The Comedy of Innocence (Comedie de L’Innocence) 2000 Directed by Raoul Ruiz (Subtitles)
Critics are widely split on this film by Chilean-born director Raoul Ruiz; the fault lines seem to run somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic mid-way between Europe and the U.S., with the former highly praising the movie and the latter panning it. It all comes down to viewer preference: Americans like their movies neatly packaged and shrink-wrapped, with all ambiguities sorted out by the end, and peopled with strong, clear personality types. Europeans are more concerned with the director than the actors as the principal creative force, and are more comfortable puzzling out clues and worrying away at untidy endings the way some people enjoy undoing troublesome knots in shoe laces.
The basic story line is this: A seemingly typical upper middle class Parisian family, consisting of a mother, a father, the mother’s brother, a 9 year-old son, and an au pair are having a birthday party for the boy. Suddenly he begins insisting that something is wrong, that this is not his real family, and his apparent delusion escalates over the coming days. The father goes off on a business trip, seemingly indifferent to this strange development, but the mother is increasingly unnerved by the boy’s assertion that she is not his real mother. Not knowing what else to do, the mother goes along with the delusion, and eventually ends up taking her son to an address in a part of town that he has supposedly never visited, where he insists they’ll find his mother. Sure enough, a young woman living there who lost her own son to a drowning accident two years earlier insists that this is indeed her dead child. It gets weirder and weirder.
The film is packed with atmosphere and a sense of foreboding and perhaps even supernatural occurrences. Puzzles and mysteries are hinted at but not overtly mentioned: Is the au pair having an affair with the uncle, a psychiatrist who is trying to help the mother deal with her son’s strange behavior? Why does the uncle, who is otherwise gentle and rational, treat his assistant so harshly whenever she approaches him? Why does the mother go along with the other woman’s manipulative and controlling behavior? Is the son’s special friend, a boy his age, a figment of his imagination or a real child that the parents just don’t happen to have met?
If you can handle ambiguity, unusual camera angles, evocative images, and a slow pace, then you will be rewarded by this fascinating film. However, if you like your stories straight on, with everything gradually explained and fully resolved by the end, you may find The Comedy of Innocence an exercise in frustration.