"Innocence" is a striking interpretation of a novella by turn-of-the-last-century avant-gardist Frank Wedekind. His near-surreal take on society's sexual underbelly finds expression in the weird picture of very young girls trained for ambiguous future roles. Whether it has a commercial future depends on distribs' willingness to risk something genuinely odd and unsettling.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s feature directorial debut “Innocence” is a striking interpretation of a novella by turn-of-the-last-century avant-gardist Frank Wedekind. His distanced, intellectual, near-surreal take on mainstream society’s sexual underbelly finds expression in the weird picture of very young girls trained for ambiguous future roles at a woodsy community as disconnected as the one in M. Night Shyamalan’s recent “The Village.” Unlike that item, however, this genuine curio maintains its mystery to the end. Whether it has a commercial future depends on distribs’ willingness to risk something genuinely odd and unsettling, yet not conventionally exploitative.

German poet, political satirist, and stage-expressionism forerunner Wedekind deployed grotesque caricature to scrutinize society’s unacknowledged fixations on sex and conformity. His best-known efforts are 1891’s “Spring Awakening” about adolescent sexual awakening and two plays about female provocateur Lulu (later immortalized in Berg’s opera and G.W. Pabst’s silent cinema classic “Pandora’s Box”).

Adapting an obscure 1888 story, Hadzihalilovic wisely sticks with a pre-WWII atmosphere, avoiding the kind of psychological disconnect that befell Kubrick in updating work by Wedekind’s like-minded Austrian contemporary Arthur Schnitzler in “Eyes Wide Shut.” There’s a stylized rigor to this interpretation of antique Symbolist mate-rial that one suspects would’ve earned Kubrick’s admiration.

Stunning, wordless opening seg progresses in gorgeous formal shots from river to forest to a room where a cof-fin is delivered to several expectant little girls. When they open it like a Christmas present, out pops very-much-alive Iris (Zoe Auclair), a winsome child of about 5 who understandably wonders where she is, and why. She’s told she’s now “home.” She’s also informed that leaving is forbidden, and that she will not be seeing again the brother she asks for.

In cryptic fashion, it emerges this is a boarding school where each dormitory house consists of girls between Iris’ age and senior resident Bianca’s (Berangere Haubruge) near-adolescence. Bianca proves willing to provide the substitute mother figure the frightened new arrival requires. Iris’ tendency to cling is frustrated only by the fact Bianca — like other head girls — disappears after bedtime on a mission she won’t discuss.

Willowy young-adult teachers Mmes. Edith (Helene de Fougerolles) and Eva (Marion Cotillard) oversee the daytime curriculum — which apparently consists solely of instruction in ballet and biology. Both courses seem designed to prepare girls for a future in the attraction/reproduction mechanics of basic species survival.

As this vaguely sinister yet not unpleasant program is absorbed by wee Iris, narrative focus drifts toward other protags, such as one who drowns in a failed rowboat escape attempt, and another who succeeds in scaling the boundary walls to an unknown fate.

Nature of Bianca’s nightly excursions becomes clear as a bizarre step toward life outside. Her graduation is depicted in arresting, symbolically blunt yet joyous fashion at pic’s enigmatic close.

Withholding basic expository material, and unpredictably restless in its focus, “Innocence” both rivets and challenges emotional engagement. Suggestion that very young girls are at vaguely sexualized peril will disturb many viewers, though Hadzihalilovic — wife and frequent producing/editing collaborator of shock-art-cinema auteur Gaspar Noe, to whom this pic is dedicated — hews to an abstract-poetic simplicity almost diametrically opposed to her spouse’s trademark graphic sensationalism.

Hadzihalilovic must have logged hundreds of patient shooting hours to achieve child perfs this spontaneous. (She drafted kids largely from dance classes rather than thespian pools.)

Lenser Benoit Debie and all other design personnel contribute extraordinary work, creating a textural atmos-phere at once lyrical and suffused with inchoate dread. Soundtrack is dominated by apt early-20thtcentury avant-garde selections (Janacek, Prokofiev) as well as detailed nature soundscapes.

Innocence

France-Belgium-U.K.

Production

An Ex Nihilo production in association with Les Ateliers de Baere, Bluelight, U.K. Film Council, Love Streams and Gimages, with par-ticipation of Kinetique, CNC and Wallimage. Produced by Patrick Sobelman. Directed, written by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, adapted from the novella "Mine-Haha, or the Corporal Punishment of Young Girls" by Frank Wedekind

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16mm Cinemascope-to-35mm, widescreen), Benoit Debie; editor, Adam Finch; production designer, Arnaud de Moleron; sound, Pascal James, Andy Walker, Graham Peters, Tim Cavagin; assistant director, Dominique Delany; casting, Patrick Hella. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 11, 2004. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, Marion Cotillard, Helene de Fougerolles.

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