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Happiness through obedience
A region 2 DVD review of INNOCENCE by Slarek
 

Any film that starts off with the sort of bass rumble on the soundtrack that suggests David Lynch has dropped round for tea is usually guaranteed to get my attention. It's not the only link with Lynch, as it happens – later on there is a performance to an unseen audience on an old theatrical stage with a squeaky, hand-turned curtain mechanism looks almost like a melding of a memorable set from Eraserhead with the colour scheme of The Grandmother, while the odd bouts of faltering electricity are almost a trademark of that director's work. But that's where the similarities end – Lucile Hadzihalilovic's debut feature (unless you count the 1996 La Bouche de Jean-Pierre, which at 52 mins is really a long 'short' film) is true to its title and not an examination of the darker reaches of the soul, and its preoccupation with nature sits in direct opposition to Lynch's beloved industrial landscapes.

It's an intriguing beginning all round, with its uninhabited woodland landscapes and deserted underground tunnels suggesting a tale in which nature itself is host to dark and possibly man-made secret. Well, maybe... The setting is an all-girls boarding school located in an unspecified forest at an undetermined point in time, to which girls arrive at the age of six and leave when they reach puberty. They are delivered to the school in coffins and emerge in a state of complete disorientation, unaware of how they got there and confused by their surroundings. They have no contact with the outside world and are unable to leave the grounds of the school during their time there. They play, they learn to dance, they are taught the importance of obedience, and eventually they leave, but to where?

The film covers the entire period of attendance at the school by moving its focus from girl to girl, starting with new arrival Iris and ending with graduate Bianca. There is little narrative in the traditional sense of the term, what story there is being largely symbolic and of secondary importance to the mood and sense of place and being. The film observes (but rarely comments on) the nature of childhood innocence and the changes a child undergoes on the journey to young womanhood, reflected in the intermittently symbolic use of butterflies – a teacher is seen pinning them to a board in one scene, a reflection of the rigid control exercised over her pupils, and later shows them a pupa giving birth to an adult butterfly and sets it free, a symbol of the girls' own impending bodily changes and eventual release.

With explanations in very short supply, we are encouraged to speculate not just on the nature of the school, but what it represents. Are we talking metaphysical or metaphorical? Aspects of the opening scenes suggest the former, but later this appears to be a deliberate misdirection by an element whose only purpose in the film is to misdirect. We are given an explanation of sorts, but by then most should have worked out where they in symbolic terms. The final scene both confirms your suspicions and remains enigmatically (and perhaps frustratingly) vague, but like the climax of Mamoru Oshii's extraordinary Avalon, it manages to somehow make sense without making literal sense, and feels like a conclusion without actually playing like one.

That opinion has been split on the film is hardly surprising and it's easy to appreciate both viewpoints. Gorgeously shot by Benoît Debie and creating an astonishing sense of a reality infused with fairy-tale ambience, it looks, feels and plays quite unlike anything you'll see all year, and in some ways acts as a partially blank canvas onto which the viewer (and especially reviewer) can project their own experiences or feelings about the nature of innocence. But it's this very aspect that will also lead to charges involving emperors and new clothing, a surface layer so rich that it encourages readings of content that may not actually be present – it feels significant, therefore it must be. Support is leant to this view by the film's overlength, resulting in a padded midsection in which the girls go about the everyday business of the school in resolutely non-dramatic fashion and with no real sense of story or character progression.

But in a work that rejects formal narrative in favour of mood and suggestion, and especially one as exquisitely atmospheric as Innocence, it seems a little unreasonable to start expecting story and character arcs in the Hollywood mould. It does sag a tad in the middle, and there is occasionally the temptation to bark out "Get to the point!", but much of it is genuinely if abstractly compelling and suggestive enough to keep first-timers guessing for at least a good part of its length. It's never as sinister as the opening chords and images suggest, save for its rather grim view of the a woman's role in society as an obedient performer and fertile baby-maker, but there's still a slightly unsettling undercurrent to many scenes, though once again you're rarely sure as to why they are so.

There are clearly visible cinematic influences at work here, the most obvious being Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (also centred around a girl's school and strong on atmosphere but light on explanations), though Hadzihalilovic has quoted Robert Bresson and Dario Argento's Suspiria, and the flickering opening title can't help but recall the other-worldliness of The Brothers Quay. But for the most part Innocence stands or falls on its own unique approach and style, which you'll either warm to or be bored rigid by, depending on your taste and tolerance. It's absolutely worth checking out, especially by those with a thirst for the unusual and films that whisper rather than shout. But do be warned – the unembarrassed presentation of its central characters may prove uncomfortable viewing for some, and with its lovingly composed shots of pre-pubescent girls in thin white leotards and frolicking half-naked in water, it may well, somewhat unfortunately, find an audience that it neither anticipated nor intended.

sound and vision

For a film in which sound and image play such a crucial role, it's good to see that Artificial Eye have done both proud with this DVD release. Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the picture here looks rather lovely, with DP Benoît Debie's golden-warm compositions very nicely reproduced, the colour and contrast being pretty much bang-on. A few compression artefacts are visible in places, but are not intrusive.

There are two soundtracks available, Dolby 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. Both are impressive and display different qualities – the 5.1 track has more finesse and uses the full sound stage with subtle effectiveness, while the stereo track has a bit more punch. That opening rumble sent my subwoofer rattling across the floor, and elsewhere lower frequencies are very effectively used.

extra features

The Director Biography is a brief textual summary of Hadzihalilovic's career to date, highlighting her work with Gasper Noe, to whom this film is dedicated.

In the Director Interview (18:18) Hadzihalilovic talks about the genesis of the project, her influences, Debie's cinematography, working with the children (there's some particularly interesting stuff here about the restrictions this imposed and how she turned them to her advantage) and the film itself, though crucially she avoids revealing anything specific about its meaning.

The Theatrical Trailer (1:32) is in sparkling shape and gives a flavour of the film's content, though not necessarily is structure and pace.

summary

There is a great deal to admire in Innocence – it's visually striking, the performances from the largely very young cast are all convincing, the rejection of narrative in favour of subtle suggestiveness is admirable, and you could cut the atmosphere with a scalpel. Whether it's the masterwork that some have suggested is another thing, but like any such film, many of its less tangible qualities may well lie in the eye of the beholder.

Artificial Eye's region 2 DVD showcases the film well, and though a little light on extras, the picture and sound are both very impressive. If you already know the film or are determined to catch it on DVD, you'll have few complaints here.

Innocence

Belgium / France / UK
112 mins
director
Lucile Hadzihalilovic
starring
Zoé Auclair
Bérangère Haubruge
Lea Bridarolli
Marion Cotillard
Hélène de Fougerolles

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
French
subtitles
English
extras
Director biography
Director interview
Trailer
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
23 January 2006
review posted
20 January 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews