Z To A: Innocence (2004)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Gushing water.  Subterranean rumbling.  Sun-dappled green vistas behind huge stone walls.  So begins “Innocence,” a fascinating fable about a mysterious boarding school for girls, where one arrives by coffin to an enclosed, highly regimented universe of botany classes, ballet and playtime.  The journey from girl to woman and its dangers and perils has rarely, if ever, been explored in a more creative manner than in this intoxicating feature by acclaimed French film director Lucile Hadzihalilovic.

– From DVD Production Notes

I can’t think of another film that’s as subjective or controversial as Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence. I also find it fitting that I’m writing about it on the heels of my last Z To A, Irréversible, which was directed by her husband. In a way I see them as companion pieces.

From the research I’ve done it seems each viewer and critic have their own ideas and perceptions of what the film means. It soothes and/or upsets. It makes some nervous and/or nostalgic. The impressions vary from girls aged 7 to 13 attending a screening in France and saying, “I understand everything” to American adults on message boards writing, “PEDOPHILIA EVERYWHERE” then proceeding to have an online meltdown.

Of course, the only thing I can truly explain is what the film means to me and why I own it. To begin, when I first saw it in 2007 I was fascinated for one singular reason: it depicts a place that simply does not exist.

This isn’t referring to the surrealist, dream-like imagery or how the story plays out like a fable. What I mean to say is that Innocence creates a space that- for the most part- is completely devoid of men. These girls live in a world where they’re allowed to be open, pure and unabashedly female without the threat of abuse or harm.

In fact, their knowledge of men is fragmented and vague at best. There is a scene in which seven-year-old Laura (Alisson Lalieux) shows six-year-old Iris (Zoé Auclair) a picture of a bearded face, implying men might be the invisible monsters of the film, lurking beyond the outer walls.

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I noticed my own feelings about this during one of the early scenes in the film. The girls head to the lake and teach the youngest ones how to swim, stripping down to their underwear in lieu of swimsuits. When this scenario is applied to the real world there is instant anxiety, the possibility that the girls are exposed and unsafe. However, in this case they aren’t and I suddenly realized why: “They don’t have to worry. There are no men there.” It was a sobering moment.

It’s this kind of imagery in the film that has come under attack, and not only that, it’s a mind-boggling example of how cultures assign different meanings to images. There’s a vulnerability in Innocence we’ve been socially conditioned to dislike. This is compounded by the dance recitals in the third act, perhaps the most contested scenes in reviews and message boards. (And why? Once again the anxiety is linked to men, although further study of these scenes might surprise and confuse you.)

Without question Hadzihalilovic tests our notions of girlhood, working from Frank Wedekind‘s 1903 novella, Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls as inspiration. The result is a visual puzzle full of symbols, unanswered questions and details open to countless interpretations. For the most part the film is silent, letting a viewer’s thoughts run wild with depictions of nature, growth, death, discovery and uncertainty.

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As for the narrative, it becomes harder to explain, fluidly progressing from newly arrived Iris to determined 10-year-old Alice (Lea Bridarolli) and finally the obedient but uncertain 13-year-old Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge). Their experiences are touched by both darkness and light as they are prepared for “the outside,” namely through an education of biology and dance. There is a preoccupation with the body, implying that girls are meant to be presented, judged and “of use” to the larger world- but then again, this is strictly my own interpretation.

What’s also notable are how these girls and their classmates respond to the path they have been placed on. I found myself identifying with the silent Rose (Astrid Homme) and the impassive Laura (Olga Peytavi-Müller) more than anyone else, particularly when the line, “I won’t be here long,” comes into play. There’s something naive and disquieting about it, perhaps encapsulating what the girls’ education actually is.

At the school there are only two teachers who tutor the girls, Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) and Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard), whose behavior only add to the cryptic nature of the story. Cotillard is perhaps the only recognizable face in the entire film, appearing in it only three years before winning an Oscar for La Vie En Rose (2007).

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I’ve always like Cotillard, and there’s something touching and undoubtedly broken about her character. Hadzihalilovic referred to Edith and Eva as “failed role models” and by the film’s end they seem conflicted and startlingly incomplete. Their presence at the school is one of Innocence‘s many mysteries, as well as what they teach to these fledgling young girls.

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As for what all of it means? It would be presumptuous for me to say “I know” or interpret every scene. It would also miss the point. Innocence means many things, which is part of its magic. It’s also what makes it difficult.

For my part, watching it again has only confirmed that it may be genius. I’ll never completely understand its fever dream qualities, only know that it’s a riddle that is better experienced instead of solved.

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