little Women. He has even embodied Jean-Luc Godard himself (in Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable). 

But along the way, Garrel, 40, has also quietly been directing films, and his new crime caper The Innocent looks poised to win him more fans. The film has a strong pedigree: a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year and a swath of nominations at France’s César Awards that yielded two wins. Yet it’s also a pleasingly pop confection in which the tousle-haired actor plays a Lyon aquarium tour guide called Abel who is anxious about his new stepfather, Michel. The reason: Abel’s mother met Michel in prison.

Garrel musses up his usual cosmopolitan profile with an amusingly fussy turn as Abel, who spies on Michel’s comings and goings like an amateur gumshoe. But what’s more surprising is the origin of the premise.

A scene showing a wedding in prison, with a woman wearing a veil and a man wearing a tie under a black leather jacket
Anouk Grinberg (left) and Roschdy Zem in a scene from ‘The Innocent’

“My mother was giving theatre lessons in prison and directing shows that people came to see,” Garrel says over the phone while on summer vacation. “Afterwards, she told me that she married [one of her students] — a professional thief.”

And so what seems at first a screenwriter’s conceit turns out to be rooted in fact. Garrel’s mother, the actress and director Brigitte Sy, married a man serving a sentence in France. Garrel, at the time too young to attend the prison wedding, met him only afterwards. Sy has already made her own movie about the experience, an acclaimed 2010 drama called Les Mains libres.

In actuality, Garrel warmed quickly to his new stepfather. “I had a lot of respect for him. He was very calm, very cool, and fun.” In The Innocent, however, autobiographical elements are freely adapted into a yarn with romantic and comedic grace-notes. French star Roschdy Zem plays the affable ex-con Michel, while Anouk Grinberg plays Abel’s mother Sylvie. The two are touchingly in love, but Abel worries that Michel is planning a heist to help fund Sylvie’s new flower shop. He recruits his effusive friend Clémence (Noémie Merlant, star of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to help, leading the film into some effervescent intrigue.

Garrel takes artistic licence with his mother’s story — but when it came to portraying the heist, he tapped a source with real-life experience. Jean-Claude Pautot, who had served time in jail, was an adviser on the film and ended up playing Michel’s friend. A miniature of the set for the heist — which takes place in the parking lot of a roadside diner — was built, and Pautot offered pointers on how to stage the choreography of the theft. (His criminal credentials were no joke: after walking the red carpet with Garrel in Cannes, he was indicted this year following an arrest on a sailboat loaded with cocaine.)

Besides getting the logistics right, the film’s crime elements also posed an existential problem for Garrel: how would he, a quintessential Parisian art-film star, approach directing action scenes?

“A French producer I worked with read the script and said, ‘Be careful with the action scene, because you’re not Michael Mann,’” Garrel says. “And he’s right. I’m French. We’re in France. So we have to be French!” 

Two young men and a young woman in a bath
Garrel (right) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The Dreamers’ (2003) © Alamy

The solution was to weave some romantic play-acting into the heist. The stolen cargo is something unfamiliar from the annals of crime movie history. As Garrel puts it: “There are so many movies about people stealing money from banks, but there is no more money in banks.” An added detail of the heist involving a kitten came courtesy of the great French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, a collaborator of Luis Buñuel.

Carrière, Ernst Lubitsch and “Bernardo” are just a few of the names Garrel rattles off while discussing The Innocent. These are emblems of both his ardent cinephilia and his privileged perch in art cinema. He also cites Italian greats — director Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street) and actor Alberto Sordi — as purveyors of the tragicomic flair to which The Innocent aspires.

All this is a far cry from the work of Garrel’s father Philippe, a legend in France whose films trace bohemian paths in art and love. In the latest, The Plough, Louis plays a restless member of a puppeteering family who leaves its shoestring productions to pursue fame as an actor. Was there any significance in this bit of casting? 

“It’s a question that you should ask my father, but I was asking myself too: why did my father write a character for me like this?” Garrel says with a chuckle. No hard feelings, though: he sought advice from Philippe on how to navigate budgetary challenges. “My father knows how to make a movie without money.”

Garrel has improved at wearing the double hat of director and actor. The Innocent has an appealingly breezy swing, amply aided by Merlant’s liberatingly blunt character, while also serving up some truths about romantic commitment and openness. Here he offers a quote from Carrière: “When you make people laugh, you open the door.”

But what of Garrel’s mother, who lived the story (albeit minus the heist)? Did she see the funny side?

“She’s not very pudique [timid] in real life, but she never really told me what she thought of the film,” Garrel says. “But I do know that she saw it maybe six or seven times.”

‘The Innocent’ is released in the UK on August 25

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