There’s a world of French auteur cinema in which the women are all gorgeous babes in trenchcoats and knee boots and the men are unshaven neo-Bohemians in ill-fitting jackets. They all talk incessantly with the utmost seriousness while relentlessly chugging on Gauloises, preferably in noir et blanc and in scenes that run on and on. Almost no filmmaker inhabits this world with less self-irony than eternal maverick Philippe Garrel. His latest drama, “Wild Innocence,” is a handsome but dull affair about a director making an anti-drug film, whose heroine predictably succumbs to heroin. As evidenced by the Fipresci international critics prize won by Garrel in Venice, this kind of cliched nouvelle vague aesthetic still has its disciples — but not enough to push it far commercially.
Inevitably recalling Garrel’s relationship with ’60s pop icon and drug casualty Nico (already evoked in his 1991 feature “J’entends plus la guitare”), the story centers on Francois Mauge (Mehdi Behaj Kacem), a director of well-regarded but uncommercial films whose celebrated model wife died recently from a drug overdose.
While preparing to exorcise his grief by making a feature (also called “Wild Innocence”) inspired by his personal experience, Francois meets young actress Lucie (Julia Faure), who slips straight into his bed and his leading role.
To finance the project, he turns to Chas (Michel Subor), a dubious businessman who knew his wife. In exchange for backing, Chas insists that he smuggle two suitcases full of heroin into France.
All this could be serviceably recounted in one or two reels, but Garrel spends a full hour wading through it, accompanied by endless talk and an equally plodding, minor-key piano score. The only scenes with any real spark or subtle humor involve his initial attempts to secure funding through a producer who feels Francois’ work never quite delivers but who amusingly strings him along without ever handing over a check.
A little more fiber is woven into the material when the shoot finally gets under way in Amsterdam, with the film-within-a-film scenes at least displaying some dramatic muscle. The strain of playing a doomed addict, a character so patently inspired by Francois’ late wife, while at the same time trying to maintain her relationship with him takes its toll on Lucie. She starts first snorting then shooting up heroin. But Francois is so caught up in auteur angst that he fails to notice the tragic cycle of events about to repeat themselves.
Intense and earnest as it is, and despite a generally capable cast, the drama is too cold to function on an emotional level, its themes of cynicism, obsession and self-service in art explored in too facile a vehicle to invite reflection. This leaves Raoul Coutard’s refined B&W widescreen lensing and coolly composed images to stand out as the film’s most expressive component and principal reward.