INNOCENCE (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004)

Although it relates symbolically to reality from the get-go, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s mesmerizing debut feature, Innocence, unfolds as a dream. In a fairy-tale forest its girls’ boarding school, to which new students arrive in coffins and parents never visit, eludes definition, literalism. The French film opens with the transport of an indeterminate something that I guess is the coffin; there are also indeterminate sounds. These yield to the sight and sound of rushing current. Somber sepulchral imagery begins a characterization of the school and culminates in the open coffin around which pairs of girls’ legs gather. The occupant is six-year-old Iris, one of two central characters. The other is 12-year-old Bianca, who leaves the school for the outside world, before which Iris becomes dearly attached to her. Bianca disappears into the forest each night; one night, Iris follows. There, a man tries coaxing Bianca into doing something indeterminate.
     In this mysterious school, where girls study biology and practice ballet, the liquidity of a dream yields to formal restrictions: shots are formally, rigorously composed; obedience is counseled; the girls are dressed all in white, their hair adorned by colored ribbons. Perhaps the school is a kind of prison, holding children back from freedom. If they try to escape and are caught, they will have to stay on permanently, grow old there, as servants waiting on children. One child goes over the daunting confining wall, but there’s no confirmation she escapes with her life; another tries to flee by boat and drowns. (Throughout, watery immersion is a motif.) The latter’s remains are cremated in a ceremony sufficiently primitive to suggest the child’s eventual return.
     Timeless environment; but the squeak of a swing matches the beat of a clock, through whose secret doorway the girls pass to a new destination.

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