Friday, June 02, 2006

INNOCENCE reviewed

2004, Artificial Eye (UK), DD-5.1/LB/16:9/French with optional English subtitles, £19.99, 114m 56s, DVD-2

This award-winning debut feature by French writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic demonstrates remarkably assured talent and an enticing command of poetic unease recalling the Val Lewton productions of the 1940s. Shot under the working title L'ECOLE ("The School") and based on the novella MINE-HAHA, OU L'EDUCATION CORPORALE DE JEUNE FILLES ("Mine-Haha, or The Physical Education of Young Girls") by LULU playwright Frank Wedekind, INNOCENCE opens with subjective images of what may be a drowning, then cuts to the interior of a school for young girls (aged 6-12) where a group of tiny ballerinas encircle a small coffin, open the lid, and welcome new student Iris (Zoé Auclair) to their world.

Iris attaches herself to a pretty older student, Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge), who is preparing for a new chapter in her life. Her adult teachers prepare her for menstruation and, each night at 9:00, she departs from the school and walks down an eerily illuminated path in the woods to some unknown place. After we discover that the school's wooded grounds are encircled by a tall, ivy-covered wall without no discernible exit, and that anyone who attempts to leave the schoolgrounds must thereafter stay forever and serve the girls who will follow, the story's focus shifts to the dilemmas being suffered by other students. Among these are Alice (Lea Bridarolli), a graceful dancer whose desperation to know what exists outside the school leads her to audition for the school's Headmistress (Corinne Marchand), and another girl who unmoors a boat and heads downstream to the heart of darkness. The film returns to Iris as she prepares to follow Bianca to her evening destination, and as Bianca and some other older girls are asked to perform for a mysterious audience in a theater that could pass for the Club Silencio.

This is decidedly not a horror film -- don't expect scares -- but if you can be content with a magic realist story that is insinuated rather than told, rooted in intriguing questions rather than answers, and which may be an allegory or a fantasy situated in the Afterlife or in pre-natal memory, this is for you. In a director's interview included in the supplements, Hadzihalilovic lists Robert Bresson and Dario Argento as principal influences, and there is something of SUSPIRIA in the tenebrous ballet school setting, as well as something of Bresson in the pensive yet hazy pitch of the narrative. I couldn't understand why, but, throughout the film, my thoughts kept drifting back to Gaspar Noé's IRREVERSIBLE, which is set in an entirely different milieu; I learned afterwards that the cinematographer of INNOCENCE was Benoît Debie, who photographed both IRREVERSIBLE and Argento's THE CARD PLAYER. Working largely without artificial light, he contributes some of his best work here, and the director dedicates her maiden effort to Noé.

American viewers particularly, I suppose, should be cautioned that the film features some of its young cast members (while swimming, and so forth) in various stages of undress. These scenes are natural, non-exploitative, and non-eroticized, but may make some viewers uncomfortable. One brief scene with Mlle. Haubruge features frontal nudity and touches on eroticism in that it concerns her curiosity about her changing body, but the scene is filmed in such a way as to almost guarantee the use of a body double.

Available domestically from Xploited Cinema.

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