World premiering in New Directors at San Sebastian in 2014, Simon Jaquemet’s first feature, “Chrieg” (War), a nuanced portrait of disaffected Swiss youth, established Jaquemet as one of the most prominent voices in a new generation of Swiss directors, questioning Switzerland’s status quo and aura of democratic civility.
Four years later, Jaquemet is back. But, in a step-up in status, his second feature, “The Innocent,” world premiered early September in Toronto’s prestige Platform competition, and, screening at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, now makes its European bow in San Sebastian, playing in main competition.
Few films this year at San Sebastian are likely to challenge audiences more. Its protagonist, Ruth, now 40something, saw her world turned upside down in her youth when her fiancé is convicted of murdering his aunt. Wracked by uncertainty as to his guilt, she has sheltered in more robust beliefs, working in a neuroscience lab using monkeys to conduct spinal-cord research and becoming a mother of two daughters in a profoundly religious (and highly patriarchal) Christian family. Then her lover, released from prison after 19 years, reappears at her home, but is declared by police authorities to have died in India: Ruth’s life – and the audience – is plunged into uncertainty, as to whether his appearance is fruit of Ruth’s sexualized hallucination, or her lover’s guile, deceiving police authorities into believing he’s dead. Jaquemet doesn’t give any easy answers. Ultimately, he seems to be saying, we are all Ruth, defenceless when faced with the unexpected and unknowable.
“The Innocent” is produced by 8Horses’ Tolga Dilsiz and Aurelius Eisenreich and sold by Kinology. Variety chatted to Jaquemet to clarify the uncertainties of the film as it premieres at the San Sebastian Festival, which kicked off Friday.
“The Innocent” counterpoint two basic belief systems of the Western world: Those of religion and secular rationality. But both are found wanting to help Ruth, or indeed to give one explanation to audience of what may be happening in the film….
When writing “The Innocent,” I realized that of course when it comes to belief there’s religious belief, but throughout our life we imagine things that may be more the result of other beliefs than facts. Ruth is confronted with inexplicable events – the possible guilt of her fiancé, then his possible return. I wanted the audience to be in the same position. There’s no superior truth to what happens in the film, only what she experiences, which is what the audience experiences.
You refuse to give easy explanations….
Yes, until the end you are not 100% sure if her lover is an actual person or some kind of a manifestation of, or maybe even the devil, as Ruth’s family and religious community maintain.
Without going into the ending, it is likely to have audiences asking what it means….
The film of course ends with a very big question that you cannot answer [just] through the film. As a viewer you are forced to believe something if you want to answer the question of what happens exactly. The film in a way does what life does to you: Making you believe in some kind of religious explanation or in a rationality which is another belief system. We all more or less believe that we will be alive tomorrow, but that’s not at all certain. Throughout your life, you’re hanging onto beliefs that make it possible for you to exist at all. But Ruth loses her belief systems, and with that, loses a sense of reality.
The film finds fundamentalist religion inadequate, even sinister, when dealing with Ruth’s crisis. What research did you do for the film?
I researched into Pentecostalism, attended a lot of Sunday services, and liked a lot of things about it – the speaking in tongues, the prophecies. I sang, performed the gestures, didn’t just observe as a bystander. And, yes, it really worked. There’s a feeling of being together: I can really understand the attraction. But I didn’t convert.
What were your main guidelines when setting out to direct “The Innocent”?
I focused a lot on casting, then working with the actors. The lead actress, Judith Hofmann, is a professional actress. Beyond that, there’s a mix of non-professionals and actors, even religious people acting in the film.
The film has some near genre beats: the lonely field at night, the dark, unfrequented corridors at the research center…
Yes. It’s not so clear but people can view “The Innocent” as a bit of a horror picture, or a fantastic film if they want to.