March 22, 2008

INNOCENCE (2004) a beautiful mystery

(2004, France/Belgium, L'Ecole)

One of several films called Innocence, this was rather fascinating.

Iris, an infant, gradually learns the rules of her new school when she arrives in a beautiful walled garden. As she is let out of a coffin and greeted by the other girls, she’s given a specifically coded colour ribbon for her hair, which means she is one of the youngest pupils. Inside the huge garden is a schoolhouse and five dormitories – this is now her new home.

Confused, I paid close attention to every comment from the older girls, and the reactions of the two teachers, as I tried to work out was going on in this elaborate, enclosed community of very young girls. Paying strict attention, I was slowly fed clues about the possible fate of these children, and largely left in the dark so as to fear the worst…

Film students well-versed in unravelling elaborate sub-texts may make completely different conclusions than me, but I took the story at face value and found it intriguing. When is it set? What is outside the garden walls? Have they been kidnapped? What’s going to happen to them all? Why are the adults worried? Where does Bianca go in the middle of the night? Teased by views of mysterious rooms and a stone cellar, I was ready for this to turn into gothic horror at any moment.

The idyllic location in the huge walled forest is beautifully observed, and portrayed as full of vivid colour and alive with nature. But there are rules and warnings about going into the woods at night, straying off the garden path or ever trying to escape.

Not until the end did I realise that this was intended as more of an allegory than a coherent mystery. The oblique ending isn't really a climax, and the mystery-riddled story reminded me of Hotel (2004, Germany), also a beautiful and gloomy film, with more questions than answers.

Seeing innocent young children playing together in a protected environment is rather unusual in cinema. Often schools are only shown when there’s danger or mischief. The girls appear to be carefree and protected from the worries of the world, totally unlike children in Hollywood comedies, where 'kids' are wise before their time, interested in growing up too fast, violent, cynical, greedy or prematurely obsessed with sex.

Because of the idyllic lifestyle inside the school garden, the girls are carefree and unbothered about occasionally being half-naked. While the camera and the direction is unexploitative of the situation, some critics have been overly concerned about these scenes. This hasn’t been diffused by the rather coy poster focussing on a girl’s legs in a very short skirt. The poster is unrepresentative of the tone, themes and imagery in the film. Though the viewer is certainly lead to worry that some dark reality is going to interrupt at any moment.

A far clumsier take on the story came the following year with a film using the author’s more ungainly original title, The Fine Art Of Love - Mine Ha-Ha. This raised the schoolgirls’ ages and added a lesbian storyline, but is apparently a less subtle, far less successful film.

Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic has cleverly adapted this story by Frank Wedekind, better known for writing Pandora’s Box, which was made into one of the finest silent films in 1927. She’s presented innocence as a fascinating all-woman society of mostly young girls, all years away from impending puberty. I was also reminded of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), which also used fantasy to explore the interests and behaviour of young girls in a simplified world.

Marion Cotillard plays one of the few adults in the school, a rather sensitive teacher. She has since become world-famous as an Oscar winner (for La Vie en Rose), though you might also have seen her in Luc Besson’s Taxi, Taxi 2, Taxi 3 or Tim Burton’s Big Fish.

Innocence is available on DVD in the UK.

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  1. You may be interested to know that the first English translation of Mine-Haha, the story on which the film is based, is due for publication by Hesperus Press. London, in September 2009.

  2. Thank you. I'd foolishly assumed it had already been translated.