By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Innocence,” Leisure Time Features/Homevision, 2005]
A semi-secret, anxiety-cranked daydream movie released briefly to a few American cities in 2005, and one of the most original French films of the decade, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Innocence” (2004) is pure code, metaphor and mystery, and at the same it’s seethingly tangible. Derived from a (currently) untranslated Frank Wedekind story, and pulsing with conceptual potency, the movie feels genuinely sui generis, a verdant, ambiguous reverie on childhood, consciousness and oppression. It’s all parable, all the time, a Rorschach-blot scenario played out in feminized Old World ritual: we’re in a vast tract of European forest, disarmingly illuminated by chandelier lamps, subgrounded with what seems to be an ancient, rumbling sewer system and surrounded by an unscalable wall. At the center lies a huge girls’ school, populated by only two teachers (Hélène de Fougerolles and “La Vie en Rose”‘s Marion Cotillard) and a dozen or so prepubescent girls, each wearing age-coded hair ribbons, new students arriving in suddenly materialized coffins and with fading memories of their families and lives outside. There are no men, and many rules. The school maintains a nurturing, if constricting, cloistered atmosphere, but there are glimpses of matters disappearances, deaths, violations we, like the students, never fully understand. The girls, gently examined, indoctrinated and trained in matters of traditional girlishness, are being certainly being groomed, but for what?
A debut filmmaker with electrifying confidence, Hadzihalilovic cat-plays with our instant sense of dread unanswered narrative questions are supposed to have horrifying answers, right? but “Innocence” has a more sophisticated program than you might suspect from her credits as Gaspar Noé’s producer and editor (and girlfriend?). The mysteries at the film’s pitiful heart aren’t sexual, but then again, they are: Wedekind always worked in lurid metaphoric colors, and “Innocence” is nothing if not a fable of puberty told not as awakening but as subjugation. Call it the feminist flipside to Jean Vigo’s “Zéro de Conduite,” where revolt is not a condoned option (a single escapee is far from heroic, dropping into the unknown woods over the wall, never to be seen again), and Wedekind’s anti-bourgeois take on the “tragedy of sex” prevails. In its view of childhood as totalitarian citizenship, Hadzihalilovic’s film stands, quietly, in a gender-furious class by itself.
At the same time, the particularities are intensely imagined and naturalistic, and its symbology is as subterranean as you’d like to dig. Rich as a fruitcake in its Romantic tableaux (photographed, lushly, by Benoît Debie), the movie is not merely ironically titled like David Lynch’s films, its heart bleeds for the systematic death of purity while never idealizing the young. Shun critics who fail to respond to this lovely puzzle, or those for whom it conjures only thoughts of pedophilia. (Like A.O. Scott in the Times, for whom the movie limned a fine line “between cinematic art and exploitation,” and like one New York Film Critics Circle member alright, Leah Rozen who dismissed it as a film only for those interested in “little girls in panties,” this said less than an hour after Rozen argued that documentary features aren’t “films” in the context of giving out a “Best First Film” award, in this case to Bennett Miller, whose first feature was not “Capote” but “The Cruise.” Never mind that “Innocence” is a First Film achievement unrivaled in recent memory.)
Illiteracy and small-mindedness are everywhere, of course, which is why if The Criterion Collection didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. This month they’ve exhumed Akira Kurosawa’s first true career-maker, “Drunken Angel” (1948), a rarely seen classic of the Japanese postwar era, which is distinctive in world cinema as out-noiring noir no American film from the time can approach the savage metaphors, raging desperation and hopeless squalor expressed in the modern-day films of Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Suzuki, Masumura, Oshima, Imamura, et al. “Drunken Angel” is something of a chamber piece: the setting is a clutch of hovels and shops huddled around a giant sump, which bubbles toxically and into which ripe garbage is regularly dumped. Immediately, we’re thrust into a combative pas de deux, between a self-hating alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) and the tubercular yakuza (Toshiro Mifune) he reluctantly treats for a gunshot wound. Every scene the two characters share ends up in a brawl; they loathe each other, but the doctor feels compelled to get the gangster to respect his TB and possibly survive it by living clean, and the hood demurs, lest his machismo be called into question. That is, until another yakuza gets out of prison and starts sniffing around for his ex-girlfriend, who now runs the doctor’s practice.
Both of the stars are fierce and fascinating (and omigod, so young), but while the chiseled and romantic Mifune seemed destined for stardom (this was the first of his seven collaborations with Kurosawa), Shimura dominates the film; it’s his character, after all, that fuels the plot, and Shimura brings a wary, self-knowing belligerence to the role that’s surprising (given how we’re used to seeing him, as the elder sage in “The Seven Samurai” or the dying office mouse in “Ikiru” or the wizened scientist in “Godzilla”). Compare this moment to any American noir: when Shimura’s grizzled quack, who drinks antiseptic meant for patients, defiantly confronts the murderous gang leader and scoffs, “I’ve killed more people than you.” (There’s also language the Japanese equivalents of shit, bitch, asshole, whore you can’t hear in postwar films here.) “Drunken Angel” couldn’t comment on the ongoing American occupation, due to censorship rules that ended, with the occupation, four years later, as did so many subsequent films (Imamura’s “Pigs and Battleships,” say), leaving Kurosawa’s potent pessimism aimed unambiguously at his own culture, emerging guilt-ridden from the war and barely able to pull itself out of the sewer. The film’s Criterionization includes two documentaries about the making of the film and Kurosawa’s early career, and the obligatory commentary track by professional Nipponophile Donald Ritchie, reigning king of the Asian-cinema-scholarship monologue.
“Innocence” (Homevision) and “Drunken Angel” (Criterion) are now available on DVD.