A dark wooden coffin rests in the centre of an elegant room. It’s child-sized, and has an unusual star-shaped window in its lid. A scratchy record plays in the background. Suddenly, a pair of small legs enters the frame dressed in ankle boots and gleaming white socks. Then, an identical pair follows. Then another. And another. Soon, the little coffin is encircled by a coterie of young girls all wearing the same impossibly white uniform.
After a moment, the tallest girl unlocks the coffin door. Inside, a six-year-old girl lies asleep quietly. She is shirtless. Slowly, she opens her eyes, and sits upright, taking in her silent attendants, each of whom wears a different coloured bow in their hair. Red.
Blue. Violet. ‘What’s your name?’ asks Bianca, the girl with the key. ‘Iris,’ she replies – a fitting name given that she will come to learn the rules of their strange world by watching closely.
But what are we watching? Is this a game of hide and seek or some sinister ritual? Are we in the realm of realism or the land of fairy tales? So begins the beguiling introduction to Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s Innocence. The writer/director gave her 2004 debut a rather grand title. But like the girl’s name, it carries a double meaning. It refers not only to Iris’s initiation, but also to our own as viewers, similarly seduced and disoriented by the exquisite sights and sounds of Hadžihalilovic’s film.
Innocence certainly doesn’t rush to satisfy our curiosities. The film tantalizes, lingering deliberately on the sensuous and atmospheric details of clothing and environment that Hadžihalilovic brings to life with a fetishist’s precision. While she stimu-lates our senses, she provides only partial views into the film’s larger mystery. This tease diffuses some of the anxiety, distracting us from the thought that what we’re watching may be some kind of nightmare. She does, however, alert us to two distinct worlds. Above ground, is the boarding school, referred to by the stiff female guardians as ‘the park’. Buried deep in a forest and surrounded by a stone wall, it has at its centre an elegant manor house. There, within the exquisite interiors, the girls are taught about butterflies by Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) and take ballet with Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard). But it’s the mysterious path lit by overhead lamps that captures Iris’s attention. Only the girls with the violet ribbons are summoned there at night, she is told by Bianca.
Underneath the park, literally and figuratively, lies a series of subterranean mysteries. The film begins here – under water. The first images we encounter in Innocence are so abstract as to be nearly indecipherable: a grey-green gush of gurgling liquid filling the screen. The camera surfaces to reveal the source – a benign-looking brook. But the water drains into tunnels that course under the park and lead the girls on their way to sexual awakening.
Inspired by a 1903 German novella by Frank Wedekind called Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, Hadžihalilovic’s unsettling film is upfront in its metaphorical intent. The girls are caterpillars being groomed by their guardians to become butterflies. Their education, fastened to their bodily metamorphosis, is one of social and sexual initiation. Praised for their appearances and pliability (‘Obedience is the path to happiness’), the girls are guided toward their goal: the male gaze. It’s a sinister conceit made all the more wicked by the women’s complicity.
Upon its release more than a decade ago, Innocence was greeted with controversy. Hadžihalilovic had directed wonderful performance from the young actors. But critics recoiled at the film’s brazenly sexualized depiction of prepubescent girls – the camera lingering on them frolicking in their underwear, and in one case glimpsing the naked torso of the nubile Bianca. Innocence is, by design, a provocation. It’s about the power of looking, and the ways adults shape and control children’s sexuality. Hadžihalilovic’s camera is self-aware recalls the renderings of young girls that male artists with dubious intentions have produced for centuries.
Hadžihalilovic also didn’t rush to make another film. She may be alone in having a filmography consisting of two features made twelve years apart that are so thematically interlinked as to be mirror images. Evolution, her new film, is set in a village on a small, desolate island. As with Innocence, it follows children indoctrinated into a menacing world governed by inscrutable women. It, too, begins and ends with water, and is filled with strange and startling imagery. But Evolution strikes a notably different tone. For one thing, it’s about boys. The world it depicts is not social, like that of Innocence, but lonely and austere. The boys relate, but only tentatively, and the island, unlike the ‘the park’, is drained of colour and emotion. Only under the sea does life appear vibrant to Nicholas (Max Brebant), the film’s protagonist. It’s there that he glimpses a dead body and is alerted to the dangers of the adults. A red starfish extracted from the sea becomes a central visual motif, its shape echoing the star on Iris’s coffin.
With Evolution, Hadžihalilovic is concerned less with the theme of emergent sexuality than with the terror of medical procedures. Inspired by sci-fi and body horror, it depicts young bodies farmed and harvested as hosts for experiments. At once more graphic and more oblique than Innocence, it offers a less certain vision of the future. But Hadžihalilovic endows young Nicholas with a crucial attribute: he’s an artist. He fills his little notebook with drawings of things real and imagined – a habit that his guardians are eager to break. In the end, he alone sees what’s happening to the children. Evolution may leave us with a darker vision than Innocence, but Hadžihalilovic still has faith in the artist to see things the rest of us cannot.
Alix de Massiac: Your films have such a unique sensibility. While you are making a film, are you already then thinking about how the audience will respond? Do you feel you are making films for them?
Lucile Hadžihalilovic: I would say I make my films for an audience like me, not just for myself. An unknown danger lurks in the shades as I do. I guess I also make them for myself but I am really trying to share and communicate this inner world I have. This is what is so exciting with film and what I love as a member of the audience, to go to a place with other people, strangers, and sit in the dark and share a collective vision, sharing emotions through this film. Having an audience is in this way part of my desire to make films. Maybe it is because I a collective creation where cinema was a collective experience, which I know is quite different now. Everyone has a different reaction to films, but at the same time has a collective experience because you are with other people in the cinema, even if people have different interpretations. There are still collective emotions, this is true for both horror or comedy. I like this collective moment as a catharsis.
Alix: Was this collective experience a big part of why you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Lucile: No, I did not really want to become a director. I was attracted to the idea of making a film, but it happened little by little. In my youth, I saw films and was very much attracted to this medium and had very strong emotions while seeing them. It went step-by-step, coming up slowly. I studied art history and then realised it was possible to make short films, to go to film school and to make a film. And even more than making a film, showing it to an audience is what matters most to me. In a way, it is about creating a little kind of universe that I could share with other people.
Alix: In interviews, you sometimes refer to the obsession interviewers have with the meaning of your explicit use of colour, for example. Is this use of colour an attempt to show your own interaction with them or does it have a broader relevance to it?
Lucile: Cinema is not verbal and my approach is not very intellectual, it is much more based on feelings and emotions. So, I really tried to build up meaning and a story through physical details and an emotional approach to colour. For example, I use red with the starfish in Evolution and red of course is a dramatic colour. Especially when you are in an environment where there are not that many colours. I try to play with it and in this case red conveys dramatic feelings. Beyond the emotions, you can find intellectual meaning, but that is merely an afterthought.
Alix: This particular starfish was pulsating and slightly creepy because of its size and movement. Why do you insist on having this contrast between beauty and creepiness?
Lucile: The most interesting aspect for me is ambivalence or ambiguity. It is about the switch between beauty and horror. When I was a teenager, I was drawn to a certain kind of horror films that were very attractive and very beautiful. I think it is more interesting to have this kind of double aspect; it is more complex and more real. If it were only horror, then I don’t think the audience would want to see it. I would not look at a starfish myself if it was only a horrible creature, but now because of its colour and strange aspect it is also beautiful.
Alix: There seems to be a strong connection between beauty and strangeness. Do you think that we find things more beautiful when they are unknown to us?
Lucile: Yes! I think what is attractive about mystery is that you have to engage yourself and make it yours, find your own interpretation. And if you don’t understand its meaning right away, it stays with you for a while. Having a vision that is not visually crystal clear makes it interesting to me.
Alix: So is this refusal to make a clear narrative part of this cycle of hidden meaning?
Lucile: With Evolution, I really tried to create a narrative more than with Innocence, which was more about capturing moments of life. But somehow, the narrative in Evolution is more superficial. We tried with my co-writer to build a story, and then at some point we had to cut a lot in the script. The things that contained more information were discarded, and then it returned to something more dreamlike, because there is something illogical at the heart of the film that doesn’t really fit with a narrative. Like, why is it only young boys? I know the effect it gives, because it is something irrational, something that cannot fit into a narrative.
Alix: People speak about the difference between filming young girls and boys and also pose the question about with whom you identify. But I feel this is wrong, because it is not about a gendered body at all.
Lucile: Yes, I am very happy you are mentioning it. This is what I thought about. First of all, I wanted it to be with boys because with a girl it would have been more of a cliché somehow, and at the same time, as a child of that age I don’t think it is so different to be a boy or a girl. If it were a teenager, it would be different. A boy gives a more general meaning to these fears, while a girl would have been more about pregnancy or abuse. While I think now it can be something bigger than that, precisely because it is a boy and so our fears are projected in a different way onto its body.
Alix: Could we talk about the significance of the sun in Evolution. Have you been aiming at making a full circle between life and death?
Lucile: I haven’t thought about it like that, but you are right. In Evolution, the boy is afraid of dying and he gives birth… I wanted to make the film in a sunny environment, because horror films are always dark and misty. The sun gave contrast and tension to the film. Shadows are also essential, and they are always there when you see the sun.
Alix: Is there any relationship between the neutral, quite stiff performances of the actors and the restrained clothing you favour?
Lucile: In general, I have a taste for minimalism, maybe because it is also a lack of confidence in doing something very exuberant and maximalist. So, I am trying to take things out because it is already quite difficult to deal with minimalism. And the less you have, the more precise you have to be. So I use this problem and transform it into an artistic choice, to have very simple framing or not much lighting. For some reason, and maybe this is very personal, I like very strict clothes and set-up. Maybe I have been raised in a time and place that was not wealthy and naturally I go in that direction. But I think it is very exciting to just pick up a few elements and really carefully look at them. People often complain about the pacing of a film and find it too slow, but when it is quicker, I find it less interesting. I like this pace where you can see and hear something, but it stays under the surface. I think the minimalism helps hide the emotion under the surface. The more it is hidden, the stronger it is for me.
Alix: It’s funny, because you talk about the dramatic effects of the sun or a colour, but at the same time you talk about hiding all sorts of things which again help create this tension between the known and the unknown. It takes a long time to make and release a film. How does your thinking about a film evolve?
Lucile: I think it evolves a lot. When I begin writing something, I don’t know where I am going, and it changes a lot. With Evolution, I didn’t know what the film was about and I had to work on it to understand what it’s about. My co-writer also pushed me a lot and we talked about the different aspects of the meaning of the film. The guy who fabricated the babies for Evolution asked me what kind of faces I wanted them to have. We decided it was more interesting to give them a normal face. These kind of practical questions force me to understand my work better. But I only really see what I have done when I watch it on the screen and when people begin to ask questions. I love it when people have interpretations that are not mine and they fit very well. Again, this blurry aspect, it is a hole in which people can go. For me, making films is a game I play with the audience, so their interpretations and questions make me very happy.
Alix: In this game, do you think about how to capture people’s attention the most effectively?
Lucile: Sometimes when films are very affirmative and try to convince you that they are telling the truth, I find it too demanding and oppressive, and almost violent. With more freedom in the film and in the approach, I think it is both more interesting and realistic.
Alix: In my view, the way you employ rigour and the distance between adults and children is very French. Do you think this is the case?
Lucile: I was born in the sixties and back then, freedom had to do with the new ‘rules to play by’. You had to do this or that in order to be free. It was a kind of feeling that children and adults were separate. Maybe this is due to education that didn’t allow children to do certain things or maybe it is just me. I was raised in Morocco where everything was quite oppressive. Probably not so much so for me as a child, but nevertheless I felt this quite a lot as a girl of course and I guess there is an echo of that in my films. Next to this, children are looking for rituals because they are reassuring and protective but also oppressive. So you tie yourself to these rituals to protect you, but you have to cut it at some point. We need rules to grow up and become an adult even if it is by rebelling against them or by accepting them.
…it is a pre-sexuality, which is discovering your body or your body discovering you…
Alix: I would like to discuss the use of the naked body in your work. In my view, a lot of directors simply skim over that subject whereas you confront it with your films, head on.
Lucile: I think my films are very much about this. I don’t know where sexuality begins or ends. With children I think it is a pre-sexuality, which means discovering your body or vice versa (laughs) and there is both attraction and fear. The body is a very cinematic thing. It is of course quite difficult to deal with children in that respect, but with adults, it is interesting to explore this aspect. You used to only have porn and then the rest. This has changed a bit in the last ten years. I like when it is a bit unexpected in films. I would like to go quite far again, not in realistic erotic situations, but by using metaphors or elements to show this eroticism.
Alix: Such as the short film you made about the use of condoms?
Lucile: That was very interesting because it was a commission from the Ministry of Health. We had to make a very explicit film but without the usual pornographic vocabulary associated with it. It was quite hard to do. None of us had made a ‘normal’ erotic film before. Sometimes, they were even unpleasant despite our very best efforts. To achieve the emotion of an erotic scene and the reality of sexuality has been quite hard to capture on screen. So, how to see and deal with that? Showing bodies does not necessarily mean it is erotic. How do you reimagine the eroticism or sexuality using other elements? The result was a bit strange I think. At the end, what could be the eroticism does not come from the body, but from the emotions that can come from an object or a close-up of the eye. It was not easy to deal with the actors because they were quite stiff and authoritarian. And then I played with that and made it a kind of unpleasant thing. So, it was a real situation I had to deal and try to play with.
Alix: What would be or is your way of training in this capacity?
Lucile: Making a film is like being on board the Titanic. Everything goes wrong. I maintain very strict rules, such as not moving the camera or not using light, and then I let the chaos around it happen. Some directors manage to control everything on set. Others are very good at catching life. And I guess I am neither, or I am somewhere in the middle, playing on my limitations and making them appear like artistic choices. Very often, I think I am losing direction. But in the editing room, somehow unexpectedly what you wanted to achieve appears in another way, through different angles.
(Introduction by Paul Dallas)