Friday, April 18, 2008

Innocence (2004)

Rarely has ambiguity been so gorgeous. Innocence is, perhaps predictably, a French film made by people who, not so predictably, like David Lynch. Or at least the visual/sonic atmosphere of David Lynch. The film takes place almost entirely at a mysterious, sylvan school where girls from about 6 years old to puberty are secluded until release, like the butterflies so often evoked. The story, such as it is, opens with a new arrival being delivered in a coffin, greeted by the other girls, and inducted into their color-coded system: in each house, the youngest girl wears the red ribbons, the next youngest orange, and so on up. The adults seem to be there to serve and teach the girls; no punishments are meted, but an enormous stone wall blocks the outside from view.

Viewers expecting all this to coalesce into a narrative will be disappointed. It's more a study, and it might be unbearable if it were not one of the most beautifully photographed and sound designed films I've ever seen. Everything about it is aesthetically perfect, and yet, despite a suggestive quote and Lolita-like photo of a girl's legs on the DVD cover, non-exploitative. I was prepared for the rampant sexualization of the prepubescent girls (remembering Brooke Shields in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby) but amazingly, the camera is merely an observer, not a voyeur. This phenomenon is highlighted during an episode in which the girls are being watched, the contrast striking simply because the audience, for once, is not implicated. The difference is subtle, but plain, and that is an accomplishment in itself.

It's not that the school holds no threat, or that this idyllic life should be read as genuinely utopic. I kept waiting for the secret that would reveal the school for what it was, and while there were dark hints it never happened: the sinister feeling of the woods after dark, the strange concentration of nymph-like, but not nymphet, children, was chilling enough, not because of what lay outside the walls. My conclusion, for the film holds none, is that the state of innocence is sinister in itself, completely apart from what lies in store for the innocent once she is exposed to the real world. Perhaps it is not reality we should fear, but the attractive/creepy connotations of the blithe, childlike state. (I can see many other possibilities here, some more concrete than others, but prefer the reading I mention.)

Whatever it is, unless you are willing to put in two hours for a payoff as unstructured as this, you will not enjoy the film. As narrative, which is what we all expect, it fails entirely and in fact judged on those merits has major structural problems. As a meditation, a visual event, it is breathtaking, and if you are willing to ask something different from your movie watching experience you should attempt to find your own meaning. And let me know. Read more!