Few films in recent years have had such a mysterious and intriguing opening as Innocence, the debut film from director Lucile Hadzihalilovic. The film begins with an eerily long, flickering credit sequence accompanied by an almost overbearing soundtrack of rushing water, and we enter a mysterious old building which seems to be deserted. After slowly making its way through some dank subterranean tunnels, the camera finally settles in a room which contains a large coffin. A group of pre-pubescent girls, all dressed in white and differentiated only by the coloured ribbons in their hair, enter the room and one of them unlocks the casket (this is clearly a ritual they have performed numerous times). Inside they find a girl no older than five or six, half naked and a little scared.
Innocence is set in a kind of all-girls boarding school which is cut off from the outside world by a dense forest and the high wall which surrounds it. The girls who stay there are aged between six and twelve and each of them wears a differently coloured ribbon in their hair to indicate how old they are. They don’t seem to have many lessons, and the entire school seems to be presided over by only two teachers; Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard) who teaches the girls to dance, and Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) who concentrates on teaching them science, particularly biology. Most of the time the children simply spend their time being children, but there is a strange atmosphere to this place and many mysterious occurrences with seemingly no explanation.
Innocence is dedicated to Hadzihalilovic’s partner and regular collaborator Gaspar Noe and his influence on her filmmaking style makes itself clear very quickly. The trick of opening with the end credits and the complex sound design recalls Noe’s Irreversible, but Innocence soon settles into a very different and distinctive piece of work. Set in an unspecified time and place, the film is a little hard to get a handle on at first as we strain to understand the meaning behind this mysterious set-up. What is the purpose of the school? Why does the headmistress come once a year to select a girl, and where does she take her? Why is Bianca, one of the elder girls, allowed to leave at night and where does she go? We see much of Innocence through the eyes of Iris (the girl who arrives in the coffin at the start of the film) as she attempts to understand her new surroundings, but explanations are not forthcoming.
Instead, Hadzihalilovic’s film becomes an allegory of a young girl’s development into womanhood, and when taken on this level the film suddenly becomes a great deal more interesting. The school seems to exist in order to prepare these children for the realities of adulthood, and Hadzihalilovic’s film becomes a celebration of the innocence of childhood and a mournful study of what children lose and leave behind when they cross over the threshold into the adult world. They must prepare for disappointments, betrayal, heartache and pain; and the ways the girls learn about these aspects of life are played out in a number of beautifully worked scenes. In her script, Hadzihalilovic seems to be sending out some rather strange and old-fashioned messages with regard to femininity - Mlle Edith tells the girls their duty is to reproduce while Mlle Eva says “obedience is the only true path to happiness” - but the most troublesome aspect of Innocence lies in the film’s visual depiction of childhood.
Many scenes in Innocence depict these young girls playing in nothing more than their knickers or dancing in white leotards, and one scene shows a number of girls frolicking naked in a lake. There is no doubt that viewing these scenes made me feel a little uncomfortable, and it is impossible to watch without wondering what certain members of society would make of them. While Innocence may often look like the stuff of paedophile fantasy, I never felt it was shot in an exploitative manner and Hadzihalilovic never eroticises the girls. This really is a film about innocence, about little girls who are nothing more than little girls, and you can hardly blame the director if some viewers attach a sexual connotation to the film which she hasn’t intended.
Nevertheless, the girls’ sexual awakening becomes the overriding theme in the second half of the picture with most of it focused on Bianca, one of the eldest girls at the school. As the girls perform a dance for an unseen audience in a darkened theatre, one man throws a rose at her and tells her “you are the prettiest”, a remark she responds to with a quizzical and curious look. It’s a wonderful moment and is the first point in the film that one of the girls begins to acknowledge her blossoming sexuality. Later Bianca, obviously still musing on this incident, stands naked in front of the bathroom mirror and studies herself, trying to come to terms with the changes her body is about to undergo. She is starting to leave her childhood behind.
With the impeccable cinematography and haunting sound design, Hadzihalilovic creates some incredibly potent sequences throughout Innocence and gets astonishingly natural and perceptive performances from the entire young cast. The lack of clear explanation for much of the film’s occurrences will undoubtedly test the patience of many viewers over the course of 115 minutes, but I found Innocence to be a remarkable, sensuous and bold work which defies categorisation and announces Hadzihalilovic as a truly singular talent. It’s definitely not a film for everyone - and one hesitates to imagine the reaction if the director was a man - but Innocence is a film that dares to be different, dares to let the audience fill in the gaps and dares to imagine a time when children truly were innocent.