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Friday, Nov. 3, 2006

They bloom and then they're gone

Lewis Carroll admitted that his liking for little girls stemmed from a need to "value and love what is fleeting and transient." J.D. Salinger is famed for saying he liked girls up until the age of 13. Vladimir Nabokov created 12-year-old Lolita, who became one of the most enduring love fantasies of the 20th century. The art/literary world doesn't lack for examples of adults obsessing over very young girls, but Lucile Hadzihalilovic's "Innocence" has a slightly different take. The obsession is there, yes, but it's chaste and poetic, and ultimately very, very sexual.

Innocence Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Berangere Haubruge in "Innocence" L'ECOLE, BY LUCILE HADZHALILOVIC

Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: French
Opens Nov. 4, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Nothing really dangerous happens here, and no lurid moments or sullied gazes ruin the delicate microcosm. And yet the feeling throughout is one of contradictory guilt tinged with a sense of foreboding -- that one shouldn't be watching this at all, but to turn away could, somehow, lead to an evil fate for the characters (who mostly happen to be girls between the ages of 6 and 12). Viewing "Innocence" is to experience this uneasy, prickly dilemma: a sensation shared by Humbert Humbert when he first began watching Lolita play in her mother's yard, before it quickly morphed into a full-blown passion.

Director Hadzihalilovic doesn't have many films to her credit, and in her native France her main reputation is that of being the partner/collaborator of Gasper Noe ("Carne," "Irreversible") -- a resident shockmeister who revels in the bizarre and the poetically gory. "Innocence," however, shows Hadzihalilovic is her own filmmaker, and Noe's influence doesn't extend beyond the dedication shown at the very end of the film. "Innocence" is extraordinary in its evocative power; managing to convey violence, sex and desire with not a single depiction of any of these things. Cinematographer Benoi^t Debie weaves gorgeous natural lights into a setting defined with rich, dark tones, resulting in a world at once beautifully carefree and slightly ominous, which, when you come down to it, is what girlhood is all about.

The story opens with the scene of a walled manor house in a forest park that turns out to be a school for young girls. A new pupil arrives in a mahogany coffin, naked save for her underwear. When the lid is opened, the other girls crowd around 6-year-old Iris (Zoe Auclair) for introductions and induction. Immediately, given the school uniform consisting of white shirt, white pleated skirt, socks and ankle boots, Iris is told to tie up her hair in a ribbon -- the ribbons are color-coded according to age (and therefore authority). There is no mention of how everyone got here, nor do they seem to have memories of their past lives. A little perplexed, Iris asks the whereabouts of her brother and is told matter-of-factly: "There are no boys here." Or parents or outsiders. The girls may wander as far as the wall, but there is no escape and no explanations offered about girls who try to get away; they simply vanish and are not mentioned again. Iris quickly adjusts to the genteel and claustrophobic ambience, making friends (or not) with the other girls as if her former life never existed. The school staff consists of white-haired old women attending to meals and laundry, and two teachers Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard) and Mademoiselle Edith (Helene de Fougerolles) instructing the girls in biology and ballet. There is no other curriculum, for reasons never explained. The pair look spiteful but are undeniable hotties; wicked queens reigning over a bunch of would-be Snow Whites.

But are they Snow Whites really? Despite their young ages, the girls are just as manipulative, crafty and rife with venom as any adult, and during ballet class, when they "perform" before the staff, their wish to out-pretty their classmates and be singled out, smacks of raw ambition. Iris seems the most detached (and as a result the most childlike), but the story makes no attempt to chart her individual life. Indeed, individualism has no place in this story; the emphasis is on the group of girls and how they behave from day to day, season to season. The costumes -- provided by Parisian brand agnes b. -- borderline fetishistic, catering to adult fantasies of young schoolgirls while at the same time providing a sense of power and physical comfort to the schoolgirls wearing them.

The passing of the year is marked by the arrival of a new girl, to whom Iris must pass on her red ribbon, as she must move up in rank with a new color, and the oldest girls disappear, after relinquishing their own ribbons of violet. What transpires at the end is sad -- just as the girls can't keep wearing the same ribbons, girlhood must end. After shedding the uniforms and stepping outside the enclosing walls, there's no going back.

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