The other night I watched this amazing film Innocence by the filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic. It was made in 2005 and received the typical arthouse reviews at the time.
This film is striking for several reasons. In the opening sequence we see a coffin like box being delivered to a house. Once the box is inside it is opened by a group of young girls to reveal a very young, mostly naked, girl inside. Thus a tale begins that tells a vague story of these girls living at some type of boarding school where they are taught ballet classes by two older, attractive women.
The film itself uses long shots of the girls, often partially nude. The cinematography is strikingly beautiful. The plot is very vague, you have no idea what the school is, why the girls are there or any of the specifics of the school itself.
After watching the film I looked it up online to find many reviews that point to the directors husband (who is also a filmmaker) and to the use of children as exploitation. Lots of reviewers found dark and sinister themes in the film. One reviewer even invented (or misrepresented) a scene putting one of the girls into a scene she is not in to point out that the sinister goings on of the school are mostly hidden.
In fact, beyond the coffin scenes at the beginning and the end of the film most of what you see is what you would expect to see if you wandered around an all girls board school in warmer months. Young girls playing, relaxing, and being children.
What to me is the most striking feature of this film is that we expect to see something dark. We are looking as an audience for the bad things to happen. The film becomes a perfect vessel in which we project our own tendencies and fears in regards to the imagery we see on the screen. The critics as a group almost all see in the film some pedophiliac tendencies on the part of the filmmaker. Possibly the “darkest” and most sinister point in the entire film is when a girl of around 12 is dancing on a stage in a darkened theater is thrown a rose by a man in the audience who shouts “You are the most beautiful!” You can barely see the audience, which despite an almost universal opinion by critics that it is an all male audience you can clearly see a woman in the front row in a dress as well as the main character finding a woman’s glove left in the seats after the show.
Somehow this film has evoked a response from its critics that it is exploiting these girls. That it is full of darkness. And while a certain air of vague unhappiness lingers it is no different then any place where children are sent to be educated away from their families. Some of the girls want to leave but can not, but this is no different then any boarding school.
The question is why can’t those reviewing this film see that they are projecting these concepts into the film? We have become as a society so tuned into the eventuality of sexual situations that we project it into even the simplest form. And if that form refuses to define itself as non sexual then we take for granted that all of its imagery is in fact sexual in nature.
In none of the reviews I read of this film could I find a simple interview with the director. Someone should just ask her what she intended. Yet, even if she says she intended some specific theme or form she could be lying or misleading us. So we can only judge the film by what is on the screen. But for some reason the reviewers have chosen to see something else, something not on the screen but inside themselves, and to talk about this other as if it is the film and not themselves that they critique.