Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Review: Innocence (out 30/9)

Welcome to the doll house: Innocence

A very young girl arrives in a coffin at a same-sex school enclosed by woods. The place has a timeless feel about it, although the dress code bespeaks of the 1960s or even the 1950s. The girls have the posture of ballet dancers and immaculate manners as a result of careful and strict grooming. This is the universe depicted by the uncanny, haunting film Innocence, a combination of dark fairy tale fare and drama that plumbs into the realms of female pre-pubescence with nods to magic realism and surrealism.

Directed by one of the rising stars of French cinema, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Innocence is based on an 1888 short story by symbolist German writer Frank Wedekind. Hadzihalilovic shows here a tremendous gift for creating symbolic imagery and atmosphere, not to mention a very developed cinematic vision.

After Iris, the girl from the coffin, is welcomed into the institution, she becomes the protégé of the oldest in the group, Bianca. As it happens, every evening Bianca has to go to an undisclosed place, much to Iris's distress, who has to be left behind. The only two adult presences in the place are Mademoiselle Edith (Hélene de Fougerolles) and Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard, seen previously in A Very Long Engagement). Most of the girls seem happy enough, mainly because they know nothing else or perhaps any memories from their prior lives elsewhere seem to have been erased. One of them (Alice) rebels and climbs the wall that separates the place from the rest of the world, disappearing into the forest. The mise-en-scene is immaculately elegant, understatedly sumptuous with lots of dark furniture, white linen and the breathtaking location of the film.


Innocence is like a dream that hypnotises the viewer with its strange yet recognisable imagery. It is one of those texts into which many interpretations can be read. The most external layer shows a feminine sensitivity dealing with the female soul as it prepares for a world dominated by men. It's strange in that enclosed universe that is constructed like a Freudian metaphor of female biology and sexuality, but it's also cosy and protected. Hadzihalilovic never really explains much, which also gives the film a certain tension. Sometimes it almost veers into Gothic horror clad in Channel, but to good effect.


Despite the fact that nothing much happens, the film generates a feeling of compelling curiosity. Like the girls in it, the viewer is seduced into forgetting what the outside world is like and becomes as surprised by the panorama of a sunny city square as the characters that get outside of the school at the end are.

Hadzihalilovic managed to create a meticulous balance between fantasy/surrealism and reality in a film that moves like a dream but which is, all the same, naturalistic. Innocence is a beautifully woven fable tailored to the contemporary imagination populated by accumulated references. It is a very idiosyncratic work with one of the most beautiful and haunting opening credits scenes I've ever seen.

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