A young girl, Iris (Zoé Auclair), arrives at an isolated boarding school in a coffin. At the school, the girls are grouped into five houses, each group made up of seven girls between the ages of 5 and 11, who wear different coloured ribbons in their hair according to their age, from red for the youngest to violet for the eldest. As Iris is the new youngest girl, she takes the red ribbon and each of the others move up a year, Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge) taking over the role of the eldest girl who has now disappeared.
The girls work to fixed routines, their lessons taught by Miss Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) and their ballet instruction by Miss Eva (Marion Cotillard). Apart from a couple of housekeepers, there are no other adults within the school grounds, which is surrounded by a high wall, deep in the middle of a forest. At 9:00pm every day, the eldest girl in each group mysteriously walks alone, following a path into the woods lit up by a line of lamps, until one day she will not return, another new girl will arrive and the cycle will start again.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence in effect captures the essence of childhood without any trace of nostalgia, sentimentality, idealisation, romanticism or narrative contrivance. Dealing with big archetypal subject matter and no real narrative direction, Hadzihalilovic nevertheless makes the film compelling viewing, stepping into the imagination of a young child and seeing the world through their eyes, filling the film with a sense of mystery, of terror and anxiety as well as pure joy. In this way, the film is by turns enchanting and sinister, often managing (as in the scene of the butterfly dance) to be both at the same time, taking the viewer back by regression and placing them in the position of the children. Everything about this film will be familiar, even if you have never been a young girl and never gone to a boarding school. It captures the same sense of the enclosed world of childhood, a world where adults are excluded since their behaviour and motivations are unfathomable beyond their function of disciplining and nurturing. The unknown adult world that lies beyond the walls of that small enclosed environment is consequently frightening, sinister and at the same time exciting.
Quite how Hadzihalilovic takes the viewer into this world is remarkable to examine. The choice of using young girls with no acting experience is fundamentally important in achieving the sense of freshness and naturalism that is so essential to the purpose of the film - and in this respect the performances of the girls here is simply superb. The whole look and feel of the production design also emphasises this, with the pure white uniforms and the pure elemental force of the surroundings – from the lush verdant forests, the rush and flow of the river and the white blankets of snow that mark out the passing of the seasons of the year in which the film takes place. At the same time, it imbues this sense of wonder and natural beauty with a sense of underlying menace, with almost David Lynch-like undercurrents in the undergrowth that contains snails and snakes, and in cutaway shots of the dark, dank underground stone corridors that lie beneath the school. The sense of unease is effectively conveyed also in the similarly Lynchian use of sound, with the off-screen crackles in the forest, the droning hum of lamps and buzz of flickering lights. Much of the film’s sense of purpose is also conveyed through the use of symbolism. The larva undergoing pupation, the pinning of white butterflies to a board and the use of water may be obvious, but this is unpretentious and meaningful symbolism that eloquently captures the untangible and inexplicable. To say any more about Innocence would be pointless and I have already much more than I wanted to, since the film is simplicity and innocence itself.
Innocence is released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. The disc is Region 2 encoded and in PAL format.
Artificial Eye’s transfer is just about everything you could hope for in a film like this, that relies so much on mood and feel. The film was shot entirely using natural light – another factor that is vital to capture the naturalism of the piece - so the film stock obviously has to be fast enough to deal with this. The inevitable consequence of this is that the film will appear grainy, high-contrast and a little bit over-saturated – and it is – but it is appropriate, giving the film a dark, gothic quality. Despite this the image is still exceptionally clear and detailed, although it tends to soften and lose definition slightly in wider shots. There may be one or two very minor dustspots, but the print is practically flawless in this respect. There may be some telecine wobble, as the opening titles looked a little bit shaky, but I saw no evidence of this in the film itself, nor any particular issue with compression artefacts.
The film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes and both are excellent. From the brief sample I made of the stereo track, it seemed more direct, carrying a strong punch, with depth and clarity. The surround mix is rather more subtle, making superb enveloping use of atmospheric noises, which are so important in conveying the film’s darker, sinister undercurrent.
English subtitles are provided in a white font and they are optional. There is not a great deal of dialogue in the film, so most of the titles are restricted to a single line outside the picture frame in the black bar at the bottom of the screen. On the rare occasion they stretch to two lines, they appear half in and half out of the frame.
The main extra feature on the DVD is an in-depth Interview with Lucile Hadzihalilovic (18:19). Artificial Eye have always gone to the trouble of interviewing the director on their releases, initially in text format, but now more commonly in video interviews. These are always highly relevant to the film and often more informative than screen-specific commentaries. Here, the director talks about her affinity for the material (which is based on an original short story by Frank Wedekind), the difficulty of getting financing for a first film where the screenplay is not a straightforward narrative and has no position for star actors. She also talks about the technical aspects of the film, in its design and photography, and discusses influences, citing Robert Bresson and Dario Argento. If you can imagine a middle ground between these two very different styles, Innocence does actually lie in between them. The extra features are rounded out with a Director Biography which, as the director of only two short films previously, is brief. A Trailer for the film is also included.
Without cheating the viewer into believing it is something it is not, and without the slightest sense of pretension, Innocence recreates what it is to be a child as a kind of dark, gothic, mystery horror. With remarkable sensitivity and acuity, masterfully handling big archetypal issues and symbolism, first time feature director Lucile Hadzihalilovic successfully captures that certain sense of childhood anxiety and excitement about undergoing changes and having to face the vaguely threatening yet enticing wider world. That lightness of touch makes this film instantly identifiable and accessible - and despite some viewers’ attempts to read something darker and more sinister into the grooming of the children, it is actually a thing of beauty, simplicity and innocence itself. Artificial Eye’s Region 2 DVD release presents this film exceptionally well, with full consideration of the importance of its audio and visual aspects and rounding it out with all the relevant extra features it requires.