Innocence (15)

Thank heavens for weird little girls

Lucile Hadzihalilovic's debut feature is one of those Rorschach-blot films that everyone will read differently, according to their own psyches. Some will see it as an inscrutable riddle, some as a bizarre bittersweet idyll, others as an out-and-out horror film, albeit of a particularly oblique, discreet kind. It's certainly an extremely Freudian film, in the high tradition of European surrealist cinema, its images seemingly siphoned direct and undiluted from the unconscious of its writer-director. Hadzihalilovic's unconscious - so she claims, at least - was shaped by her childhood reading of Enid Blyton's Malory Towers stories of life at a girls' boarding school. A jolly-hockey-sticks romp, however, Innocence most certainly is not.

Hadzihalilovic was formerly best known as partner and editor to cinematic terrorist Gaspar Noé, of Seul contre tous and Irreversible notoreity; she now looks by far the weirder of the duo. Based on a story by German Expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind, Innocence is set in some unspecified period, presumably on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, in a girls' school surrounded by a dense fairytale forest. The pupils, aged roughly between six and 12, live in separate houses, in groups of mixed ages, each year marked by a different colour of hair ribbon. There are few adults to be seen, except for some elderly servants, and two teachers (Hélène de Fougerolles, Marion Cotillard), both glamorous demoiselles who might have stepped out of a Colette novel. Lessons, apparently, are restricted to marvelling at Mlle Edith's butterfly collection, or dancing to Janacek piano pieces in Mlle Eva's ballet class.

But all is not so benign. There's no contact with the outside world, prompting the occasional escape attempt: one girl's ill-fated effort to flee by boat suggests Lewis Carroll rewritten as an episode of The Prisoner. Then there's the mystery of the tunnels under the school, of the secret passage behind the grandfather clock, and of what happens when the older girls come to graduate.

Much is suggested, next to nothing explained, resulting in a constant, subliminal unease. The pupils themselves are gentle, artless, wide-eyed - yet their acceptance of their surroundings has faint undertones of the eerily well-behaved children in The Turn of the Screw (filmed as The Innocents) or Village of the Damned.

Many viewers will no doubt be disturbed that Hadzihalilovic dresses her girls in uniforms - short white dresses, socks, ribbons - that suggest a mannered parody of paedophile iconography. Yet there's nothing remotely sexual, not the merest hint of Lolita-ism, in her presentation of the girls; indeed, you imagine any paedophiles drawn to see Innocence might walk out, gnashing their teeth at the film's out-and-out weirdness. No doubt Innocence would look like another film entirely if you thought it had been directed by a man; instead, it's very much a female director's nostalgic fantasy of an idea of pre-sexual innocence, a condition that's bound to look surreally alien in the age of Britney and Bratz dolls. In fact, the film's suppression - up to a point - of apparent sexual resonances indirectly signals us to the fact that female sexuality will ultimately turn out to be Hadzihalilovic's real subject.

From start to finish, Innocence keeps you wondering where it's going, sustaining its mystery right up to an ending that's both unexpected and startlingly euphoric. This is one of those exceptionally rare films that wholly creates its own world, and establishes its own rules for visiting it. It's worth adding that there's not the faintest vestige of kitsch or camp here: mixing reverie with a hint of head-girl earnestness, Hadzihalilovic treats her uncanny imaginings with the seriousness they deserve. And she's pulled off an extraordinary feat in assembling her 30 young cast members into a temporary community - the shoot must have resembled a bizarre performance-art project in its own right. It's also an extremely beautiful film, shot entirely in natural light by Benoît Debie, then digitally treated, enhancing its dreamlike, archaic look; the painterly, haunting shots of the woods over four seasons are worth an exhibition in themselves. Blyton-derived though it might be, Innocence is hardly a classroom yarn in the British what-ho tradition: it's more Angela Carter than Angela Brazil, with echoes of Buñuel, Borowczyk and Kafka. It's the strangest and most audacious film of the year, the most distinctive French debut in ages, and a very, very long way from St Trinian's.