Whether you’re a film culture optimist or a maddened discontent, it’s difficult to argue that originality has been in great supply recently; my favorite films of the year so far (2046, Keane, The Weeping Meadow) are extensions or revisitations of work their filmmakers have done in years past. So, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence feels something like a hammer blow to the glabella. Derived from a (currently) untranslated Frank Wedekind story and seething with conceptual potency, the movie feels sui generis, a verdant, ambiguous dream of childhood, consciousness, and oppression.
It’s all parable, a Rorschach blot scenario played out in feminized old-world ritual. We’re in a vast tract of European forest, illuminated by chandelier lamps, subgrounded with what seems to be an ancient, rumbling sewer system, and surrounded by an unscalable wall. At the center lies a huge girls’ school, populated by only two teachers (Marion Cotillard and Héléne de Fougerolles) and a dozen or so prepubescent girls, each wearing age-coded hair ribbons, new students arriving in suddenly materialized coffins and with fading memories of their families and lives outside. There are no men, and many rules. The school maintains a nurturing, if constricting, cloistered atmosphere, but there are glimpses of matters—disappearances, deaths, violations—we, like the students, never fully understand. The girls, gently examined, indoctrinated, and trained in matters of traditional girlishness, are certainly being groomed, but for what?
A debut filmmaker with electrifying confidence, Hadzihalilovic cat-plays with our instant dread— unanswered narrative questions are supposed to have horrifying answers, right?—but Innocence has a more sophisticated program than you might suspect from her credits as Gaspar Noé’s producer-editor. The mysteries at the film’s pitiful heart aren’t sexual, but then again, they are: Wedekind always worked in lurid metaphoric colors, and Innocence is a fable of puberty told not as awakening but as subjugation. Call it the feminist flip side to Zéro de Conduite, where revolt is not a condoned option (a single escapee is far from heroic, dropping into the unknown woods over the wall, never to be seen again), and Wedekind’s anti-bourgeois take on the “tragedy of sex” prevails. In its view of childhood as totalitarian citizenship, Hadzihalilovic’s film stands, quietly, in a gender-furious class by itself.
At the same time, the particulars are intensely imagined and naturalistic, and the symbology is as subterranean as you’d like to dig. Rich as a fruitcake in its Romantic tableaux (photographed by Benoît Debie), the movie is not merely ironically titled—like David Lynch’s films, its heart bleeds for the systematic death of purity, while never idealizing the young. A standing distribution dare after it showed up in the Walter Reade’s last “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema” series, Innocence is not merely the year’s best first film, but one of the great statements on the politics of being ‘tween.