Song of Innocence and Experience

By Jason Wood

innocence-lucile-hadzihalilovic.jpgInnocence, 2004

An astonishing debut feature from France foregrounds the darkness of the forest

Shown to thunderous acclaim at last year’s London Film Festival, Innocence is the astonishing debut feature of hotly tipped young director Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Previously best known for her association with Gaspar Noé, Hadzihalilovic edited Seul Contre Tous whilst Noé shot her La Bouche de Jean-Pierre. With Innocence, the director has created a strange, haunting and strikingly original self-enclosed world set amidst a somewhat surreal girls’ boarding school situated deep within a forest. You are unlikely to see anything else even remotely like it, this or any other year.

Jason Wood: Can you tell me about the genesis of Innocence and how important script development is to you as a writer/director?

Lucile Hadzihalilovic: When I read Frank Wedekind’s (source) story, I was sure I had found a real subject, something strong to play with. And this is more important to me than the script itself, which is, in a way, only a work of condensations, connections, declinations of motives. To me, a script is, above all, a basic structure on which you can lean to build a visual and aural world.

Then, scouting and casting break this structure because you don’t find what you are looking for, but other things. So you have to re-organise the puzzle. Then, shooting breaks the puzzle again and then editing and, at the end, what’s left from the original script is probably what makes the heart of it - at least this is what I hope.

The original story was atmospheric and psychological, following one girl from the moment she arrives in the school, until she leaves, seven years later. For practical reasons, I’ve split the main character in three: Iris, Alice and Bianca. Also, I have invented two other characters: the two girls who want to escape from the school. I tried to make the story more synthetic and more abstract. And in a way, more dramatic.

JW: How did Wedekind’s short story initially come to your attention and what were the primary aspects of the tale that you wished to explore?

LH: A friend gave me the story to read, telling me that it was definitely for me. I hadn’t read anything from Wedekind at that time but I like late 19th and early 20th century German literature very much. Nevertheless, I’ve never previously found a text that presented everything I wanted to recount on screen in quite such an incredible and visual way.

What I liked the most in the story was the way the school was set up: an enclosed space where young girls live in a self sufficient community; the importance of dance and physical exercises and the essential relationship with nature. I was also very intrigued by this utopia (educating children by liberating their bodies) and all the negative totalitarian affects that can have. The school is a paradise and a prison at the same time. And above all, I loved the way the mystery remained at the end of the story. This lack of explanation obliges the reader to make his or her own interpretation.

JW: You obviously have a close association with Gaspar Noé, having worked with him on a number of occasions. How would you describe the working relationship and the affect that your association has on each other’s work?

LH: Gaspar is my first audience. We have a different perception of life, but many references, tastes and enemies in common. When we did Carne, Seul Contre Tous and Mimi (La Bouche de Jean-Pierre), we produced these films ourselves, with almost no money at all. So it was very natural and simple to help each other on these films. But with Innocence, as with Gaspar’s Irreversible, there were producers and enough money to pay a crew, so we weren’t forced to work on each other’s films. But, of course, all through Innocence and especially during the editing, Gaspar gave me advice.

JW: It’s always tempting to believe a filmmaker’s work contains something autobiographical. Did you refer to anything from your personal history in the creation of this eerie, self-enclosed world where fetishistic images of childhood and femininity are pushed to their limits?

LH: The film is totally autobiographical. Under the fairy tale aspect, all the emotions and feelings are the ones from my own childhood. But, of course, I was in a very normal school (not even a boarding school, not even a school with dance lessons or white uniforms) and I had an open education. I didn’t have any more problems with my femininity than the majority of girls. I never was a graceful doll, or a garçon manqué, but these archetypal images were certainly present in the background in the ’60s, as well as today.

JW: I found your visual style to be somewhat unique, especially in the way it creates its own sense of logic and time. Were there any filmmakers, writers or artists (I sensed echoes of Balthus, Bunuel and even Angela Carter) that shaped your sense of construction and aesthetic style?

LH: The films that make the strongest impression on me (and therefore influenced me a lot) are 2001, Night of the Hunter, Eraserhead and the films of Robert Bresson and Dario Argento. In literature, I love tales. But more than Angela Carter, I prefer Andersen with his marvellous, cruel stories, and also Hoffmann. Kafka and Bruno Schulz have also made a deep impression on me. For Innocence, the main visual references were to the Belgian and English Symbolist painters. And also Magritte.

JW: Equally impressive were the extremely textured performances from a relatively young cast. Could you say a little about your casting choices and indeed the casting process, and perhaps also about how you found the experience of directing actors.

LH: My idea was to find girls who had never worked in front of the camera but who had practised a bit of dance.

We didn’t do any standard screen tests. After an initial selection we organised mini dance workshops plus a short interview. Then I set up groups of children, trying to get a microcosm with different types of girls. We did almost no rehearsals and not too many takes, especially with the youngest girls, as it was hard to keep their interest and attention. We were constantly coming up with new ways of maintaining this attention.

I tried to have as few lines as possible, so the children could learn their dialogue just five minutes before the take. I wanted them to be as fresh as possible but asking the girls to be ‘natural’ in front of the camera was difficult because we gave them a lot of constraints; most of the time the camera was still and we asked the girls to keep certain positions inside the frame. The costumes and the ribbons were also a constraint.

The result was that sometimes the children were a bit stiff or cold but by the end I liked it. It corresponded well to the world of the school and it was also touching. It’s the opposite of how children are often seen playing in public, fakely at ease and coquettish.

Regarding Marion Cotillard and Hélène de Fougerolles, who played the two teachers, the challenge was to not let the children throw them off, to manage to act out their scenes despite the girls’ sometimes unpredictable reactions.

JW: There seems to be a strong link between the young girls’ physical and emotional development and that of nature. This is a subject that is relatively rarely explored in contemporary cinema; could you expand on this.

LH: I liked the pantheism of the original story a lot and I tried to stress this aspect as much as possible. That’s also why I invented this biology class (in the original story there were only dance and music lessons). Maybe it’s personal, but when you are a child, before you become a teenager and prefer to lock yourself in your room with friends, being in contact with nature is something very important and very pleasure-giving: swimming in a river, rolling in the grass, running in a forest… Also, nature is a place where adults give you more freedom when you are a child. So you can have wonderful territories for games, experiences and explorations.

JW: Although there is little use of music in the film, the use of sound is exemplary. What function did you wish its use to fulfil in Innocence?

LH: The soundtrack is essential of course, even if it’s minimalist. It is based on the sounds of the park and the sounds inside the houses. Each of these elements can be reassuring or harrowing in turn. We tried to compose a kind of musical and dramatic score containing a number of leitmotivs (the clocks, the water, the train, the lamps, the insects…).

The music heard in the film comes almost only from a few classical pieces which the girls dance to. I didn’t want music the rest of the time because I wanted to highlight the other sounds and avoid any outside commentary. Like with the lighting, I wanted each sound to have an intrinsic justification, a source within the film’s own universe. It gives the decor weight, its own existence. It makes this world look richer but also, after a while, it gives you a feeling of claustrophobia. No sounds filter into the park from outside, as through it was a ‘vacuum-packed’ world.

Jason Wood is a prolific writer on all aspects of world cinema. His latest book, Broomfield on Broomfield, is published by Faber and Faber. A study of Mexican cinema is forthcoming. He would like to thank the director, Stefanie Michelis and Daniel Graham for their help.