Lucile Hadzihalilovic's 2004 film Innocence is haunting, beautiful, mysterious, unsettling, and maybe bait for pedophiles. Based on some of the reviews I've read, what you think of the movie may depend on how much you blame Hadzihalilovic for her husband.
First, the movie. It's based on Frank Wedekind's 1901 novella Mine-Haha: or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls. Wedekind gave us the controversial works Spring Awakening (recently seen on Broadway) and the Lulu plays, which were filmed as Pandora's Box in 1929 by G.W. Pabst and made Louise Brooks a star.
Knowing this, it should be no surprise that Innocence is a surreal story of a weird boarding school for pre-pubescent girls, and that certain sexual undercurrents are present.
The movie opens with Iris (Zoe Auclair) arriving at the school in a beautiful wooden coffin that is opened by a group of girls who all wear colored ribbons of different colors in their hair. They explain the ribbons as indicating their relative ages, and Iris, the youngest, now gets to wear the red ribbon. Iris is sad and confused at first, and she latches on to one of the older girls, Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge), as a friend and role model, and soon enough she's happily playing games with the girls and only occasionally asking when she'll get to leave and visit her brother (the answer: never).
Though the girls are at a boarding school, there are, apparently, one two types of classes and only two teachers: a class in biology and evolution taught by Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) and a class in ballet taught by Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard). The teachers are generally stern and serious with the girls, but they're also compassionate, and seem concerned for the girls' futures.
During the evenings, Bianca leaves the girls and walks down a forest path lit by lamps. Iris wonders where she goes, and follows her, discovering little other than Mademoiselle Eva getting an injection of some sort from a man. Up to here, the film's point of view has mostly stuck with Iris or people close to Iris, making it seem that she is the protagonist, but the focus begins to broaden, bringing in the perspectives and actions of other girls as well as the two teachers.
Eventually there will be dance performances for mysterious (apparently mostly male) audiences, travels through tunnels, and a train ride. At its most basic level, the film is about cycles of life and learning, growth and maturity, innocence and experience -- the sharp desires both for knowledge and freedom and for a return to blissful ignorance.
The pacing is slow, especially in the first half, with long scenes of girls walking, playing, swimming. Our desire for knowledge is strong: we want to know what this place is, what's beyond its apparently impregnable walls, how people get to it, what the mysterious headmistress wants, etc. -- in short, we want to know what's going on and how and why what's what. We are like Iris: confused and curious. But Iris quickly accepts that this is just the way things are, and she soon accepts the basic conditions and precepts of the school as given. She is attracted to the actions of some of the more rebellious girls, but she is more frightened of the threats of punishment than they are (and threats they remain; we see very little actual punishment in the film, which again seems to mimic a certain type of childhood experience and anxiety). The world is inscrutable, but that doesn't mean you can't still have fun playing games. Indeed, the less you try to figure the inscrutable world out, the more fun you'll have.
Until, of course, the motives and structures of the inscrutable world reveal themselves more clearly and force their way into your life. Knowledge and maturity are difficult to avoid no matter how uncurious you are. Biology has its imperatives, too.
The cinematography, editing, and sound design of Innocence are extraordinary -- languid, yes, but full of strange beauty. Or not exactly languid, for though that suggests a certain casual dreaminess it also suggests a lack of energy, and there's plenty of energy in the film. It an energy masked by dreamy fluidity, though, the feeling of a memory considered on a sultry summer day or the world considered from under water.
The pacing and fluidity have caused some reviewers to dislike Innocence, since some reviewers prefer more narrative in their movies (they would say that languid is, indeed, exactly what this movie is). Others, though, have been more sharply critical, mostly of the film's imagery and premise. For instance, Manohla Dargis:
...the images that some might find troubling - the shots of the girls' legs, those peek-a-boo moments when the camera all but noses under their skirts - are not motivated by any seen character. The point of view here is that of the filmmaker and, by extension, us.I have lots of respect for Manohla Dargis, but here she seems to have spent more time nursing a grudge than watching the movie.
Whether these images leave you cold or make you hot may not be the purpose of this beautifully and painstakingly art-directed provocation, but it is part of the equation. Given the filmmaker's instrumental use of the female body and her fondness for low-frequency buzzing sounds, it was no surprise to discover that the final credits include the dedication "for Gaspar," a reference to Ms. Hadzihalilovic's partner, the filmmaker Gaspar Noé, best known for "Irréversible," his contribution to art-house exploitation. Ms. Hadzihalilovic is a gifted stylist, though when it comes to female desire, she might profit from less time with Mr. Noé's work and more time with Amy Heckerling's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," a film in which girls are allowed to have bodies, brains, boys and self-determination all at the same time, and without that annoying buzzing.
It may just be that my sensibilities have been deadened by too many Guy Davenport stories of Fourierist utopia, but the images of children scampering around in their underwear in Innocence did not seem to me fetishistic or otherwise problematic because they seemed to be expected within the givens of the society depicted in the film -- indeed, I was surprised the children weren't naked. Any implication of a sexual meaning to the children's dress or undress while they are amongst themselves is an implication placed upon them by the viewer. Dargis insists the viewer is the camera and the camera is us and we are playing peek-a-boo with the panties. The subjectivity or objectivity of the shots is clearly up for interpretation, but I wonder about an interpretation that sees nothing but subjectivity and a subjectivity that is adult and possibly prurient.
I can see that interpretation, and even sympathize with it, but I don't accept it. It may be that I do not want to accept it, that I'm reading into Innocence a certain perspective because I am uncomfortable with a world where children's bodies are fetishized and sexualized so thoroughly. A perspective such as Dargis's seems to me hyper-aware of the fetishization -- it seems to be in cahoots with the gaze of the adults in the mysterious audience of the ballets. Her mention of Gaspar Noé is notable as well, and is one that often comes up in the negative reviews of the film: because Hadzihalilovic has collaborated with Noé, been a producer for him, is married to him, and dedicated Innocence to him, therefore her interest in filming the children must contain provocative, and specifically sexual, motives.
And maybe her intentions were to provoke and to exploit. Intentions are important when a work of art is conceived and created, but not very important once it is released into the world, because audiences can have all sorts of ways of responding to and interpreting the work on their own. That's part of the fun of being a reader or viewer. Even if we grant the, I think, shaky premise that Hadzihalilovic intended to provoke and fetishize with this movie*, that does not lead inevitably to the movie being provocative and fetishistic, for a few different reasons: no matter how auteurist a director (or writer-director, in this case), there are still lots of other people involved in making a film; more importantly, it's difficult to translate intentions into material that then communicates those intentions to an audience without noise getting into the equation on either side of the material (otherwise, everyone who intended to make a profound and lasting work of art would be successful).
Intentions may be interesting, they may be fun for conversation, they may even deserve discussion from a cultural and historical perspective as part of the context of the work itself, but there is, finally, the work itself: the images in each frame, the sound on the soundtrack, and how they've all been put together.
My response to the work of cinema that is Innocence, then, is closer to Michael Atkinson's: "In its view of childhood as totalitarian citizenship, Hadzihalilovic's film stands, quietly, in a gender-furious class by itself." I don't know if it's in a class by itself (I haven't viewed everything that might be in such a class, nor would I know how to define and limit that class), but I do know that "its view of childhood as totalitarian citizenship" feels closer to my experience of the film than "an instrumental use of the female body", nor can I understand how anyone who'd actually watched the film from beginning to end could think, as Dargas claims to, that it denies girls "bodies, brains, boys and self-determination all at the same time". Certainly, some characters and systems in the story want to deny some of those things, but the girls are intrepid and sharp within the system they have been thrown into, and though we might not accept Wedekind and Hadzihalilovic's analogy of childhood as a mysterious and cloistered boarding school with strange rules and restrictions, surely no-one would deny that childhood is full of mysteries.
These girls certainly don't have the agency and power of the children in A High Wind in Jamaica, and none of them have become as rebellious as the children in Who Can Kill a Child?, but they are not automatons. The freedom given to the older children at the end of the film is clearly delightful and full of new mysteries, possibilities, and dangers -- the teachers may be sad to see the children's innocence and disappearing and to see them liberated from the structures that kept them ignorant, but the children move in the final scene from trepidation to unbridled joy and, yes, self-determination. The sullen adults who live and work at the school have gone back to the school to recapture their innocence, a time when they were happy, but they have obviously failed: going back is not possible and will only lead to resigned sadness. There is no evidence in the film against, and plenty for, the idea of moving on into knew challenges, new worlds, new games, new knowledge.
*shaky because even if she says that was her intention, it would be much smarter in terms of publicity for her to say that than to say it was not her intention, so the intentions would remain uncertain to me no matter what she claimed when promoting the film, though I have not sought out interviews with her, because I really don't care.