In the dank, womblike recesses of a verdant forest, unclothed young girls travel via coffin through underground (vaginal) passageways to stately manor houses, where they’re dressed in identical dainty white uniforms, given colored hair ribbons to signify their age (and pubescent ripeness), partake in physical activities like swimming and hula-hooping, learn about biological evolution, and are schooled in ballet. Their “education” is the focus of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence, a metaphorical gothic fable about female maturation (based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1888 short story) that’s pregnant with birth, menstruation, and orgasmic symbolism and bursting with pretentious pap about women’s journey from a state of undefiled innocence to sullied slutdom. Trapped in the woods by an enclosing wall (à la The Village), the kids ritualistically go about their daily duties, with Hadzihalilovic portraying their humdrum actions as designed to facilitate the transition to womanhood, a condition viewed by the film as akin to being a whore (one elderly dance teacher tells a student that she’ll know how to make good use of her legs—wink, wink—in the real world).
Overflowing with watery imagery that speaks to the girls’ inherent physiological coitus-and-procreation functions, Innocence evenly divides its “story” between three girls—6-year-old Iris (Zoé Auclair), 10-year-old Alice (Lea Bridarolli), and 12-year-old Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge)—each one representing a different stage in female development. Yet without the supernatural and sexual menace of Dario Argento’s narratively similar Suspiria, nor the mood of impending doom found in Hadzihalilovic boyfriend/collaborator Gaspar Noé‘s ode to desecrated purity Irréversible, the film wearingly resorts to dreamy, figurative shots of moppets spinning in a dance studio and vague insinuations about its protagonists’ future careers as child prostitutes. Meant to approximate some sort of entrancing netherworld of pre-teen flowering, Hadzihalilovic’s beautiful but thematically obvious directorial debut mainly exudes a fetishistic fixation on nubile femmes, culminating in a third-act scene in which creepy faceless men watch, and toss roses to, the eldest girls (most notably Bianca) as they suggestively perform a choreographed dance number on stage. As such, Innocence will likely be the consensus pick for best picture of the year among pedophiles worldwide.