If Catherine Breillat has emerged somewhat recently as the preeminent cinematic chronicler of the woozy transition from pre-pubescent girlhood to sexually matured femininity, it's important to recognize the achievement of French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic in the same ballpark less than a decade earlier with her striking first (and to date, only) feature Innocence. Sharing, and ultimately putting to shame, her spouse Gaspar Noé's penchant for oblique storytelling and enveloping symbology, Hadzihalilovic relates a simple, streamlined tale about young girls housed in a bare-bones boarding school whose lives are dictated by a small group of female headmasters and the rituals they impart on their students. This seemingly mundane setup – which seems to have spawned narrative, thematic, and, in the case of the latter, aesthetic resemblances in both Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go and Giorgos Lanthimos' 2010 film Dogtooth – is rich with allegorical implications. Hadzihalilovic's core approach here is to strip everything of context, leaving behind actions and images of tantalizing multivalence that never skimp on immediate emotional impact.
Innocence opens with block credits slightly quivering with the names of the entire cast and crew, an old-fashioned technique that is the first hint of the film's affected timelessness. Sandwiched amongst them are brief cutaways to uncertain imagery, the first of which is a tight overhead shot of a wooden coffin seemingly being carried through a space (the shifting light on the surface of the device being the only indication of movement). By the time the credits are finished, the frame fills with an abstracted liquid splashing insistently against the screen (a liquid that is revealed at the end of the film to be jetting out from a water fountain). Suddenly the camera finds itself beneath unsettled water, the mounting, muffled drone on the soundtrack (first mistaken for the rumblings of a distant train – which, the film ultimately proves, is no less apt) in turn revealing itself to be an approximation of underwater hearing. Bubbles bound upward, resembling sperm cells swimming towards fertilization. Suddenly, we emerge from the water, born atop the placid surface of a pond in the middle of a forest on a sunny day.
Anyone familiar with Noé's filmmaking should know that he can't get enough birth and death metaphors, and that impulse clearly seems to have rubbed off on Hadzihalilovic. But whereas Noé's deployment of them is often hasty and overwrought, Hadzihalilovic's takes on a greater subtlety both in terms of representation and thematic implication. The coffin is revealed to be a container carrying the latest newcomer (perhaps suggestively named Iris (Zoé Auclair) given the word's other meanings as the optical and photographic apparatuses that let in light) to the wooded all-girls boarding school where almost the entire film is set. Thus, her entrance into the campus is a form of birth cloaked in an instrument of death. These two competing existential poles are entangled as if to suggest that the innocence and spark of life that young girls take with them into their years of maturation is doomed to be extinguished, partially if not wholly, by the rules, restrictions, and unnatural ideals of the society they're entering. And if there's one thing that's blatantly clear about the film on a metaphysical level, it's that Hadzihalilovic intends to some degree for this boarding school to be a microcosm of a larger world.
In Hadzihalilovic's assured hand, that microcosm is a bright, pastoral landscape marked by a dark, dishonest core beneath the surface. In the disquieting quiet of nature, pre-pubescent ballerinas clad in spotless white uniforms and hair ribbons color-coded to indicate age and maturation splash around in the pond nearby and frolic in the lawns with streamers and hula hoops. They attend class – ballet, environmental science – in the same imposing 19th century mansion in which they sleep and eat. Two teachers – elegant Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard) and crippled Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) – appear to be their only stable superiors, while geriatric female servants haunt the edges of the frame (perhaps an omen of what's to come for these stunted girls). The boarding school operates according to an economy of obedience, a value Eva explicitly nods to with one bit of dialogue: "the root of all happiness is obedience," she tells the antsy Alice (Lea Bridarolli) after ballet one afternoon, her tone a mixture of soothing and warning. The more these girls obey their headmasters, the more likely it is for them to either be escorted from the school early by ambiguous "Heads" or to graduate without complication into the outside world upon proper maturation.
Proper maturation. Never is this particular term bandied about by the teachers at the boarding school (they prefer not to speak directly of the future), but it's implicitly the narrative axis upon which Innocence pivots. The question, of course, is what constitutes this implied maturation, whether or not it's legitimate, and finally how the rubric of judgment imposed by the school aligns or doesn't align with that of our own world. Plot-wise, the film focuses on three different girls at different stages of their development: the aforementioned Iris is the focus of the film's first third, the rebellious Alice of its second, and the final third looks at Iris' first friend and guide Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge), who is essentially a model student – kind, unquestioning, tall, lanky, pretty. It may be significant that Iris, who endeavors to learn the school rules with great eagerness, is the only Asian amongst a horde of pasty French girls, though probably no more significant than the fact that Alice, marked by goofy pigtails and dark circles under her eyes, is the first to climb over the walls to freedom, or that one physically fit specimen catches the most attention from the "Heads" and is allowed to prematurely leave the grounds. What emerges is a portrait of a school breeding girls towards a standardized sort of perfection that has everything to do with surfaces and nothing to do with adequate emotional, social, or sexual complexity (in this light, it's telling that the class most focused on in the film is ballet, a pursuit of purely aesthetic ends).
The school's oversights are at their most damning when it comes to sexuality, seeing as the guiding principles of the education have to do with appearances despite never actually addressing the capabilities of the human body. Motifs and images charged with sexuality are sprinkled throughout the film: a close-up of a snake sliding over a loose thong on the ground, the prevalent birth-related iconography (water bubbles, insects sprouting from their eggs), and, in the final scene of the film when the recently-released Bianca sees her (and the film's) first boy on the other side of a water fountain, the vertical spraying not-so-subtly evokes ejaculation. The suggestion is that sex is everywhere, in nature as well as in man-made creations, so the school's unwillingness to directly address it becomes a way of shielding these girls from very relevant facts of life. One of the film's most powerful images is a fleeting shot of Bianca's upper thigh as she slides her hand up it and beneath her skirt, a moment which Hadzihalilovic excises before the hinted payoff. So ignorant under forced circumstances are these girls that any evolved behavior such as this comes across like an out-of-body experience.
Unlike Never Let Me Go, which strove to find a clever euphemism for nearly every social, emotional, and sexual development to the point where the story erected a unique vernacular, or Dogtooth, which defamiliarized and codified conventional human expression so thoroughly that it looked almost fundamentally alien, Innocence unfolds according to relatively authentic behavioral and linguistic rhythms. But while the movie's dramaturgy fits into a realist mode, its filmmaking is sensual, dreamlike, and poetic. Hadzihalilovic's camera is often steady and observant, but not in a coldly anthropological manner. Instead, it interacts with the dramatic subtexts in sneaky ways, frequently pushing the girls to the fringes of the frame or arranging them in off-kilter compositions that portray their bodies as mere streaks of color, shape, and movement against the landscapes (the frequent cutting off of heads seems a strong influence to Lanthimos). This visual style creates a sense of doom and fatalism, as if the girls' environment – as well as the camera's gaze – is rendering them obsolete.
All of these sensations suffuse the film's denouement with a potent ambiguity. What appears on the surface to be an uplifting narrative progression – Bianca finally graduates from the school and enters the real world – is complicated by the feeling that whatever awaits her on the other end of her harrowing train ride is likely to be only a bigger, more impersonal version of the boarding school. It's a feeling that weighs over Innocence's final sequence, marking everything from the previously saintly Mademoiselle Eva's sudden lighting of a cigarette (the girls, apparently, are not the only ones whose psyches are affected by the school) to Bianca's loaded expression of anxiety on the train, the occasional underground light washing over her pale face. On top of all this, there is an echo of the first image of the film: men carrying another wooden coffin through what resembles the dark, dingy tunnel from Tarkovsky's Stalker. The obvious suggestion is that the same cycle of exploitative dumbing-down witnessed throughout the film is bound to be enacted on another unsuspecting young girl. Innocence presents in all its chilling contradictions the tough truths of raising a modern female, a reality that all in the film are infected by and from which no one seems capable of escaping.