*This Post Contains Spoilers*
Her first and only feature, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s 2004 film Innocence, adapting the German novella Mine-Haha, is one of the most elegant explorations of the social construction of female gender ever committed to film. Contrasting sharply with husband and occasional collaborator Gaspar Noe’s urban staccato style, Innocence is full of gentle camera movement taking in the beauty of a very natural setting. The picturesque beauty of this world and the girls that inhabit it hide a much uglier reality.
The film begins as a group of girls open a coffin to reveal Iris being reborn into the new world of this idyllic seeming all-girls school. The school takes girls from about six years of age, perhaps when it is seen as necessary to differentiate between boys and girls, until around 13 when puberty kicks in and they are returned to the world. The film, with the metaphor of the school, shows us the kind of struggles that result in the gendering or initiation of a girl. If the specifics of this education focused heavily on the arts and other pursuits of beauty and grace seem dated, too much of the turn of the 20th Century when the novella was published, the idea behind them is as relevant today.
This setting is definitely one of both light and dark. One early scene shows the girls of the school having a carefree swim in a lake. Though it could just be written off simply as being French, especially to American eyes the girls’ varying states of undress while swimming can powerfully suggest the freedom allowed of a girl before she is exposed to a sexualized gaze. There is one other notable use of nudity late in the film as Bianca, the eldest girl in the central group, rises from a bathtub and looks in a mirror, observing the signs of her burgeoning physical maturation, followed soon after by an indication of an emerging sexual awareness. This sequence may well spark controversy for its content, but within the context of the film it provides a crucial bit of character development building to the film’s final scene.
The film’s darkest tones come in the way that two girls who disobey or otherwise attempt to subvert the school’s process are destroyed. Compounding this is the reaction of the teachers, Eva and Edith (played by the film’s two main professional actresses, Marion Cotillard and Helene de Fougerolles), ruing their contribution to this vicious cycle having gone through the same when they were young. It is a poignant capturing of this crucial dynamic whereby women end up playing enforcers of a patriarchal regime. Though relations between the girls are often congenial, there are a few other ways in which the film displays the push for girls to compete rather than cooperate, both in its strict hierarchy based on age and a dance competition among one year of girls with the winner getting to leave from the school early.
Their very confinement, enforced both by explicit threat of punishment and implicit dangers on the outside, may be sold as protecting them but it can also be seen as protecting their value. Late in the film we discover that the whole school is funded based on the contributions of mysterious, male patrons who come to watch the eldest girls perform a symbolically provocative dance. This highlights the commodification of sexuality, especially a pure, obedient form of it. The suggestion that the show, and thus their sexuality, is the only thing that could elicit interest in educating girls and that these skills are the ones that will allow them to get by later carries dark implications of how society values women.
In spite of all the foreboding messages, the film ends on a curiously upbeat tone. If the process of becoming a woman, according to the standards of society, is a treacherous process, there is still hope for those who make it through. This seems appropriate, accepting good with the bad, and avoiding feeling too heavy or like a “message film.” As laden as the film is with its thematic content, it does exist as a story and needs to succeed as one. This ending helps it to do so.
It is unfortunate that Hadzihalilovic, whether due to lack of opportunity or a deliberate choice, has not had a follow-up film in the eight years that have passed since the release of Innocence. Her initial short film Jean-Pierre’s Mouth, offers a small glimpse of the edgy focus on the turbulent life of a girl coming of age that would be crucial to Innocence while the safe sex PSA Good Boys Use Condoms is an amusing answer to questions about the logistics of a threesome with twins that many men may have. If the film industry is one that expects those working within to always want to make more films, it may be commendable, if Innocence was a solitary passion of Hadzihalilovic, that she hasn’t followed it up out of a sense of obligation. Still, it’s only natural when someone makes something this great to want more; call it the J.K. Rowling rule.