Tuesday, January 24, 2006


I love films which treat sexuality as something dark, mysterious and threatening and hate when films treat it lightly. For this reason all romantic and sex comedies annoy me to death. If it comes to that, I would rather watch a (tasteful) pornography than see films like, say, American Pie. And it's the same reason why I love films like Blue Velvet, Cries and Whispers or The Piano Teacher. The French film Innocence, made by the debutante French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, which I actually saw more than a month ago, belongs in the same category although its darkness is far more muted than those other films.

The film is about an all-girls boarding school situated deep inside a forest. What place or country it is, or what time period the story takes place in, is never specified, as if to augment the allegorical credentials of the story. The film starts ominously with a blank screen and soft yellow credits, like in some silent movies and low, rumbling noise of water gushing forth, as if in a stream. Then there are successive shots of a brick layered sub-terranean pathway. There is a feeling that we are perhaps watching through some point of view, but whose? We later realize that a coffin has arrived through that passage and a small girl (aged five or six perhaps, named Iris) is sleeping inside it. When she wakes up, she finds herself surrounded by a group of girls of different ages. She then slowly learns the rules of the boarding school. No boys allowed. Each girl separated into a separate age band distinguished by the colour of their hair ribbons (the red is the youngest and purple the oldest with blue, orange etc in between). They are attended to by old and kindly matrons. They go to school where the only thing they ever learn are Ballet and Biology, by two sad looking young women. One of them is even crippled.

In Ballet, along with dance, they are taught that "obedience is the only path to happiness" and in Biology all they are taught are theory of evolution, the life cycle of butterflies and menstruation (its not difficult to guess the thematic import of each of these). There are girls who want to escape but when they do they either meet their inevitable fate (death) or are never heard of again. The eldest of Iris's group, Bianca leaves every night for some mysterious destination. Where does she go? To meet boys? Iris asks but she never gets any answers and neither do we. There are also annual ballet performance based on which the headmistress selects one from the "blue band" to take her out of the school into the real world. But for what purpose? Then there is a theatrical performance for unseen visitors from where the school gets its finances from which creepily reminds of prostitution.

The girls are evidently being prepared for something. Perhaps for womanhood, or perhaps for prostitution or perhaps just for being reproductive machines, or perhaps it doesn't matter which one, because actually it's all the same. May be, that's what Hadzihalilovic's rhetorical point is. There is also a sense of deep, wistful melancholy in the way the girls grow up and prepare to leave the school--specially the eldest girl and how she reacts to the sexual knowledge which is an inevitable part of growing up. We physically feel the passage of time and with it, the loss of "innocence".

These questions about innocence, sexual awakening, gender roles etc. aside, the film is first and foremost a compelling aural and visual experience. Hadzihalilovic's use of heightened sound effect reminded me of David Lynch at his best and so was her use of expressionist set design and lighting. It all creates a sense of mysterious foreboding which grips the viewer's imagination and never lets it go right until the euphoric climax.

When the film was released it was criticised for sexualising young children (in the new york times review) and of course there is ample nudity and sexual imagery abounds in the film. But that's exactly what the subject matter of the film is! How else can a film about young girls growing into women can be made? I have no idea. Anyway, I didn't have any use for these criticisms. To me this was an extremely provocative and compelling film made by one of the most original and promising talents in world cinema. It was also one of the strangest films of the year, which alone will put it high on my list!

P.S Articles from Sight and Sound, here and here. Chicago Tribune review here.

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