San Sebastian 2018 review: The Innocent (Simon Jaquemet)

Ruth’s life is neatly organized, everywhere you look: whether at home, at the church she and her model family attend, or at work. Still, when we meet her something seems to be wrong. Out of the blue she gets nauseous and vomits in the middle of a church service; at home she starts acting oddly, upsetting things and habits as if in a frenzy. Soon we learn that Ruth had another life previous to this one, with another lover who was sent to jail for murder – and who just got out having served his twenty-year sentence. Ruth’s past is suddenly resurfacing, but it might be to free her instead of haunting her.

This stunning portrait of a woman, carried by the powerful performance of actress Judith Hofmann, is only Simon Jaquemet’s second feature film (the first one, War, premiered in 2014 in San Sebastian, where The Innocent competes in the official selection). The Swiss director crafts a tortuous tale full of riddles and puzzling signs. Its twists and turns make us worry about getting lost somewhere along the way; a fear we share with Ruth, as we will share with her the exhilarating deliverance in the end. This liberation will come only after Ruth understands the true nature of her life, which is overseen by others so as to confine her rather than allow her to thrive. The first sign of this emanates from the scenery of Ruth’s existence. All the locations seem to be cast in the same mold – modern, sanitized and neutral to such a degree that they become interchangeable and distressing: when a scene begins in a hallway that could be set in any building, house, at work, or in church, and for a few seconds we are truly unable to ascertain where we are.

Each of these places is administered by an autocratic man in charge, whose motivations are gradually revealed to be toxic and arrogant. Ruth’s boss, her husband, her minister, they all aspire to shape the world according to their presumptuous visions; and they have no regard for the damage inflicted along the way. At one point the husband and the minister join forces to impose on Ruth some sort of brutal exorcism, in order to eradicate certain beliefs from her mind, thus reinitializing the way she thinks. With great inspiration, Jaquemet juxtaposes next to this figurative arc its physical counterpart – Ruth’s boss’s scientific experimentations, which consist of transplanting the head of a monkey onto another one. The delusionial grandeur of men has taken them so far that they have become obsessed with the idea of changing the content of other living beings’ heads.

The more The Innocent moves forward, the stronger its underlying nightmarish tone set by Jaquemet grows. This tone originated from the locations, and it gains intensity as the movie goes deeper into fantastic grounds, through some impressive nocturnal episodes fluctuating between dream and nightmare – notably a car chase sequence that we follow embedded in the vehicle, and which is interrupted by a sex scene springing from nowhere, taking by surprise both the movie and Ruth’s prudish life. Jaquemet skillfully masters the atmosphere and pace of such scenes, and of the movie in its entirety. It is through this process of getting more and more lost and of going deeper (Ruth’s path takes her several times beneath the surface, where every truth is buried), that freedom will eventually be regained; for freedom comes with uncertainty and mystery, while the morbid order enforced by some men imposes its mandatory rules and prejudices.

Jaquemet remains true to this belief in the unexplained and the ambiguous until the outcome of the story, in which what is real and what is not will not be resolved (for instance, both the so-called ‘pragmatic’ and the fantasy account of the fate of Ruth’s ex-lover are equally plausible). What truly matters is the effect on Ruth, who is set free once she wins back the full control over her mind and her choices; once she becomes whole and consistent again, like a laboratory monkey whose head and body are reunited.