From School Daze, The Curious Young Girls of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence, by Ian Johnston:
Knowing that Lucile Hadzihalilovic is the partner of Gaspar Noé — he of the 10-minute one-take rape scene in the brutalist Irréversible (2002) — might make one wary of Innocence (2004) and its story of prepubescent girls living in the enclosed world of a rural boarding school. Gentle Viewer, relax: the film takes no turn to the extreme violence that the connection with Noé might suggest. Instead, Hadzihalilovic has given us a strange, fascinating, mysterious, if slightly disturbing film. Her first feature, it demonstrates a near-perfect integration of story, theme, mood, composition, color, lighting, camera-placement and -movement, and sound: simply, Innocence is one of the best films of recent years.
The film’s overall meaning is fairly clear. Hadzihalilovic is quite overtly offering a symbolic narrative of a young woman’s — any young woman’s — growth to maturation, a process that is experienced as both fearful and exhilarating. Over this is laid an account of life at a girls-only boarding school, simultaneously repressive (against which some girls rebel) and nurturing (the creation of a warm environment which other girls never want to leave).
But the film’s unsettling feature is the mundane, day-to-day narrative, and the overriding question of what these young girls are being trained for. There are constant intimations of some paedophilic intent [sic.]. This school is set on a large estate, cut off from the world, enclosed by a high wall, with the isolated buildings connected by forest paths. We only see two teachers, Miss Edith and Miss Eva, and the only lessons we see the girls being given are ballet and biology. The ballet is training for performances to what is later implied to be an adult, male-only audience (although, as with so much of the film, and to its tremendous advantage, nothing is completely clear); the biology lessons are related to the girls’ own process of maturation. Early in the film, the youngest girls are shown an evolution chart by Miss Edith and told how they too are part of this process; later in the film, they watch a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, as Miss Edith tells them, “You girls metamorphose too.” But there are darker intimations here also — we remember an earlier shot of Miss Edith pinning dead butterflies to a box, and in the very first scene in the biology classroom we watch one little girl holding a small cage with a bird inside, an image of her own confinement.
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