Innocence (France, 2005) * * * *
D: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
In her first feature film, Lucile Hadzihalilovic has made something so fine and fragile that you almost worry about pressing too hard and cracking its surface. It has antecedents, however--more often in literature than in celluloid; Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves is the only film that seems to possibly exist in the same universe, and also uses the qualities of fairy tale to chart the progress from girlhood through adolescence toward adulthood. But even here, Hadzihalilovic's film, Innocence, has the feel of greater accuracy, and cuts with a sharper blade.
If you go into it, as I did, knowing next to nothing about the plot, you will be held in a state of suspense--and antigravity suspension--for almost all of its two hours. Is this a horror film? A piece of surrealist art? A dramatic expose of boarding schools? All seems to hinge on a revelation that is perpetually kept out of reach. The film emerges like a phantom from out of your closet in the middle of the night, opening up a realm of mysteries before drifting out the window. Innocence opens with an ornate title-card that suggests a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and plants in your mind his collaboration with Marc Caro, The City of Lost Children, which might set the right atmosphere. You're then granted a glimpse of a coffin sitting on a rocking train, and almost abstract images of rushing and bubbling water, the latter to recur intermittently throughout the film. Then we're introduced to the world of the girls' boarding school, nameless, in which a new student, a very young girl named Iris, arrives via that coffin, stepping out, perplexed, as she's greeted by an assortment of girls of various ages, each wearing a ribbon in their hair to denote their class (red is for the youngest, violet is for the oldest). Iris learns, gradually, that there are several dormitories in this thickly overgrown forest--like a summer camp that lasts all year--and only a few adults: Mademoiselle Eva and Edith, and an older woman who acts as "chateau attendant." The children are permitted to swim and play all day, provided they attend some classes (ballet and biology are shown), keep themselves within the high walls that surround the grounds, and obey a strict curfew. Iris is distraught to know that she cannot return to the outside world, although it's unclear exactly what she was taken from: an orphanage? Did her parents send her away? She is only given the vague promise that if she doesn't disobey, and concentrates on her lessons, eventually she'll be too old for the school and will be permitted to leave. This is granted to those of the violet ribbons, who, in their final year, must leave the school every night, following a lamplit path through the trees to attend--what? Iris tries to learn, in vain.
The story gradually moves away from Iris to various other girls: Laura, who rebels against the system and plots an escape; Alice, obsessed with the annual visits by the "Headmistress," who always chooses one of the younger girls to leave the school with her; and Bianca, bossily taking over the role of veteran school expert as she ties her ribbon into her hair in the opening scene, and who prepares to finally learn some of the school's secrets as the year draws to a close. The progression, from a storytelling point of view, is beautiful, collapsing the career of the students into a single year by shifting its focus from one girl to the next, showing how each copes with her imprisonment, but also demonstrating each one like an exhibit piece, scrutinizing each stage of development in either wonder or wondrous fear. The girls are compared, constantly--by the mademoiselles as well as the film's lens--to caterpillars slowly metamorphosing into butterflies. It's the dominant motif of the film, and perhaps might be heavy-handed, if it weren't for the darkness lurking in the story's corners, and that creepy path into the woods, which constantly puts you at unease. You will ask yourself repeatedly what the purpose of the school is, and the nice trick of the film--and a key that it's a fairy tale--is that when the purpose is "explained," it remains just as illogical and diffuse.
Hadzihalilovic maintains a tightrope walk throughout the proceedings, and what emerges is a portrait of the passages of pre-adolescence--with puberty looming like an unseen wolf in the woods--that is deliberately hazy in the details, as a dream would be. Yet it is all so vividly shot, with lush greens and vibrant hues to match the ribbons that mark the girls, and a fetishizing eye that treats each moment like something one lost, and is now, in memory, trying to recapture. There are dark, secret, subterranean passages--the scene in which we finally pass into the outside world is as elaborate as penetrating the headquarters of a bootlegger, or the Phantom of the Opera, or Fu Manchu. Everything is sustained as a ritual, so that even when the children are playing on the swings, the imagery might evoke Maxfield Parrish, but the movements are rehearsed; only when one girl flings herself from the height of the arc, collapsing onto her face in the dirt, do we have the feel of abandon and transgression.
The story bears certain similarities to an excellent anime miniseries, Haibane-Renmei, from 2002, which deals with girls who are delivered into a walled city, and grow actual wings and halos without knowing what design they serve, or what lurks beyond the walls. But if you watch Innocence expecting some great supernatural explanation, or a head-slapping twist in line with the films of M. Night Shyamalan, you'll be disappointed--or, rather, delivered. Innocence knows how to conclude the story without betraying the mood of its setup.
Although it received a limited arthouse and festival release in the U.S., Innocence remains without a DVD distributor, perhaps out of paranoia over the abdundant child nudity. The MPAA has rated it R for "some sexual content and brief nudity involving a minor." This is a good case to be included in the documentary This Film Has Not Been Rated. In fact, there is no explicit sex--one scene only hints briefly at the idea of this thing called "sex"--and although the nudity is anything but "brief," it's of course "innocent," because it involves prepubescent children. Since when does child nudity rate an R rating? Anyone who's been to the beach has been exposed to it. The rating, which is almost irrelevant anyway given the film's limited availability in the U.S., nevertheless speaks volumes about the current American cultural climate. Really, this film is more of a PG, though I imagine it works better for adults looking back on childhood, rather than for children stepping through the lamplit woods on their own.