Cult Cinema: Innocence
Andrew reviews 2004 French cult film, Innocence.
Known in the film community as the wife and frequent collaborator of French provocateur Gaspar Noe, writer-director Lucile Hadzilhalilovic has sadly enjoyed less exposure and lives somewhat in her husband’s shadow. This is a shame because her first full length feature, Innocence, an eerie kind of fairy tale 
about an unorthodox boarding school for girls 
aged between six and eleven years old, is an atmosphere-drenched powerhouse of a movie bearing all her husband’s trademarks (or hers for that matter?). It is as beguiling to contemplate as it is entrancing to see, hear and feel.   

Starring an ensemble cast of gifted child actresses playing the schoolgirls, with few adult supervisors (including an early role for Marion Cotillard as a ballet instructor), and loosely based on Frank Wedekind’s novel Mine Haha, the film is a purely cinematic experience that uses ambiance, its natural forest locale, and the mysterious machinations of the school to evoke an experience of…maturation?  Death?  Transcendence? Hadzilhalilovic doesn’t tell as much as she invokes a mood of undisclosed fear of the unknown.
This is undoubtedly the work of a woman in close quarters with Gaspar Noe, and it shows in almost every scene. Gaspar’s regular director of photography, Benoit Debie, lenses a lush series of images populated by oversized walls covered by foliage, riverbeds, wooded trails lit by hanging lights that buzz through the night, ornate stairwells and theaters leading through dark sewer tunnels, giving a sense of unease to the heavenly beauty on display. Also imparted from husband to wife is the echo chamber sound design that ranges from low white noise to thundering bass levels, almost as though we’re being unleashed into the outside world before being yanked back into the womb. Even the full credits playing out in the opening scene with none left at the end, other than a final subtitle, most certainly reverberate his work. But that’s not to say Lucile’s efforts simply mimic that of her husband’s. Using the tools perfected by him, she has run away with a completely original piece of cinema that is simultaneously minimalist and massive, taut yet free. Much like Peter Weir’s equally unresolved all-girl school mystery Picnic at Hanging Rock, Innocence is less interested in answering its inquiries than it is in evoking our undefinable feelings we experience during the period we move from childhood innocence to adolescent curiosity. 

While nowhere near as provocative or shocking as her husband’s filmography, Lucile Hadzilhalilovic’s fable isn’t necessarily for younger viewers. It is as bizarre and difficult to define as any of the great surreal masterworks of our time, intent on remaining enigmatic and cloaked in vague tension. We’re not sure of how these young girls arrived at this weird school or where they’re going next, not unlike our own ordinary lives. Innocence manages to take the juvenile point of life, notably from a female perspective, and present it as something truly strange and hard to put into words. As a technical piece of filmmaking, editing and audiovisual design, it is supreme! Some will no doubt emerge from the film feeling as though their hands have closed on air and won’t necessarily be able to convey what they think it is really about. Fans of the shock and awe germane to Gaspar’s work will come away somewhat disappointed that the film is more heady and peculiar than they expect. Others will find Hadzilhalilovic’s meditation on young maturation from the days of heaven to be utterly engrossing and among the most unique films they’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing! I know I thought it was absolutely great!

9/10 - Andrew Kotwicki