Thursday, April 13, 2006

Innocent Dreams

(Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France, 2004, 35mm, 115 mins.)


It's such a sad old feeling
the fields are soft and green
it's memories that I'm stealing
but you're innocent when you dream
when you dream
you're innocent when you dream

-- Tom Waits, "Innocent When You Dream" (1987)


There are films that, if known by another title, just wouldn't be the same.
Gaspar Noé's incredibly disturbing Irréversible is one of them. It begins at
the horrific end and winds its way back to the blissful beginning. Then it's over.
The idea is that you'll leave the theater feeling good. Nice try, but I found it impossible to get those indelible images of rape and murder out of my head.

It all comes back to the title: Irréversible. (Happiness will not -- cannot -- last.)
Noé's editor, Lucile Hadzihalilovic (I Stand Alone), has named her debut
Innocence, and I can't imagine another title for it. While watching, I kept
thinking about the concept. I wondered: Is innocence really such a good
thing? As children, we work hard to lose it; as adults, we work hard to regain it.

Ranging in age from six to 12, the girls in Hadzihalilovic's dreamy reverie
(she has cited Spirit of the Beehive as an influence) are locked away from the
outside world. The velvet ribbons in their hair indicate their ages: red for the six-year-olds -- like new arrival Iris (Zoé Auclair) -- orange for the seven-year-olds, etc. The rest of their uniform consists of a white shirt, white skirt, and dark boots.
It isn't clear where this boarding school is located or when the story takes
place, only that the students are as innocent as can be. There are no men,
no boys -- few women even -- to "corrupt" them. This is fine with most of the
girls, but some will do anything to escape, even though the vine-encrusted wall enclosing the school lacks an entrance. They take risks, they pay the price.
The assumption is that there must be something better beyond the wall.
Like, say, the adult world. But maybe there isn't. Maybe they're surrounded by crushing poverty. Maybe an arid desert. Maybe there's nothing there at all.
Based on Frank Wedekind's Symbolist short story, "Mine-Haha, or The
Corporal Education of Young Girls," Innocence often feels like Kafka, i.e.
lots of arcane rules and regulations, as interpreted by photographer Sally
Mann (or even Lewis Carroll), i.e. lots of "innocent" prepubescent nudity.
In any case, the girls have been locked away for so long they have no idea.
We don't know where they came from or where they'll go when they turn 12 -- only that they must leave at that time (and that each one arrives in a coffin).
Will they be sent out into the world? To another school? Into indentured servitude? After all, their primary subjects are physical fitness, ballet, and biology. And the headmistress who visits anually, to select one "blue ribbon" girl for early departure, is as concerned with their looks as their ability.
So who are we meant to side with -- the girls who quietly accept their fate or those who question it, knowing that insurbordination will not be tolerated? And what about their instructors, Mademoiselles Eva (Marion Cotillard, Big Fish) and Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles, Va Savoir)? The women are strict and supportive in equal measure, but there's something sad -- even a little sick -- about them.
Are they sisters? Lovers? Former students? They look a lot alike, except Edith has a limp. Rumor has it she tried to escape as a student. Her punishment was to stay and teach. Do they have their students' best interests at heart?
By the end of the film, Hadzihalilovic has lifted the veil on many of these mysteries, but only in the most elliptical manner. We do find out, for instance, where Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge), a violet ribbon girl, goes every night. But why? Ay, there's the rub. Then again, we don't find out what happens to Alice (Lea Bridarolli), only that the girls are instructed to never mention her again.
At the conclusion, we also find out what happens to Bianca and the other violet ribbons when they "graduate." But what does it mean? All I know is that Innocence ends with one of the most blatant phallic symbols in the history of cinema. Is Hadzihalilovic suggesting that woman without man is incomplete? That seems too simplistic. If so, however, she's found a fantastic way to say it.
Note: If you've never heard of Marion Cotillard, who picked up a César for
A Very Long Engagement, you will. According to her official website, she's been
cast opposite Russell Crowe in the new Ridley Scott movie, A Good Year.
Innocence plays at the Northwest Film Forum April 14-20, Fri.-Thurs., at 7
and 9:30pm. First screening introduced by critic/programmer Jonathan
Marlow (GreenCine). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on
Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

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