FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Helene de Fougerolles
PLOT: A coffin mysteriously arrives at a girl’s boarding school; inside is Iris, a six-year old girl, wearing only white panties. Six other girls open the coffin, introduce themselves, and dress the new arrival in the school uniform: all white, pleated skirts, braided ponytails, and color-coded ribbons in their hair identifying their rank by age. As Iris learns the rules of the school from her elders and is trained in dance, older girls hope that they will be “chosen” by the Headmistress during her annual visit so they can leave the grounds.
- “Inspired by” German writer Frank Wedekind’s 1903 novella “Mine-Haha: or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls”. The novella was made again in 2005 as The Fine Art of Love: Mine Ha-Ha.
- In 2015 Evolution, a sort of companion piece to Innocence set on an island where all the children are male. completed
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big moment comes early on: Iris’ mysterious arrival in a coffin.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Coffin cuties; butterfly sex studies; train to adulthood
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful, and troubling, metaphor for childhood.
Clip from Innocence
COMMENTS: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s notion of Innocence is an odd one. She fashions a quietly menacing reverie about girls blossoming under strict supervision. There are no men in this world, and a limited number of adults; only two young teachers, and a number of old women servants, guide the girls, demanding obedience in the art of dance. There are no explanations for this school in which girls arrive packed in coffins and graduate only after they fulfill the mysterious headmistress’ unspoken specifications. The film mimics the atmosphere of disorientation a child might feel when shipped off to a strange boarding school where no one is exactly mean, but everything is distressingly unfamiliar. “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” stresses one of the schoolmarms, but even though the overseers are not cruel, we instinctively root for the disobedient girls.
The original novella on which this was based was written in 1903, when gender roles were far stricter than in 2004: women were expected to grow up to be wives and mothers (certainly not movie directors!), and so their educations were limited to the “charming arts.” The egalitarianization of education has diluted the satirical impact of the boarding school’s ostensible, absurd purpose. The balance now tilts to the coming-of-age side of the scale, making the ordeal symbolic of the sorrow (and joy) of leaving the innocence of childhood behind. Innocence uses butterflies and caterpillars as a symbol of the girls’ progress to womanhood. I’ve never been a proponent of the theory that a symbol’s profundity increases in proportion to its obscurity, any more than I’m a proponent of the theory that every image needs to act as a symbol. The best metaphors are bold and obvious, and this one blossoms perfectly. Meanwhile, the school’s other mysteries grow without elucidation.
Secrets are the currency of Innocence; in the movie, as in life, it’s the uncovering of secrets that destroys innocence. Among the girls, it’s the youngest, Iris, who’s most obsessed with secrets: why won’t her family come to visit? What’s behind the ivy-covered walls that encircle the grounds? And especially, where do Bianca and the other violet ribbons go every night while the younger girls prepare for bed? “What’s Bianca’s secret,” she asks vindictive orange ribbon Selma, and gets a beating for her curiosity. She bleeds. The big secret all kids learn, of course, is that sex exists, that it’s yucky, that you will someday indulge in it willingly, and that your body is going to change in strange and frightening ways. Other secrets here are for the audience alone: why do the girls arrive in coffins? Have the girls been kidnapped, sold, or are they dead souls in Purgatory? What, or who, are they being trained for? Who is the hidden audience that watches the older girls nightly dance performances, and why are they willing to pay for the privilege? What happens to the blue ribbon girls who are “chosen”? What does one of the teachers mean when she laments of a student, “I don’t want her to get like us?” We learn the hows of this institution’s workings, but not the whys. To learn the whys would be to learn the difference between good and evil, which would destroy our own innocence.
Maybe it is all as innocent as it seems. There was controversy revolving around the topless preteen nudity in the film, especially when combined with the fetish value of the schoolgirl uniforms. These aspersions of exploitation seem to affect mainly Brits and Americans; culturally, the French are far more tolerant of nude and sexualized children on film. (DChild Bride this ain’t.ring a bell?) While concerns over child exploitation are valid, as a practical matter most pedophiles have “better” things to do than to scan slow-paced surreal art films looking for brief glimpses of the types of pictures they could find in their neighbors’ “childhood memories” photo albums. The girls, both actresses and characters, are truly “innocent.” When they splash in the river clad only in their panties, the girls are merely having fun among each other. When they dance as butterflies onstage to classical music, it’s no different from the type of grammar school ballet recital that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow under normal circumstances . When the dance instructor repeatedly stresses the importance of taking care of the legs, the camera focuses on the girls legs, and one of the spinster servants tells one lass “you’ll know how to make the most of your legs outside”… well, they are still innocent. It is we in the unseen audience who have dirty minds, we who supply the sullied context. The school does nothing explicitly exploitative or harmful, yet we harbor suspicions. This material is provocative, but thematically appropriate and largely innocent.
Innocence sat, virtually unseen, for eleven years whileworked in other roles on other projects (including a “with the help of” script credit for Enter the Void) before returning to feature film directing in 2015 with Evolution. Evolution is similar in style to Innocence: long takes, minimal dialogue, gorgeous natural cinematography, unnerving ian sound design. Thematically, it’s an inverted companion piece: this time, imagines a scenario where boys are raised on an island absent of girls, again subject to mysterious rules and rites from their adult overseers. In both works, there is the sense that children are being used by adults (or perhaps by nature) for their own purposes. In my Evolution review I wrote that these two linked films could be considered to occupy a single spot on the List, 1a and 1b. Anyone who enjoyed Evolution should seek out Innocence (and vice versa). Innocence ultimately gets the official nod over Evolution because it is a more mysterious and lingering work. Evolution largely resolves the mystery of what is happening to the boys on the island—admittedly, in a very weird and shocking way. Innocence is more wide open, leaving more room for interpretation. In this case, I think that Innocence‘s subtlety is a virtue that gives it a longer shelf-life than its younger brother. It also feels more dangerously transgressive in the way it dances around the concept of pedophilia, without ever crossing the line into bad taste—leaving us to supply potential horrors from our own imaginations. Innocence is a rare blend of the allegorical and the inexplicable, satisfying both hemispheres of the brain. It is so verdant and lovely that it should be seen by more people than it has been.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Lyrically shot and packed with 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.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)
“Writer/director Lucile Hadzihalilovic has created a beautiful and provocative look at the sadness and joy of a woman’s metamorphosis in ‘Innocence,’ a film that often seems like ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ as directed by David Lynch.”–Laura Clifford, Reeling Reviews (contemporaneous)
Innocence | Wild Bunch – The American distributor’s site, with basic info, a teaser trailer, and a few stills
IMDB LINK: Innocence (2004)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
School Daze: The Curious Young Girls of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence – A detailed analysis from Ian Johnson for Bright Lights Film Journal
Innocence (2004 film) – The film’s Wikipedia article includes a short English language synopsis of the
LIST CANDIDATE: INNOCENCE (2004) – This site’s original review of the film
DVD INFO: Although Evolution received a relatively wide release (and even played on Netflix), Innocence is a rare find on U.S. home video (possibly due to concerns of its potential pedophiliac appeal). For Region 1 viewers, the only choice is the Homevision release (buy), which has been criticized for poor video quality (interlacing issues). It contains the same extras as the Seville disc below, only with English subtitles, plus another 38–minute interview with
The DVD used to compose this review is a Region 2 disc from France’s Seville label (buy, with the caveat that your DVD player must be able to play Region 2 discs). It does have English subtitles for the movie, but none for the extras, which include a six-minute introduction from the director, a ten-minute slideshow narrated by young actress Zoe Auclair, and a French-language trailer.
Innocence is not currently available on Blu-ray or (to our knowledge) streaming services.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat,” who described it as a “dreamy, beautifully filmed tale set in an isolated girl’s school .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)