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An uncompromised vision (FW34)

Interview with Lucille Hadzihalilovic
Innocence  - Interview with Lucille Hadzihalilovic By Claire Fowler

Born in Lyon in 1961, Lucile studied filmmaking at Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris. She has worked as an editor of features and documentaries, and is long time collaborator with the director Gaspar Noe for whom she produced and edited the short Carne and co-edited the feature I Stand Alone. Innocence, released 2nd September, is her first feature film, following the shorter La Bouche de Jean Pierre, and Good Boys use Condoms. Innocence, based on a story by Frank Wedekind, is set in a girls’ school situated deep in a forest, where new pupils arrive in coffins and live by a strict set of mysterious rules. The girls live in small groups, each age allotted a different coloured hair ribbon, and learn ballet, swimming and biology, but their utopian existence has a sinister undertone. I met Lucile in a faded, grand hotel in central Paris to talk about her entry into filmmaking, Innocence and her future plans. Claire Fowler – Innocence is adapted from Wedekind’s story ‘The Corporal Education of Young Girls’. What elements of the original story have influenced or been retained in the film? Lucille Hadzihalilovic – It is very close to the original. The idea of organisation and structure in a girl’s boarding school set within a beautiful isolated park, the arrival of the girls in a box – which in Innocence became a coffin, it seemed appropriate to me that it should be a coffin. The rituals and rules, the underground passages, the train and the theatre where the little girls perform and yet cannot see the audience. It is a world separate from the outside. In Wedekind’s story he follows one single girl. We could not sustain that for feature length, and so chose to follow 3 individual girls of different ages. Like the story, I wanted to keep it all from the point of view of the child- and so it became three children, three sets of eyes. One of my characters (Alice) rebels. In Wedekind’s story, there is only acceptance…

CF – The film follows three young girls throughout one school year in a surreal, timeless boarding school, starting with six year old Iris who arrives in a coffin, Alice who runs away, and ending with 12 year old Bianca who is about to enter the outside world. It is a film of mood, symbolism and the senses rather than a conventional narrative, yet it also contains a growing sense of anxiety that despite the ‘innocence’ of the pre adolescent girls, is inevitably sexual . There are unanswered questions that become more fraught for Bianca…

LH – There is a sense of threat, or anxiety. The suspense suggested to some people who watched the film that at some point a group of men would burst in and rape these little girls, shatter this idyll. But nothing happens. For me the threat comes from within the girls – it is the threat of growing up, the fear of the outside world. The school is a contradiction, it is almost a utopian prison. But the references to punishment, to banishment or entrapment- it all comes from the girls, not from the adults. The arrival of Iris in the coffin, and her observations, suggests at first the threat will come from the school, but it does not, and we move on to Alice’s perspective and then Bianca’s. The story, like the suspense, is never resolved. There are no answers. If you try to find answers perhaps you have missed the point of the film. So many people ask me "so why does Iris arrive in a coffin?" Why not? It seemed right. It is from the point of view of children. There is both reality and fantasy. CF – How did you plan the visual balance between that tension and the ‘innocence’ of the girls? It is a very fine line to tread…? LH – It was something I was aware of before we started shooting. I was aware of the difficulty of the filmnothing dramatic happens. It moves at a very slow pace- it has its own rhythm. It is peaceful and colourful, but also tense. I wanted to play with the suspense with the extremely long shots- which are both slow and anxious. The sound also plays with feeling of suspense and threat – very simple. I identified very much with the film so that in some ways it felt autobiographical. I was going back to my memories of childhood.

CF – Working with such a young cast must have had its difficulties… With the youth of the cast in mind, to what extent is the film improvised, and how does it diverge from the original script?

LH – It was a nightmare! We shot for two months in summer, and 2 days in winter. The smallest girls were 6 years old. They were very natural, in many ways much more than the older girls- but everything was a game to them… but they tired quickly, and when one misbehaved they all did! They had difficulty with distinguishing between reality and the film sometimes. For example there is one scene where Eva (the teacher) asks Iris to stay behind after ballet class. One girl didn’t want to leave the room – she was jealous of Zoe Auclair with Marion Cotillard! The older girls were sometimes very stiff, very much more aware of themselves. They all loved the dance scenes, but none of them liked improvisation- they all wanted to be told what to do, what to say, where to stand. As a lot of the framing was tight and static this worked quite well, and the ‘stiffness’ of the girls- something I was very worried about in filming, gave the scene an old fashioned feel- something awkward that I liked. It was like pinning butterflies down! The original script did change according to the cast. Alice for example worked really well on film and so developed more importance than originally planned. The secret passage at the end- we only chose the clock as the entrance once on set and just before that scene.

CF – Were all the girls dancers? How was the choreography developed?

LH – All the girls knew a little dance, but there was only one ‘professional’. This was not a school for dancers, and so I didn’t want it to be too rehearsed and performative. The choreography was to reflect that – deliberately simple. I wanted to use dance as an expression you know, to reference Isadora Duncan and modern dance at the start of the 20th Century that also inspired Wedekind.

CF – The musical score is very simple and predominantly heard in relation to the dance scenes. What were you looking for the sound to bring to the film?

LH – Music generally gives an idea of the period in which the film is set. I used classical music to confuse this identity, and having very little music in the actual score of the film gave more of a claustrophobic feel to the atmosphere. And then all the sounds heard were within the school or the park – giving a sense of intensity and oppression, as there was literally no escape from the surrounding enclosed environment, no hint of an outside world.

CF – The two adult teachers, played by Marion Cotillard and Helene de Fougerolles, both have a sense of tragedy and beauty in their relationship to themselves, the girls and each other. How did you envisage their roles in the film?

LH – They are role models for the little girls – ideal images for them to aspire to become like. But in many ways this is contradictory as they are like little girls themselves. It is not right for someone past the age of 12 to be in this environment, and yet they are and there is a melancholy to their presence that is not fully explained. Madame Eva (Marion Cotillard) I have been told, is portrayed more intimately than Madame Edith, perhaps because we see her cry. They are guides, but I think they have a childlike, lost quality themselves. The two actresses were very good with the children and immediately assumed maternal roles on set.

CF – Despite inviting comparisons with Argento and Weir, the film has an an empathy and fairytale feel to it that most definitely marks a feminine touch. How do you feel about the comparisons? And which filmmakers have influenced your development as a director?

LH – I am fascinated by Dario Argento’s films, and have been since I was 12. I love their nightmare quality. I am very happy for both comparisons to be made. Of course because it is a virtually exclusively female cast, and set in a girls boarding school, women have an easier time identifying with the film, but I think there are strong links between childhood and the imagination, and the fairytale feel to the film explores memory in a manner I hope all in an audience can empathise with. My major influences are Bresson and Argento, and I also love Victor Erice, Franju, Tsukamoto…

CF – And you used Benoit Debie as DOP, who also did the cinematography for Irreversible… his images for Innocence are remarkable sensitive and emotional… and simple…

LH – That I employed Benoit after Irreversible was partly an accident. I had some money from Belgium, and needed some Belgian crew…and that led me to think of him! Benoit has a fantastic sense of colour, and a taste for black that is very unusual for a DOP, and which suits my style. He is very bold also – not at all afraid to use natural lighting. In fact we only really used lamps for the theatre scenes where Benoit really brought out the great oranges and purples of the interior. For me, Magritte was very much a visual reference. Working with the children also meant it was difficult to shoot at night and so we substituted night for day, and digitally graded the shots in post production. The artificial look is very dreamlike – a neverending dusk rather than night.

CF – Tell me about your collaboration with Gaspar Noe. Considering your vastly different contributions to date, some people may see this as almost contradictory…

LH – When I graduated film school in the early 90s I left with an ‘overall’ education and no special skills. I wasn’t ‘specifically’ a director, or a producer or an editor. In many ways this made things very difficult. Gaspar and I knew we wanted to make films, but we had no money to do this, so collaboration was a natural progression. We started a production company together, and Gaspar began work on Carne as a precursor to I Stand Alone. I became editor, simply because we could not afford anyone else! The success of Carne at film festivals meant Gaspar got the encouragement to start his feature…but he insisted on doing it ‘his’ way when everyone was trying to get him to make something ‘normal’ like an action movie. It was difficult because we could not get the money, and at the same time Gaspar was helping me work on my short film as camera operator (Mimi also called La Bouche de Jean Pierre). We were shooting I Stand Alone at weekends and it looked like it was not going to get competed… when Agnes B stepped in with the money needed to finish it. It ended up taking 4 years to make that. So things were initially very difficult. Collaboration was a way of helping each other produce when we could not afford to do so.

CF – But you each worked independently on your features (Irreversible and Innocence)?

LH – Yes. With these films we had sufficient production funds to develop our own projects and it was nice to finally be able to do that. Gaspar still gave me a lot of input- advice, help, for Innocence (the film is dedicated to Noe), but he had no official role in production.

CF – And your relationship to France? And the film Industry here? I heard you had difficulties funding the film…

LH – It took 2 years to get funding. There is simply not enough money to go around in France, plus people were afraid of the script, that it was ‘too original’, and being predominantly children meant they couldn’t get famous actors in – which of course everyone feels now makes a film. TV has a lot of input in France and the lack of famous actors, and the inability to categorise the film contributed to their lack of interest. In the end, the Japanese really understood the story and helped out, as did Agnes B, and Belgium and the UK film council. The film does have an existence outside of France however, and I am happy about that. There is a ‘scene’ to filmmaking in France. We do all know each other, and help each other, and then of course, cross each other too…

CF – And what are your plans next?

LH – I have just started working on a script for ‘un film fantastique’ (we discussed the translation and decided it means something between horror and fantasy). I love writing, but would be interested in working with someone else too. Also, I will have to make a decision at some stage as to whether this will be in French again, or in English. There are different advantages and disadvantages to both. If I do an English language film for example, I won’t be able to get the same support from France, but maybe more interest from abroad… we will see… I don’t know if it is the same elsewhere, but in France you cannot really direct without being able to produce your own script, and so the writing is a very important part of my work. Interview by Claire Fowler