“Don’t resist, my dear.”
Knowing that Lucile Hadzihalilovic is the partner of Gaspar Noé — he of the 10-minute one-take rape scene in the brutalist Irréversible (2002) — might make one wary of Innocence (2004) and its story of prepubescent girls living in the enclosed world of a rural boarding school. Gentle Viewer, relax: the film takes no turn to the extreme violence that the connection with Noé might suggest. Instead, Hadzihalilovic has given us a strange, fascinating, mysterious, if slightly disturbing film. Her first feature, it demonstrates a near-perfect integration of story, theme, mood, composition, colour, lighting, camera-placement and -movement, and sound: simply, Innocence is one of the best films of recent years.
The film’s overall meaning is fairly clear. Hadzihalilovic is quite overtly offering a symbolic narrative of a young woman’s — any young woman’s — growth to maturation, a process that is experienced as both fearful and exhilarating. Over this is laid an account of life at a girls-only boarding school, simultaneously repressive (against which some girls rebel) and nurturing (the creation of a warm environment which other girls never want to leave).
But the film’s unsettling feature is the mundane, day-to-day narrative, and the overriding question of what these young girls are being trained for. There are constant intimations of some paedophilic intent. This school is set on a large estate, cut off from the world, enclosed by a high wall, with the isolated buildings connected by forest paths. We only see two teachers, Miss Edith and Miss Eva, and the only lessons we see the girls being given are ballet and biology. The ballet is training for performances to what is later implied to be an adult, male-only audience (although, as with so much of the film, and to its tremendous advantage, nothing is completely clear); the biology lessons are related to the girls’ own process of maturation. Early in the film, the youngest girls are shown an evolution chart by Miss Edith and told how they too are part of this process; later in the film, they watch a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, as Miss Edith tells them, “You girls metamorphose too.” But there are darker intimations here also — we remember an earlier shot of Miss Edith pinning dead butterflies to a box, and in the very first scene in the biology classroom we watch one little girl holding a small cage with a bird inside, an image of her own confinement.
The girls are organised into separate little groups, their ages marked by the ribbons they wear: red for the youngest, through to violet for the oldest. At the start of the film, with the violet-ribbons having already left, we see the ribbons being redistributed to mark the start of a new year. But the blue-ribbons, the second-oldest girls, have one chance during the year to leave the school by being personally selected by the headmistress, and again there arises the disturbing question of what these girls are being trained for. Although this selection is based on a dance performance, the headmistress and her assistant concentrate on these young girls’ physical attributes, their profile, the length of the neck, their hands and teeth. We can only wonder, slightly ill at ease, at the purpose of this physical selection.
This sense of ill-ease is only intensified because we know little of what happens to the violet-ribbons, the oldest girls. Every evening Bianca, the violet-ribbon of the little group the film follows, sets off down the forest path to the school building; and one time Iris, the red-ribbon, follows her into the dark of the interior, to glimpse her sitting up in a bed in her slip as the dark, indistinct figure of a man sitting, back to us, in front of her says “Don’t resist, my dear,” and prepares to administer an injection. It’s the most disturbing moment in a film that knowingly plays with the way these images of girls in short white dresses, white socks and black shoes will inevitably be read as a perverse object of adult male sexual interest.
What Bianca and the other violet-ribbons do at night is a mystery for most of the film, until the younger Nadia is made to accompany her. With her, we are led in an Alice-in-Wonderland moment through a door in the base of a grandfather clock and onto a theatre stage. The girls are given costumes of butterfly wings, simultaneously symbols of their entrapment (Miss Edith’s butterflies in the box) and of their future metamorphosis, escape and freedom (Miss Edith’s biology lesson), and left to give a dance performance. But in Nadia’s case it’s made clear that the girls are being coerced into this: she tries to run off when she discovers there’s an audience waiting for them and she’s forced back on the stage, just as during the performance when she falls down and tries to run off, she is pushed back by Miss Eva.
The members of the audience are all darkened silhouettes but it is implied that it is a male audience, with obvious sinister overtones. At only one time do we hear a voice — a male voice — from the audience, when a shadowy figure in a theatre box throws a rose to Bianca with a cry “You are the most beautiful one!” The sexual implications of this transaction are shown in the way Bianca stops, tucks the rose into her costume, and smiles up at the figure in the darkness, while Miss Eva’s eyes flicker with foreboding as she watches.
Bianca reveals an instinctive awareness of the sexuality at issue here but also a sense of control of the situation. When she returns from the performance with the rose and also a single male theatre glove she has found, she lies on her bed, places the rose beside her, puts on the glove and proceeds to stroke her thighs with it; but the next morning she quickly throws rose and glove into the river and reverts to the jaunty little girl in white.
But Hadzihalilovic’s title of “Innocence” is not ironic. There’s a sense that she is provocatively using images that have become almost taboo (young girls naked down to their underpants at play in the water) to stress that these are images of innocence but for what we as adults (and, in particular, as male adults) read into them. Certainly, there’s no greater evocation of the state of purity and innocence in which these girls live than when the camera glides round the trees in the forest to reveal them at play: practising ballet, hula-hooping, running with long white streamers, on swings hung from the trees; then tilts upwards and revolves around at the treetops above; and finally tracks after Iris and Bianca as the race off together down a forest path before stopping still at the sight of a fawn.
School life here is one that is simultaneously a paradise and a prison, a feature that Hadzihalilovic herself has identified1 in the film’s source, Frank Wedekind’s novella Mine-Haha, or The Corporeal Education of Young Girls.2 School life here, as everywhere, is one of rules and restrictions, but with two sides to the coin. Authoritarianism is emphasised when Miss Eva tells Iris that “obedience is the only path to happiness,” but at the same time one of the girls notes that “they can’t make us stay here if we don’t want to.” There’s also a satisfying ritualistic aspect to the school’s life, starting from the way each new arrival (stripped almost completely naked, and coming via a shadowy underground passage in a coffin) is welcomed in a ceremony that culminates in the formal exchange of ribbons.
Still, the life of the schoolgirls here is not without shadows. There’s the usual array of emotional states that set some girls apart — jealousy, resentment, a sense of loneliness or isolation, acts of deliberate, even sadistic cruelty. Also, two girls reject the contract of acceptance that the school offers. One of them, the blue-ribbon Alice, is desperate to leave early and when the headmistress declines to choose her, simply clambers over the high wall that cuts off the school grounds from the outside world. We last see her running off into the snowy landscape of the forest outside, and there’s never any indication that she is harmed by her escape. Which is not the case for the younger Laura, who tries escaping in a leaky boat and drowns in the attempt.
There’s a certain mystery about the two young teachers, Miss Edith (with her limp and her walking stick) and Miss Eva. Are they trapped here, unable to escape (as suggested by the students)? Or do they simply represent the normal status of schoolteachers, for a time forming a central role in the lives of students and later forgotten and discarded? But there are darker implications in the way both of them show misgivings about what is to happen to their charges — for example, when Miss Eva turns sad and emotional during the festive New Year’s dinner, or when Miss Edith says of Alice: “I don’t want her to become like us.” A similar sense is conveyed through the shots of the old servant women silently observing the girls at play, whether through a window or from behind a tree.
In Innocence Hadzihalilovic creates a compelling world through a precise counterpoint of sound image. There’s no soundtrack music as such, although there is some in-scene music, but there’s a vast array of rich sounds that the film’s minimal story is played against, running from natural sounds such as running water (the world of nature is, in fact, the primary counterpoint of the whole film) to the ominous Lynchian rumblings associated with the underground passage that is the entrance to and exit from the school and with the bizarre grating in the forest floor that offers the girls a glimpse of this passage.
Cinematographer Benoît Debie’s work here is simply superb. The Cinemascope image is in the main fixed-frame (Hadzihalilovic herself refers to this style as being like “pinning butterflies in a box”); only natural lighting is used; the nighttime scenes are shot day-for-night creating a dreamlike, other-worldly mood; and the colours and compositions are of striking effect: the girls’ white dresses, the bright-coloured ribbons in their hair, the different shades of green of the natural setting, the dark wood tones of the interiors, the shadowy corridors and underground passage, the line of lamps along the path at night. A certain succession of sequences will have an underlying link structured around natural/visual motifs — for example, the water-fire-snow motif sequence that takes in Laura’s drowning in the river (never explicitly depicted), the subsequent rainfall, the ritual of her funeral pyre (!), and the girls’ walk through the snow to their New Year’s dinner.
Water is the film’s primary motif. It’s there right from the start with images shot underwater, the first rather indeterminate, the second clearly flowing water, which are then followed by a shot of water flowing over rocks in a stream. In the two major scenes set in the water, the camera first drops to the water’s level (as it does when the girls go swimming), then actually plunges underwater in a repeat of the opening shot (Laura’s drowning).
Water returns at the end. Now that their time at the school is over, the violet-ribbons, Bianca among them, are led out of the school and put on a train, to what we still may fear is a worrying fate. In fact, they simply end up in the plaza of a modern city, stopping to paddle their feet around a multi-jet fountain. Now, it’s made clear that what the girls have been prepared for by school is their transformation into sexualised beings. Bianca removes her blouse and wades into the centre of the fountain-jets, which create a wall of water before her; then a boy appears on the other side of the “wall” and the two smilingly start to play, splashing water at one another.
As with the earlier scene at the theatre, Bianca demonstrates choice and control, although this whole narrative obviously has a conservative, even politically regressive aspect to it, in its accepting depiction of an inevitable process of the socialisation of young women. At any rate, Hadzihalilovic makes the sexual connotations explicit, with this boy and girl positioned in play next to a thick, frothy, phallic column of water; and she then cuts to an overhead shot down on the two and on the frothy jet of water spouting up towards us, before dissolving to the underwater images of the film’s opening shot, circling us back to the beginning and underlining how this is the culmination of the process that we have been following in the course of the film. But still, after the dark colours of the forest, the shadows of the school interiors, the restrictions and controls of school life, this scene in the open space of the plaza, open to the sky above too, ends Innocence with a sense of liberation and infinite possibility.