Sunday, February 19, 2006
!!!!! (vague spoilers)
INNOCENCE (2004, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, seen in theatre)- Three words: Ho. Ly. Shit. I haven't been wrapped up this much in the spell cast by a film since, well, since THE NEW WORLD. The setting here is a mysterious, secluded school for girls ages 6 to 12, and the film follows several of them over the course of one year. The girls are divided into "houses", with one girl for each year (years are denoted by differently colored hair ribbons), and the film begins with the youngest, Iris, who arrives in a coffin and finds herself having to cope with the new surroundings and the strict rules that govern it (no contact with the outside world, etc), going to classes (science and ballet are the only curriculum taught) and flowering under the mentorship of seventh-year group leader Bianca. After we learn the rules and routines of the school, we then follow fifth-year student Alice, who yearns for the outside world and prepares for a dance recital that could be her ticket out. Finally, we finish the year with Bianca. I could see this narrative playing out in seven short subjects, one for each year, but I think Hadzihalilovic is wise to distill them into one year, so that we can connect the dots in our mind. It's rare these days to see a film so unabashedly symbolic, and the film's thoughts on girlhood are fascinating. The ages taught by the school aren't an accident- while the story that inspired the film made the girls older, Hadzihalilovic is wise to focus on prepubescent years, with the final year (I'll tread lightly) is the girls' first realization that men are watching them and that they have an effect on the opposite sex. But while it's compelling on these terms, I actually prefer it as a strange fairy-tale creation. While it clearly takes place in the modern world (there are electric lights hanging in the forest, for example), the school's traditions make it feel unstuck in time, "somewhere to the left of the twentieth century," as BABE: PIG IN THE CITY put it. And what to make of the coffins? The film has been attacked by some critics for being pervy material for the raincoat crowd, but the film hardly gawks at the girls. I believe that what these critics find uncomfortable is how closely Hadzihalilovic follows the girls, and how firmly we become ensconced on their world (we never leave the school grounds until the very end). I myself became a little uneasy because I felt like an intruder into this closed society, and this is the point- the theatre scenes near the end underline this. But, made-up controversy aside, INNOCENCE is a beautiful film, chock full of miraculous moments- I loved, for example, the resentment second-year student felt toward newcomer Iris due (presumably) to the loss of her old mentor, something I expect was a yearly occurrence. And near the end of the film, when ballet instructor Marion Cotillard lit up a cigarette and said, "don't worry, you'll soon forget us," it was impossible for me not to think about how much of my own childhood has been forgotten.