Innocence (2004) is a very beautiful, delicately intriguing surrealist allegory by the French filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic (yeah, I know… I’d guess Ha-ja-ha-LIL-o-vitch). The entirety of the film takes place at a girl’s school deep in the country – there are lush woods, a lake, and a series of older houses and buildings where the girls reside and take classes, all connected by paths lit by factory-lamps-as-streetlights. The environment reminded me of Paul Delvaux paintings – young women dressed in white, or nude, in fractured landscapes of classical temples, city streets at night, forests, train stations, etc.
The film starts with the girls welcoming a new student, Iris. She arrives nude, in a coffin, and the girls cloth her in white, tie ribbons in her hair (the colors denote age and seniority – red for the youngest, violet for the oldest girls), and assign her to her room, shared with the eldest girl in the house, Bianca. Iris mentions missing her brother from time to time, but is persuaded to understand he’ll never visit – in fact, no one will. There’s no other mention made of family, or indeed any personal history by or for any of the girls. They are a culture unto themselves.
For the most part, the girls are left on their own to socialize with each other, walk the woods, swim, jump rope, hide and seek, and, every once in a while, attend classes. While there are a number of older women who cook, clean, and attend to the domestic needs of the girls, there appears to be only two teachers – Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) , who lectures the girls on natural sciences and their health, and Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard), who teaches the dance classes.
Mademoiselle Edith is tall and imperiously lanky, and must use a cane to help her walk – her handicap is never explained, though the girls have their own rumors and theories. Her natural sciences tutelage is almost exclusively concerned with growth and transformations – eggs become chicks become birds, caterpillars become chrysalises become butterflies, and the transformations the girls themselves will undergo as they mature.
Mademoiselle Eva is engaged in teaching the girls the same dances, over and over, year after year. Eventually we learn that the eldest girls secretly perform these dances for an audience they never meet – they take the stage and perform for the already-seated audience, and the house is cleared immediately afterwards.
Once a year the headmistress visits, but it’s primarily to see older, but not eldest, girls dance for her. After seeing each blue-ribbon girl perform, she chooses one to take with her into the world outside of the school. While her visits are happily anticipated, the competition is quite serious, and her choice, and their departure, is suspiciously abrupt.
It’s a tough film to evoke second-hand. It sounds like some kind of overly precious Walden Pond meets Smith College fairy-tale fantasia, but Hadzihalilovic keeps things very grounded. The girls themselves are very natural, very normal, and for every girl that’s flourishing in this idyllic environment, there’s another who feels haunted, lonely and isolated. There’s always an underlying question of whether they’re part of a luckily-chosen child-society, or passive prisoners genuinely mystified by why they’re there. Bianca must make late visits to the main house every night, never explained, never discussed. Attempts to leave are, apparently, severly punished. Mademoiselles Edith and Eva are, seemingly, former students, and their teaching duties seem to be far more a matter of Their Fate than a chosen profession.
Hadzihalilovic never tips towards paradise or purgatory. She simply presents the girls as children of (somewhat) free will interacting with each other and their natural environment. There’s no sense of casting off a Real World for this one, although everyone’s aware that it’s on the other side of the garden wall. There’s no threat of looming corruption, abandonment or betrayal, although there are vaguely sinister mysteries laced into their day-to-day, night-to-night lives – small revolts, visual bits of Balthus and DeChirico, sad glances from the Mademoiselles.
I don’t want to reveal too much about it, but there’s a structure, a progression, threads to follow, and a wonderfully open-ended ending. It’s not just mood and atmosphere – it’s infused with atmosphere, but it’s About Something, too.
I found it quite remarkable. Ironically, online, the film it seems to be most often compared to is ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, a film admired by many but one I really disliked. (Although, I suppose, after this, I should give the Peter Weir film another shot). But I can unreservedly recommend this film – absolutely outside of the mainstream, with a uniquely slow rhythm and visual richness.
I’m sure the Frank Wedekind novella on which this is based is very good as well – Wedekind was part of a late 1800’s German post-romantic avant-garde, and his plays and other writings often caused scandals for their frank-yet-abstracted sexual and sensual subject matter. His best-known works are the ‘Lulu’ plays – ‘Earth Spirit’ and ‘Pandora’s Box’, and his first play, ‘Spring Awakening’. The novella is called ‘Mine-Haha: The Corporal Education of Young Girls’, but seems to be quite rare these days. But the film will do, trust me – it’s one of those creative endeavors that feels like it only could have been a film – Hadzihalilovic is a terrific filmmaker.