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).



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.

[2] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Innocence’, The Guardian, 30 September 2005.

[3] Nick Schager, ‘Innocence’, Slant Magazine, 13 October 2005.

[4] Anton Bitel, ‘Innocence’, Eye for Film, 30 September 2005.

[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.


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