Based on a nineteenth-century short story by Frank Wedekind, Innocence is the debut feature of Lucile Hadžihalilović, a long-time collaborator of controversial French director Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Seul contre tous). A dreamy Gothic fairy tale, its slow-paced portrayal of female childhood is imbued with a deliberately old-fashioned feel. In a way reminiscent of Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, it uses elements borrowed from the horror genre to depict childhood fears, conjuring up a mood of understated disquiet.
Set in an isolated all-girl boarding school deep in the woods, the film starts with new girl Iris arriving in a coffin, as is the custom of the school. Tutored by older girl Bianca, Iris adapts to the quaint atmosphere of her new abode, where, entirely cut off from the outside world, the pupils are raised in a strict but benevolent manner, playing in the gardens when they are not being taught dance or biology. But at night lights come on in the forest to guide the older girls to a mysterious other building.
Underground tunnels, eerily silent rooms, dark corridors, enigmatic teachers, carefree games and beautiful surroundings create an atmosphere that is at once idyllic and sinister, safe and oppressive. By never completely explaining the mystery away, Hadžihalilović lets us experience from within the anxiety and unease felt by the girls as they undergo the change from childhood to adolescence. Just like them, we are plunged into a world of visual and aural perceptions that we do not completely understand. Admirably capturing the way children apprehend the world and brilliantly evoking girls’ rites of passage, Innocence is a truly unique, magical experience.