Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

"Innocence" Comes Down from Sugar Mountain

Oh to live on sugar mountain

With the barkers and the colored balloons

You can’t be twenty on sugar mountain

Though you’re thinkin’ that you’re leavin’ there too soon

You’re leavin’ there too soon.

Neil Young

                I’m a fan of coming of age movies even though the quality of the genre generally contains no middle ground.  Coming of age movies are either complete dreck or instant classics bordering on masterpieces.  On the outstanding end of the spectrum I count such films as Cinema Paradiso, Stand by Me, Au Revoire Les Enfants, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Amongst the worst of its kind I can start with Porky’s and go further back to Summer of 42 and come closer to the present with American Pie.  The coming of age genre is one that I believe will never be tapped out, and as long as movies are being made there will always be at least a few every year that address that most elemental and universal dimension of being human; growing up. The 2004 film, Innocence, directed by Lucille Hadzihalilovic is an atmospheric, allegoric tale of girls growing up to be women told in the style of a parable or fairy tale. 

The film is almost entirely symbolic, and it dances on the precipice of becoming incomprehensible sludge with all the delight and fearlessness of a young girl flirting with a boy; neither one having any idea what they are about.  Ms. Hadzihalilovic has learned a page or two from her husband, the iconoclastic director Gaspar Noe.  One thing she has in common with his no-holds barred style is the utter lack of fear of tackling the subject and delving into the dark, mysterious essence; the slippery, unknowable core.  In the case of Innocence we have a very abstract, but entertaining overview of the Ages of Woman from pre-teen girl child to post-adolescent young woman ready to be released into the world of Men.

Innocence begins with the arrival of a young girl to a boarding school nestled in a large forest.  The girl is delivered to the school not by her parents, by rather, alone and in a casket.  And so the symbology begins.  I’m not going to get into interpretation here, because there is so much in the movie that can be taken any number of ways that one could literally burn up a hundred pages just discussing the first 15 minutes of this film.  Now, as I’ve said before, even though this film uses symbolic gestures to represent plot points this is no Bergman film where characters converse in deep, philosophical utterings while stonily facing each other.  We see the girls go through their daily routines, many of which are cryptic, but equally as many are what you’d expect at a boarding school; various sorts of classes, outings and the like.  We focus on the group of girls the initial girl, Iris, is placed with. Iris attaches herself to the oldest among them, Bianca.  From the beginning Iris is drawn into the mysteries of this place.  She is told by Bianca that she cannot go home and that no news of her parents or her brother will come to her. 

Being a young child, Iris suffers mightily from her separation and latches onto Bianca.  However, Bianca cannot spend much time consoling or being Iris’ surrogate mother/sibling.  The reason being, Bianca is growing up and is going to leave the school soon for the great unknown that exists on the other side of a huge wall that surrounds the school and its forest.  Each night Bianca leaves their rooming house to go with the other older girls to a place unknown for a purpose even more closely wrapped in mystery.  Little Iris tries to follow but is just too small and immature to go with Bianca and find out what she’s up to.  Luckily for us, the viewer, we eventually get to go along with Bianca on her journey through the night time forest and to her destination beyond the forest wall.  The destination proves to be both a delight and another set of mysteries to be explained just as it is whenever one passes from one stage of life to another.

I found Innocence to be an engaging, intelligent and ultimately satisfying representation of the basic phenomenon of growing up and coming of age.  The film is beautiful to look at and the young actresses are all outstanding.  I commend the director for creating a film that at once challenges and entertains without being smugly intellectual or cryptic for the sake of being inscrutable. The explanations and solutions are all there, but you have to work for them.  This is a film that reveals its meanings and secrets long after you’ve seen it.  It gave me days of entertaining thoughts as I ruminated upon how masterfully and artistically the subject matter was presented.  As I said – the film could very easily have been a film school comedy of self-seriousness, but in the hands of Ms. Hadzihalilovic the story’s cold mystery is shot through with the warmth of love and caring.  As it is sometimes in life, Innocence gives us a near pitch perfect representation of the mixture of trepidation and joy at reaching a milestone in the process of growing up.  Innocence is a purist’s view of the feelings encountered growing from child to young adult.  

One last thing.  What could have made this film even better would have been if the excellent actresses Marion Cotillard and Hélène de Fougerolles would have had meatier roles than what  I was lead to believe in the trailer.  Their characters, although central to the life at the school, were treated more like background or supporting actors in the story of the girls growing up.  I thought the interaction between the roles of the dance teacher and schoolmistress with the main characters of Iris and Alice were weaker than they should have been.  A few more lines, one or two more scenes would have sufficed.  Perhaps these exist, but they might have been cut for whatever reason.  I particularly felt that Ms.Cotillard was under-utilized. That said, this film is the shimmering, dream version of the coming of age story; a wonderful, intensely beautiful experience.