Lucile Hadzihalilovic 2004 Debut Innocence, Ecofeminist Critique and the Feminine Uncanny

Quite astonishingly not many reviews of French female director Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s 2004 eerie fable Innocence are available on the Internet, but the few ones that I recently came across share a lack of theoretical and critical understanding of the film, which in my view devalues Hadzihalilovic’s psychological horror and its filmic and poetic critique to the restrictions of female childhood in our contemporary society.[1][2][3][4]

In fact, in the timeless and delicate dimension of Innocence, we follow the upbringing of young Iris (Zoé Auclair) in an all-female boarding school set in the middle of a nameless woods, surrounded by a thick majestic separating wall that keeps the girls and their mistresses away from civilization. The threatening tone of the film is established since the outset when Iris, a petite graceful girl, is brought to the school in a coffin carried by what seems some underground train wagon and alien muffled industrial sounds that mark the narrative throughout. In this regards, the film offers a reflection on the complex relation between the environment and the figure of the female children, the uncanniness of the horror genre and of the stifling oppression exercised onto young girls to embody gendered behaviour that responds to certain social expectations.

In her essay, ecofeminist Carolyn Merchant identifies a conception of nature that was, and still is, deeply rooted in Western society by stating that it embodies the figure of a ‘nurturing mother: a kindly beneficent female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe,’ but that it also represents natural disasters and chaos.[5] A benign and maleficent nature are both ‘identified with the female sex and were projections of human perceptions onto the external world.’[6] By framing my discussion of female childhood within ecofeminist practices according to which nature is arguably identifiable as female and its oppression as inherently masculine, I wish to highlight that Innocence and its cinematographic trappings spur the viewer to question not only its disturbingly all-female environment, but perhaps more importantly, the role of the genre horror and its uncanny tone to cast a social commentary on the fear and anxieties surrounding the restrictions and boundaries imposed onto the female child in contemporary society.

 

Figure1Figure 1: Soon after she arrives at the boarding school, Iris is taught how to swim in one of the most light-hearted scenes in the film. The cheerfulness of a sunny day and the safety and entertainment offered by the water seem to respond to Iris’ happiness.

 

Merchant’s ecofeminist approach can be argued about as a process of humanisation of the natural environment, which stands for the foundational idea that nature is a cultural construct that can take extremely different forms.[7] Here, nature is female as far as it is a nurturing entity and, at the same time, it is extremely dangerous, but ultimately it reflects the film characters’ state of mind, anxieties and sheer cheerfulness alike. For example, water and idyllic streams take symbolic meaning throughout the narrative. As soon as Iris lands on the boarding school and in one of the most cheerful scenes in the film she learns how to swim in a close-by stream on an extremely sunny bright day (Figure 1). The extremely vivid colours of the surrounding greenery, the brightness of the sun hitting the surface of the water mirrors the girls’ sheer joy given by their playfulness and recurrent smiles. If here Iris and the other pupils play with the surrounding environment and in particular with water, later in the film, torrential rain strikes the woods and Iris’ close friend Laura (Olga Peytavi-Müller) will drown in an attempt to escape the school in a boat, highlighting the girls’ anxiety due to external oppression that never leaves the spectator (Figure 2).

 

Figure2.png

Figure 2: While trying to escape on a boat, young Laura (Olga Peytavi-Müller) drowns while torrential rain strikes. In this case and in contrast with Figure 1, the environment is threatening and seems to mirror the girls’ sense of the uknown and lack of agency.

 

 If, as Merchant points out, the Scientific Revolution disrupted the notion of nature as nurturing mother, and if nature as female chaotic entity pushed the human to suppress nature’s independence and disruptive drive by submitting it and overpowering it, in this discussion patriarchal discourses of power and female submission seem to be at play.[8] In this sense, in the foreworld of Ecofeminism, Ariel Salleh suggests that ‘[w]ith ecofeminism, the political focus turns outwards. Its first premise is that the “material” resourcing of women and of nature are structurally interconnected in the patriarchal system,’ suggesting that Hadzihalilovic acknowledges the relevance of the dichotomy woman-nature in critical studies and its use to critique the patriarchal oppression women are exposed to.[9] By constantly reminding us about the close link between the boarding school’s girls and the natural environment surrounding them, highlighted by the lack of technological devices (apart from eerie lamps attached to majestic trees in the middle of the woods) and thus influence of the media, Hadzihalilovic seems to cast a subtle but poignant commentary on femininity as a social construct that requires a learning process that is rooted in institutionalised education.

Moreover, Innocence’s uncertain position of the environment as a conflictingly dark and light, safe and disturbing, innocent and knowing entity reflects both the idea of nature as a ‘matrix of possibilities’ and the horror genre’s uncanny tone and its role as discussed by Barbara Creed in ‘Phallic Panic’.[10] While challenging Sigmund Freud’s notion of the uncanny that dates 1919, Creed suggests that the uncanny does not only refer to a feeling of ‘fear, unease, disquiet and gloom,’ but it also refers to anything that is old and familiar, creating a link between familiar and unfamiliar, safe and unsafe, known and unknown (see Freud and Creed’s discussion on the word ambiguous word Heimlich).[11][12]. In Innocence, nature is benevolent and hostile exactly like Heimlich (the uncanny) can ambivalently signify homely/unhomely, clear/obscure, knowable/unknowable, mirroring the multi-faceted complex representations of nature in cultural artifacts that stir different and often opposite emotion within the viewer. In this regard, the concept of nature is tackled as to cast social commentary on the figure of the female child within modern civilization and the anxieties and fears that children, as much as adults, experience in familiar everyday routines as a shadow that weights on the individual’s shoulders that can be reducible to rustic stale masculinity-femininity dichotomies of power.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s 2004 Innocence presents a complex slow narrative that haunts its viewer since the very beginning. In its engagement with both an inviting and threatening humanised nature, it actively comments on the human fear of the unknown that appears to be strictly linked to oppressive femininity and its limitations that women are, in the film’s dimension, pushed to abide by at a very early stage in life. The social commentary is strengthened by the almost complete lack of male characters throughout the narrative. In fact, only by the end of the film the oldest students are brought out of the stifling walls of the boarding school and they encounter male boys. In the engrossing fathomless final scene, one of the rescued girls encounters a boy of her age around a fountain, and for the first time in the film the camera scrutinizes the girl’s face and complexion from the boy’s perspective. In this sense, the girls seem to be preparing all their childhood for that supposedly defining encounter with the figure of the man, but the characters’ relentless wish to escape the oppressive dynamics of the boarding school suggests a possible alternative to that dimension, leaving the spectator curious and engaged until the very end of the film.

 

 

[1] WH, ‘Innocence’, Time Out. https://www.timeout.com/london/film/innocence-2004

[2] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Innocence’, The Guardian, 30 September 2005. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2005/sep/30/1

[3] Nick Schager, ‘Innocence’, Slant Magazine, 13 October 2005. http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/innocence

[4] Anton Bitel, ‘Innocence’, Eye for Film, 30 September 2005. http://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/review/innocence-film-review-by-anton-bitel

[5] Carolyn Merchant, ‘Nature as Female’, in Ecocritcism: The Essential reader’, ed. by Ken Hiltner (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), pp.10-34 (p.10).

[6] Carolyn Merchant, ‘Nature as Female’, in Ecocritcism: The Essential reader’, ed. by Ken Hiltner (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), pp.10-34 (p.10).

[7] William Cronon, ‘Introduction: In Search of Nature’, in Uncommon Ground: rethinking the human place in nature (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1995). pp.23-56 (p.35, p.24).

[8] Carolyn Merchant, ‘Nature as Female’, in Ecocritcism: The Essential reader’, ed. by Ken Hiltner (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), pp.10-34 (p.10).

[9] Ariel Salleh, ‘Foreorld’, in Ecofeminism, ed. by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva (London: Zed Books Ltd, 2014), pp IX-XII (p.XI).

[10] Gillian Beer, ‘Introduction’, in Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenthcentury Fiction’, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp.1-21 (p.18).

[11]Barbara Creed, ‘Film, Horror and the Primal Uncanny’, in Phallic Panic (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005), pp.1-26 (p.1, p.4).

[12] Barbara Creed, p3, p4.

The Green Inferno: Nature Stewardship, Postmodern Horror and Green Torture Porn

Eli Roth’s 2013 cinematic effort The Green Inferno has been widely described as a ‘gleefully offensive cannibalistic torture off,’ as a ‘deeply hate xenophobic fantasy’ and, quite fancily, as a ‘vegan cannibal movie,’ while referring to the horrors and real sufferings of animals that featured in Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 cannibal craze Cannibal Holocaust.[1][2][3][4] In an era when the shock factor in films have been transforming significantly and as visual and economic exploitation of violence, gore and human disaffection became the norm in mainstream horror cinema, the Inferno still managed to spark blunt, sharp-tongued criticism in mainstream media outlets. While most of its reviews focus on the guts-wrenching gore that keeps viewers on the edge of their seat throughout the film and the disgust it provokes, I will frame my discussion of the film in ecocritical terms, as a postmodern cultural artifact that casts sharp critiques to the way Western understanding of environment and human ‘stewardship’ are deeply entwined with discourses of power, economic gain and consumption as a ‘mode of being’, as Madan Sarup puts it in his discussion of Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern theories.[5]

Figure 1.png

Figure 1: A group of students chain themselves to trees in the Amazon to stop brutal deforestation by an unethical corporation that uses militia to prevent activists and natives alike to stop bulldozing trees. Our students/activists will not last long.

 

The Green Inferno presents a brooding narrative. The first half of the film sets the narrative foundations to allow it to take off in the gory-driven second part, thus letting context and scope to sink in in the viewers’ mind that is restlessly waiting for the blood to hit the screen. The film follows college freshman Justine (Lorenza Izzo) as she, together with her dismissive, sarcastic and cynical roommate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira) attend a lecture on female genital mutilation across the world and, thunder-struck by her and her friends’ disheartening ignorance in regards to human rights, embarks on a journey to the Amazon, Peru, led by the handsome activist Alejandro (Ariel Levy). The trip’s cause is the deforestation of the Amazon manned by some evil corporation that aims to destroy the Amazon for financial gain, while killing the natives that live in harmony with the jungle. Aided with courage and thirst for adventure, Justine, Alejandro and a whole team of young listless students envision to chain themselves to the soon-to-be-bulldozed trees while recording and online streaming in real time the horrible unethical deeds of the corporation workers in the Amazon (Figure 1). While they succeed in their endeavour, the plane that was supposed to take them back home crashes in the jungle and the student cohort end up literally being eaten alive by some cannibal tribe that, ironically, they set out to defend in the first place. Amid ridiculously gory moments and smart deadpan puns exchanged in the least expected of situations, Roth’s Inferno fiercely critiques contemporary social engagement and green activism, by actively engaging with the Christianity-rooted concept of stewardship in an unlikely terrific narrative.

According to John Barry, ‘many of the environmental and social problems that we see around the world today […] may have to do with the prominence of a particular Western way of thinking about and interacting with the environment.’[6] In this sense, the student cohort that naively attempts to save the Amazon represents that deeply Christian concept of nature stewardship according to which ‘the natural environment was ”God’s creation”,’ in which ‘[m]an… is sent to earth by God “to administer earthly things”, to care for them in God’s name.’[7]  One of the Western views of nature and man is that one based on human supremacy, exploitation and responsibility. Insofar as Christianity is concerned, people are invested with the duty to manage or, alternatively, exploit the natural environment in someone else’s frail name to mask one’s personal interest, which, according to Eli Roth, lies in generating money.

 If the corporation’s deeds against the environment and the natives represent the threat of modern civilization towards nature, they ambivalently embody contemporary society’s main discourse of technological and scientific mastery that more often than not damages the natural environment in order to make life easier to its human inhabitants. In fact, Justine and the other young activists seem to resist this narrative of exploitation, but end up reinforcing it when we discover that their leader Alejandro had a monetary agreement with the militia and corporation’s workers to exploit the media to fake the end of their activities, while keeping them in secrecy from that moment on. In Ruth Hines view, money is what kills nature, what makes it a commodity that we, as humans try to get rid of to generate even more money.[8] In this case, the students’ sense of stewardship is shattered by Alejandro’s bias and financial interests, making the expedition a failure in morality and, above all, a fierce critique of Christian stewardship and people’s ignorance. In fact, all the students except for Justine will be punished and fall victims of a local cannibal tribe. Hines’ heartfelt discussion of the dichotomy finance – physical destruction and replacement of natural elements weaves in Jean Baudrillard’s idea that contemporary social discourses push the individual to consume in order to ‘gain identity, meaning and prestige.’[9] Comsumerism is the foundation of our postmodern society and Eli Roth manages to embody its devastating effects on the natural environment, but fails to offer a solution while focussing on ensuring shocking bloody sequences and highlighting the characters’ lack of real interest in green activism.

In the discussion about postmodern horror and its founding principles, Jody Keisner suggests that this kind of cinema exposes the viewer to situations that push him/her/it to question the very reality of the film.[10] In The Green Inferno, the characters’ attention seems to be utterly drawn by the self, by their own image and what the others might think of themselves by repeatedly putting their individuality at the centre of attention. For example, after having spotted a panther basking under the sun on the edges of a river, queer character Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) remarks that that image is going to be her next tattoo, instead of actually enjoying the moment. Later in the film and during the students’ imprisonment, Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) is offered meat to eat by the tribe and she states that she cannot feed herself on meat because she is a vegan. Once she decides that eating is the sensible thing to do in such extreme situation, she discovers that that food is in reality her girlfriend’s human meat (Samantha’s) and she slits her throat open. In this regards, the viewer is pushed to question the very intention of a group of extremely self-centred narcissistic young individuals that embark on a journey to allegedly save the Amazon, but that ultimately are too concerned with their own sense of identity to even save each other when in need.

Figure 2.png

Figure 2: Gabrielle concept of Torture Porn is a recurrent theme in Eli Roth’s films. Here, the viewer watches in disbelief while the natives strip naked, touch and tackled the characters’ bodies in socially unacceptable ways.

 The reality of the Inferno’s naïve characters seems fictitious and frivolous, embodying Baudrillard’s reflection on the impossibility ‘to distinguish between the spectacle and the real’ in our media and image- saturated society.[11] By not taking seriously the characters’ willingness to contributing to save the Amazon, by being flipped out by the cannibal tribe’s sickening violence and thus by not sympathising with neither of them, the viewer’s sense of reality quivers and ultimately forgets about the threat cast to the Amazon, making it a mere McGuffin for green torture porn that exists to shock, disturb and numb one’s senses of what is real and not. In fact, while discussing the social impact of Eli Roth’s Box Office darling  Hostel[12] (2005) and Hostel: Part II[13] (2007), Gabrielle Murray mentions that the term ‘torture porn’ that have been attached to the Hostel franchise by reviewers, refers to ‘obscene or unchaste subjects,’ that are ‘unacceptable and illegal, that appeal to individuals that are looking to be thrilled and re-connected to the experience of the present moment, brought ‘back to the body’. Quite reassuringly, this kind of films create a safe environment to experiment with those anxieties and fears attached to the unknown, the body, the abject (Figures 2 and 3).[14][15][16]

Figure 3.png

Figure 3: The Green Inferno and more generally horror film offer a safe way to explore fear, disgust and discover the human body while encouraging the viewer to experience the here-and-now. Here, a native is cooking an activist’s upper body.

If the bloody experiences of those unfortunately spoiled kids in The Green Inferno keep us stuck to our cinema seat leaving absolutely no time for our brains to wander off, the reassuring certainty that what we are exposed to is fiction that exists to entertain its audiences then the fact that the Amazon is being destroyed and bulldozed down by money-blinded businesses appears secondary, fictionalised, brought to the extreme to allow the narrative to relentlessly shock. Unfortunately for us and more local tribes to come, the Amazon greenery is being exploited and burnt on a daily basis, with little scope for improvements because of deforestation and climate change factors, as Rhett Butler highlights here and David Adam mentions here.[17][18]

 

[1] Steve Rose, ‘The Green Inferno Review’, The Guardian, 24 September 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/24/the-green-inferno-review-gleefully-offensive-cannibal-torture-off [Accessed 01/04/2017]

[2] David Jenkins, ‘The Green Inferno’, Little White Lies, 12 February 2016. http://lwlies.com/reviews/the-green-inferno/ [Accessed 01/04/2017]

[3] David Jenkins, ‘The Green Inferno’.

[4] Cannibal Holocaust. Dir. by Ruggero Deodato. F.D Cinematografica. 1980. [DVD]

[5] Madam Sarup, ‘Baudrillard: Images and Identity in Consumer Society’, in Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), pp.105-119 (p.105).

[6] John Barry, ‘The Role of the Environment Historically within Social Theory’, in Environment and Social Theory (Abington: Routledge, 2007), pp. 31-50 (p. 32).

[7] John Barry, p.38.

[8] Ruth Hines, ‘On Valuing Nature’, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol 4.3, 1991, pp. 27-29 (p.28). [PRINTED]

[9] Madam Sarup, ‘Baudrillard: Images and Identity in Consumer Society’, in Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), pp.105-119 (p.105).

[10] Jody Keisner, ‘Do You Want to Watch? A Study of the Visual Rhetoric of the Postmodern Horror Film’, in Women’s Studies, 37.4, 2008, pp. 411-427 (p.416). http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00497870802050019 [Accessed 01/04/2017]

[11] Madam Sarup, ‘Baudrillard: Images and Identity in Consumer Society’, in Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), pp.105-119 (p.112).

[12] Hostel. Dir. by Eli Roth. Hostel LLC, International Production Company, Next Entertainment. 2005. [DVD]

[13] Hostel: Part II. Dir. by Eli Roth. Lionsgate, Screen Gems, Next Entertainment. 2007. [DVD]

[14] Gabrielle Murray, ‘Hostel II: Representations of the Body in Pain and the Cinema Experience in Torture Porn’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Review Media. No. 50., Pp1-3 (p.2). http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc50.2008/TortureHostel2/ [Accessed 20/03/2017]

[15] Murray, p.2.

[16] Murray, p.3.

[17] Rhett Buther, ‘Amazon Destruction’, Mongabay, 26 january 2017 (Last Updated). http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_destruction.html [Accessed 01/04/2017]

[18] David Adam, ‘Amazon Could Shrink by 85% Due to Climate Change, Scientists Say’, The Guardian, 11 March 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/mar/11/amazon-global-warming-trees [Accessed 01/04/2017]