'The Innocent' ('Der Unschuldige'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

The Innocent Still 2 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of TIFF
Well-made but messily told.

Swiss-German director Simon Jacquemet's second feature looks at a religious woman working in a research facility involved in head transplants for monkeys.

Religion, science and morality are some of the key ingredients of The Innocent (Der Unschuldige), though this dark Swiss drama’s insistence on keeping the audience guessing at all times finally makes it impossible to say anything unambiguous about any of these topics. Though certainly ambitious and well-performed across the board, this has to be considered a bit of a letdown from the clearly talented Swiss-German writer-director Simon Jaquemet. The Innocent premiered in Toronto in the Platform competition and also screened at San Sebastian, where his well-received debut, Chrieg, premiered in 2014.

Ruth (Judith Hofmann) works in a neuroscience laboratory that’s researching and testing grafting the head of one monkey onto the body of another. Rather unusually, she’s apparently not only a top scientist but also a fervent believer in Christ, setting up much of the character’s internal conflict from the get-go, since what the laboratory is working on seems nothing short of playing God. Hofmann’s headstrong performance suggests this is a woman who is good at compartmentalizing and putting blinkers on when necessary, almost making it credible that such a devout woman could be working in such an institution.

And speaking of blinkers: Ruth has simply ignored the fact that she used to be in a relationship with Andi (Thomas Schuepbach), who was locked away for a murder 19 years earlier based only on circumstantial evidence. When he disappeared into jail, he also stopped replying to his then-girlfriend’s letters. When The Innocent opens, Ruth has seemingly moved on and has a husband and two teenage daughters. But when the news reports that Andi is about to be released from jail, something in her facade cracks. She pays an investigator to look into Andi’s case. And suddenly, one night, Andi appears at her family home when she’s alone in the living room. 

Initially, the film seems to be telling a highly realistic story, firmly rooted in specific details of character, place and history. Gabriel Sandru’s smudgy, shaky cinematography helps imbue a sense of verite realism and the cast’s performances have a raw, unvarnished quality that could almost pass for the messy improvisation that is real life. 

But from quite early on, the cracks that start to appear aren’t only the ones in Ruth’s seemingly organized life but also in the fabric of the reality that the film has created. At one point, she finds her teenage daughter involved in a strange sexual foursome in a teepee in the middle of the dark woods. With a light strapped to her forehead, Ruth had gone out for a jog. The image of the woman surrounding by so much murky darkness while searching for a way forward clearly has a much heavier symbolical meaning as well. But what’s less clear is what it is she is looking for. What is the meaning of the fact she found her young daughter involved in such a bizarre ritual? Is it somehow related to the sex she had with Andi when he suddenly showed up after 19 years of nothing? And what to make of the fact she’s told, not much later, that Andi died recently in India, which doesn’t seem to square at all with what Ruth has experienced?

What is clear is that Ruth is disoriented and confused. At work, people are trying to put a severed head on a different body and connect the nerve system of the two so as to create a newly living whole. No wonder Ruth turns to religion for some kind of framework or set of rules to live by; some kind of certainty in these very troubled and hard-to-understand times. 

Jaquemet, who also wrote the screenplay, impressively manages to suggest his protagonist’s befuddled and more than occasionally, bewildered emotional state. But it is impossible to get a handle on anything more specific because the film wants to leave everything open to interpretation. Has Ruth imagined the reunion with Andi? Perhaps. Is she dreaming things? Maybe. Is she possessed? Has science gone too far? Can religion fight science? Can two dead monkey parts stitched together become one living and breathing whole again? Maybe, maybe, maybe and again, maybe. What’s missing is any deeper sense of purpose and a clearer character arc for Ruth; her state of mystification — in all senses of the word — needs to lead to some kind of insight or revelation but here it doesn’t or at least not until the very end.

It also doesn’t help that, despite Hofmann’s always-intriguing presence, her character isn’t more fully formed beyond her near-constant unease and that those around her are fleshed out even less. Her husband’s form of protest to what might be going on is to burn the living room couch on which Ruth said she had sex with her ex. But beyond this drastic gesture, his character comes up empty, as do their daughters. In fact, no one seems to extend one inch beyond the canvas of the story and there’s no sense, for example, of what Ruth’s marriage was like before all the trouble started. 

Jaquemet might simply be trying to do too much. A story about a wrongly convicted ex-lover who comes back to haunt a married woman would be a perfect pitch for a meaty drama. A devoutly religious woman who also works as a scientist is another interesting pitch. And we haven’t even touched on her problems with her eldest daughter or that time she decides to go to a special kind of club with her husband. By trying to funnel so many different elements into one overall story, audiences risk becoming just as confounded as the protagonist. 

Production companies: 8 Horses, Augenschein, SRF, ZDF, Arte
Cast: Judith Hofmann, Thomas Schuepbach, Christian Kaiser, Naomi Scheiber, Laura Winter, Urs-Peter Wolters, Anna Tenta
Writer-Director: Simon Jaquemet
Producers: Tolga Dilsiz, Aurelius Eisenreich
Director of photography: Gabriel Sandru
Production designer: Michael Baumgartner
Costume designer: Laura Gerster
Editor: Christof Schertenleib
Casting: Lisa Olah
Sales: Kinology
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)

In Swiss-German
No rating, 114 minutes