erasing clouds

DVD Review: Comedy of Innocence (Comèdie de l'innocence)

by dave heaton

The story of King Solomon being asked to decide which mother deserved a disputed child lurks in the background of Raoul Ruiz's 2000 film Comedy of Innocence, in a painting on a wall and in references to it. The film's plot echoes this story in a way, while feeling in tone like a ghost story. On his ninth birthday, a boy named Camille tells his mother (played by Isabelle Huppert) that he is actually named Paul, and that she is not his real mother. Not only does he know the name of the woman he claims to be his real mother, he knows where she lives and what things are were within her apartment. That woman happened to have lost her son Paul, who is indeed of the same exact age to the day as Camille, in a drowning accident nine years earlier. It is up to these two women to sort out the truth, and determine who truly is the boy's mother.

With ominous camera angles and characters who all seem to be hiding secrets, the film has all the makings of a classic mystery story, one with supernatural overtones, yet it doesn't play out in that way at all. It has the atmosphere of a thriller, but is underneath a meditation on human behavior, on what people (especially children, the innocent ones) decide to do and why.

Comedy of Innocence is also a film about filmmaking; Camille often escapes into his video camera - his abstract films seem to propel his claims about who he is, and also might hold the key to the truth. The huge old house and cramped apartment in which the film is mostly set (the respective homes of the two mothers) are set up like stages to an extent. In the house, busts of faces line the perimeter of each room; in the apartment, masks hang on the wall. And Ruiz's filmmaking often makes us aware that we're watching a story, or that someone else is watching the characters within the story. All of this, plus certain aspects of the plot itself, make Comedy of Innocence a film about the act of creating stories, about the disparate ways people use art. And by relying on the aesthetic pleasures of the mystery genre while telling completely different stories about people telling stories to each other, the filmmakers have crafted a film filled with layers.

Issue 18, December 2003

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