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Louis Garrel on love, his mum and his new crime-heist romcom The Innocent

‘I was looking to make a movie full of charm. Charm is the most important thing’: The actor and director speaks to Nick Chen about his new film The Innocent

When it comes to filmmakers who take themselves too seriously, Louis Garrel is innocent. While the 40-year-old director’s previous features like A Faithful Man and Two Friends were talky and sombre, the French multihyphenate has smuggled into arthouse cinemas a heist thriller that’s a romcom full of physical humour – an action flick in which someone could utter “I love you” during a breakneck car chase and mean it.

The Innocent, then, is Garrel’s most fun film to date, certainly behind the camera and possibly in front of it, too. “I was looking to make a movie full of charm,” he tells me, during a trip to London. “Charm is the most important thing. Sometimes you can have movies that are very well-built, but they have no charm. For a romcom, you want the actors to fall in love.”

Fortunately, Garrel knows about charm. As an actor, he was catapulted into cult infamy at the age of 19 in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, a cinematic provocation that relied on audiences falling in love with Garrel’s character despite his incestuous red flags. When Greta Gerwig needed a French heartthrob for Little Women, it was Garrel whom she cast as Friedrich Bhaer.

Now, in The Innocent, Garrel stars as Abel, an aquarium worker who’s aghast when his mother, Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg), a prison teacher, starts dating one of the inmates, Michel (Roschdy Zem). Further problems arise when Michel has to rob a caviar truck, a job that requires the assistance of Abel and Clémence (Noémie Merlant), the best friend of Abel’s dead wife. The scheme, funnily enough, involves Abel and Clémence pretending to be a couple. Just pretending. In other words, there’s a heist of caviar and a host of caveats.

At the César Awards, the film won Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Merlant. Is casting how to ensure a movie has charm? “That may be the key,” Garrel says. “I cast Noémie after doing some tests together. You can’t control the charm, of course.” Pause. “I’m not pretentious but I can say that the film is charming. When you become a cinephile, you forget that, as a kid, your first desire was to live inside the small world of the movie itself. When I’m doing a movie, I want it to be a small world, with charm, and for you to desire to live in it.”

Thus The Innocent delights in being a movie movie. Along with silky transitions and split-screen sequences that would make Brian De Palma squeal with glee, it uses an aquarium for Sylvie and Clémence’s workplace – during their will-they-won’t-they conversations, sea creatures float in the background, filling the frame with extra colour. “When I chose the locations, I said everything had to be spectacular,” Garrel explains. “I didn’t want to make a naturalistic movie.”

He adds, “The film is very personal. It’s a small portrait of my mother. I wanted to open the movie as much as possible for the audience. I didn’t want to make a chronicle. That’s why I use split-screen. For the audience, it’s [more fun].”

As the surname gives away, Garrel is a nepo baby. His father is the director Philippe Garrel (who, since this interview, has been accused of sexual misconduct), his godfather is Jean-Pierre Léaud, his sister is Esther Garrel (Marzia from Call Me By Your Name), and his mother is the actor and filmmaker Brigette Sy. In 2010, Sy co-wrote and directed Les Mains libres, a drama about a woman who teaches prisoners and then romances an inmate; it was based on her life, and now makes its way into The Innocent, too, albeit fictionalised for popcorn thrills.

“My mother was leaving the house to go work in the jail when I was a kid,” Garrel explains. “But I couldn’t go there because I was under 18. I was dreaming about what she was doing. I was also scared because she was in this men’s world. In my mind, it was violent men who had done terrible things in their life. But I was also full of admiration for what she was doing. At the beginning, I said to my producer: let’s do a film noir but mix it with an autobiographical element.” He laughs. “A film noir with an autobiographical element – that’s very French.”

Other drastic changes were considered. In a 2017 interview with Dazed, Garrel spoke of writing a “crime melodrama” in which he considered himself the wrong age to play the lead. He confirms it was the same script. “I was super afraid,” he recalls. “I talked to myself, and said, ‘I’m old.’ My character is very close to his mother, and I was afraid to give the impression that he’s a little bit pathological – which he is, a bit.”

“I had a coffee with Pedro Almodobar. I said, ‘I’m writing a movie.’ He said, ‘What’s the subject?’ I said, ‘My mother.’ He said, ‘It’s always good to write a movie about your mother’” – Louis Garrel

Another challenge was the heist. Rather than attempt to outdo Michael Mann, Garrel had another idea: “I had to make the film as French as possible – in a good way.” By chance, Garrel met someone in Corsica who described a real-life robbery involving caviar. “I hadn’t seen that in a movie. I told myself: it’s a very French situation. Now we can do the film.”

However, Garrel laments that he’s a slow writer, even using the word “ashamed”. When I point out that he’s still a prolific actor, he insists it’s irrelevant. Put on the spot, he names Nanni Moretti and Pedro Almodóvar as the two directors he’d most like to work with. “I had a coffee with Pedro. I said, ‘I’m writing a movie.’ He said, ‘What’s the subject?’ I said, ‘My mother.’ He said, ‘It’s always good to write a movie about your mother.’”

Garrel sometimes receives scripts where a character was written specifically for him. “It can be scary.” How so? “I want to change. I don’t want to know that I’m like this, and this is who I am.” He describes the roles at the start of his career as close to his personality. “Then I got bored. That’s why now I play [people like] Jacques de Bascher, Robespierre, Alfred Dreyfus, Jean-Luc Godard, or King Louis XIII.”

But he’s in London promoting a semi-autobiographical film that he stars in – it’s not like he plays a 17th-century monarch in The Innocent? “This is why Orson Welles is a genius. I don’t feel strong enough to change myself physically [as an actor] while directing a movie.” What kind of physical change? “On The Three Musketeers, as Louis XIII, I wore a wig and changed my voice. When you don’t play yourself, you work as a painter. It’s like a drawing – you watch yourself on video, and say, ‘OK, this can be changed.’”

In the meantime, Garrel is writing his next film, and also getting a kick out of audience reactions during screenings of The Innocent. In particular, it’s when they laugh at a comic moment during a serious scene. “It’s tricky,” he says. “Sometimes the audience forget they’re watching a romcom, and sometimes they forget they’re watching a heist film. It’s good to have this balance.”

And will directors ask him to play more comedic roles to play in the future? “Because I started very tragic and tormented, people love to discover that I can be funny, and they send me scripts,” he says. “But it became too much. When something is presented as a comedy, it doesn’t make me laugh. I prefer to laugh in secret.”

The Innocent is out in UK and Irish cinemas now

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