Much like Michael Haneke's upcoming "Cache" sets up generic parameters in order to confound and then demolish your expectations surrounding the word "thriller," "Innocence" opens as many a "children's fable" might, a slightly more twisted but similarly disorienting version of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel. Yet by largely refuting any easy explanation or concrete logistical motivation for her surreal little girls' netherworld, Hadzihalilovic problematizes the imagery of girlhood fictions. There's already been a smattering of criticism about Hadzihalilovic's provocations, which tend toward a penetrating camera gaze that glides over her little girl's preformed bodies with an odd erotic abandon. Yet the director, the wife of extreme French pulse-pounder Gaspar Noe and editor of Noe's excoriating tragedy, "I Stand Alone," which also cast a queasy glance at the suggestion of pedophilia, both in terms of character and audience, ensures that here, all the stuff of girlhood, when bathed in shadow, takes on a nefarious undertone: hair ribbons, hula-hoops, pressed and starched white pinafores. To accept this imagery on its own, "innocent" terms as adult viewers, Hadzihalilovic seems to say, is to deny its fetishistic draw. Every tiny detail of premenstrual ritual here exists in an enclosed realm of metaphor, a claustrophobic surreality that doesn't allow for intuition or independence.
Of course, no one would assume that they were in "Anne of Green Gables" territory from the opening frames, which, accompanied by a rumbling, quivering soundtrack, put forth a deluge of water imagery and then a sudden rebirth: little 6-year-old Iris (Zoe Auclair) arrives at a gothic boarding school for girls via coffin. When released from her tiny wooden box, thoroughly disoriented, she finds herself surrounded by similarly young girls, varying in ages from 6 to 12. "What is this place?" Iris asks in that confused yet thoroughly matter-of-fact manner as in the logic of a dream. "Home," answers her elder and caretaker, 12-year-old Bianca (Berangere Haubruge). From this point on, the rules of the boarding school--a labyrinth of lamplighted forest trails, underground caverns, oddly numbered doors, and off-limit locked rooms--dictate the parameters of reality. Odd occurrences abound, and it's best just to accept them: The eldest girl leaves mysteriously every night at 9 p.m. down the dimly lit forest trail before returning in the morning; every girl is forced to take ballet lessons in preparation for the year-end show, which seems to be the students's only final "exam"; the absent but legendary headmistress appears once a year to choose a blue-ribboned girl to take away with her to God knows where. To question any of this is to reject the aphorism "Obedience is the only path to happiness," which here supercedes independent thought. Yet this is no mere fable of totalitarian oppression and military regime; these girls are being primed for a far more gender-specific social conformity.
If there's no literal answer to what that is exactly, then Hadzihalilovic's allegorical heft more than fills in the gaps. Her greatest visual and metaphorical creation comes at the climax during the final performance of the ballet. Though the girls have been working towards this moment, they hadn't realized that they were going to be dancing in front of an audience. In the grandiose yet hushed and darkened theater, the girls dance, accompanied by an innocuous piano tune that has long since become a signifier of some imminent dread. Yet when Hadzihalilovic cuts back to show who's watching the costumed and posing girls, all we see are adult figures in silhouette. Then, a rose is tossed onto the stage, accompanied by a low-register male voice. Suddenly it all crystallizes: in the darkness the antagonist of this abstracted narrative is spotlighted, and he's out there, waiting in the wings.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]
Take 2 By Lauren Kaminsky
Puberty tends to sneak up on innocents. The greatest victory of Lucile Hadzihalilovic's first feature is that it perfectly captures the suspense of this adolescent anticipation, giving the viewer the perspective of the innocent grasping for clues that everyone else seems to know already. The effect is fascinating and frustrating, and in hindsight the film's title seems to connote more naivete than purity, since much of the dramatic tension in the film comes from this tone of powerlessness, impatience, and dread.
We enter the prepubescent world of the film along with little Iris, the most recent arrival to this mysterious orphanage sealed off from the adult world. Many long minutes pass before a grown woman enters the picture; until then, we rely on the older girls to teach us the unwritten rules. We have no choice but to believe them, and our confidence is bolstered by the seriousness with which they take themselves. These little girls in matching white pinafores and pigtails exhibit moments of lighthearted play but their mood is earnest and solemn, and there is something sinister about these children, who are at once innocent and adult.
Visually, "Innocence" is a Henry Darger watercolor come to life. The girls look like well-heeled, cherubic child models lifted out of print ads and placed in a forest, out of context and objectified as they dance in the woods, or strip to their panties to swim in the river, or lead each other around hand in hand, unsupervised. One stunning scene (before the film resigns itself to a feel-good resolution) shows some of the older, almost-pubescent girls dancing in short skirts and diaphanous butterfly wings like so many "Vivian Girls." Like Darger's artwork, this scene is uncomfortable and provocative precisely because we know that they're being eroticized and they don't.
[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]
Take 3 by Michael Joshua Rowin
"Innocence" is all about transformation--through the seasons, through rituals, through the entrance into womanhood. The question concerning Lucile Hadzihalilovic's bold debut is whether these transformations result in spiritual rewards or else hollow ignorance. It's difficult to tell. For 110 of "Innocence"'s 115 minutes we're treated to one of the creepiest fables committed to celluloid: arising from a small, wooden coffin (as in Masonic rites, a symbol of rebirth), a young girl, Iris, is immediately introduced to a strange order at a remote school. The purpose of this school, which consists of young girls in matching white uniforms and color-coded hair ribbons, remains at first vaguely defined as the girls frolic in idyllic forests and study under the strict tutelage of beautiful ballet teachers. Once Iris and an older girl she admires, Bianca, set out to discover the secrets of their "home," Hadzihalilovic unspools her film as a sinister fairy tale.
While "Innocence" initially portends a weak parable on totalitarian control via fear, as in last year's "The Village," the film's gothic roots in Frank Wedekind's German expressionist source material (no, I haven't read it either) quickly take firm hold and never let go. This is one of the most genuinely eerie films in recent years--scenes in which girls in butterfly costumes (these delicate insects are used to instruct on bodily changes) perform before an unseen, almost entirely silent audience recall the nightmarish dread of one of "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"'s dinner sequences. Only there's no satire to deflect the unease here, as whispering soundscapes and Benoit Debie's lush cinematography create a hyperreal mockery of societal adaptability beyond the reaches of our reason but within range of our piqued intuition. When "Innocence" concludes on a note of seeming joy and, indeed, positive entry into the adult world, one has to wonder: are Hadzihalilovic's own visions too much for her to follow to the bitter end? All I know is that 98% of "Innocence" is one of this year's vital films.