First published by EyeforFilm
A hermetically sealed world, a hidden theatre, a mystifying narrative full of hauntingly beautiful images, an indefinable sense of menace and a soundtrack dominated by old gramophone records, over-amplified ambient sounds and the ominous bass rumblings of unseen machinery. This might serve as a description of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and yet applies just as well to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s different, but equally unsettling, debut feature Innocence. Loosely adapted from Frank Wedekind’s 1888 symbolist novella Mine-Haha: The Corporal Education Of Young Girls, the film is a dark, dreamlike fantasy, set in a peculiar boarding school.
A small coffin is carried through underground tunnels to a house where several girls, aged between seven and 12, are gathered to open it and greet its living occupant, six-year-old Iris (Zoe Auclair). The eldest, Bianca (Berangere Haubruges), shows Iris around her new “home”, one of five dormitories set in a wooded park whose perimeter wall has no doors. Everyone in the compound is female, the only adults being several elderly, near-silent serving women, and two much younger women, natural science teacher Miss Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) and ballet teacher Miss Eva (Marion Cotillard). Once a year there is a visit from the Headmistress (Corinne Marchand) and her assistant, who select an 11-year-old to leave the school before the proper time, something that depressed Laura (Olga Peytavi-Muller) and precocious Alice (Lea Bridarolli) are determined to do, one way or another.
Like any six-year-old, Iris is full of questions, prefaced with the word “why?” The audience, also, is reduced to her inquisitive level by the strange world that Hadzihalilovic has created, a world that combines the concrete realities of the girls’ daily routines (timed by the constant ticking of clocks) with some far more intriguing and irrational touches.
Why do pupils enter the premises in a coffin? What is making that booming noise beneath the park? Why do the older girls disappear at nine o’clock each night and where do they go when their time at the school is complete? What is the story behind the two young teachers and the old servants? For what reason, and by what criterion, does the headmistress single out a student for early removal? Is the school purgatory, paradise or prison, crèche or chrysalis? And is it preparing the girls for a eugenics programme, a brothel, or something altogether more ordinary (and of course more mysterious) like womanhood itself?
By never fully explaining the odd goings on, Hadzihalilovich generates an uneasy tension, akin to the expectant and inchoate natures of her child characters who are unable either to reverse the metamorphosis taking place within them, or to comprehend where it is taking them. For the film allegorises the innocent joys, confused anxieties and newly awakening impulses of pre-pubescence, where the only certainty is that the innocence of the title, like the film itself, must eventually come to an end, even if only to begin all over again. If not everything makes sense, that merely reflects the way that young children see the world around them.
Try to imagine Little Red Riding Hood on a Picnic At Hanging Rock in the Garden of Eden, and you will have some idea of the sinister childhood adventures concocted by Hadzihalilovich’s Kafkaesque fantasia. Lyrically shot and packed with images of little girls in school uniforms, leotards or underwear, Innocence might be accused of fuelling the desires of paedophiles, were it not so resolutely asexual (at least until the end). Instead, what it choreographs is a mystic ritual no more or less weirdly miraculous than the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies, a process that will always fascinate and amaze.