By Adam Ray Palmer
Today’s review is another foreign-language film I managed to catch at the Phoenix Leicester. The Phoenix rarely fails to deliver when a European movie comes to town.
This occasion it was Anne Fontaine’s powerful drama The Innocents starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza and Vincent Macaigne.
The Innocents is primarily a French film with Polish-spoken scenes occurring throughout.
Poland, winter of 1945. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Lâage) is a young intern working within a branch of the French Red Cross. They are on a mission to find, treat and repatriate French survivors of the German camps. One day, a Polish nun arrives in the hospital. In very poor French, she begs Mathilde to come to her convent. Mathilde’s life and beliefs change completely when she discovers the advanced state of pregnancy that affect several of the Sisters of the convent just outside the hospital where she performs.
The Innocents is a relatively straight-forward film. We have two plots running linear to each other for 90% of the runtime until they slowly entwine at the climax. We have on one hand, the Sisters who live in an isolated convent with several nuns pregnant after a torrid sexual act which was forced upon them by a gang of soldiers. On the other hand, we have a young doctor who decides to help the nuns but she runs risking her own life by making decisions she wouldn’t normally have to. She seems to be trapped in a world where she feels she can offer little, until she meets Sister Maria (Agata Kulesza).
The story is certainly powerful. Without even seeing the tragic rape scenes and the brutality by the soldiers, you cannot stay ‘untouched’ from what the Sisters had to endure. Even in a scene midway through the film, soldiers burst into the convent searching the premises and you get a glimpse of what it must have been like for them at the horrific time.
I’m always sceptical about minimalistic films though. I completely understand that at a convent, very little goes on apart from the Sisters going about their everyday duties and singing in the chapel. For a film, this isn’t the most entertaining to watch. However, what Fontaine creates is an atmosphere that makes the viewer feel trapped in this situation with the nuns. The movie is shot very personally and in your face with many expressional close-ups. It’s a very claustrophobic film with great use of pathetic fallacy. The chilly and cold weather sum up the feelings that the core protagonists have throughout. It all adds to this lonely and trapped essence of the movie.
The final plus-point is Lou de Lâage. She is tremendous as the leading lady. She is full of expression when words aren’t spoken; plus, she is extremely striking. She reminds me of a young Marion Cotillard. She is incredibly talented and I will be looking out for Lou in the future.
I enjoyed The Innocents but there’s a few side-plots that I would have liked to explore further. I would have looked more into Samuel’s and Mathilde’s relationship, delved a little deeper in the Sisters and soldiers’ pasts and perhaps considered the psychology behind the trauma. To me, the sexual attacks that occurred would be damming to any person but we don’t get to see the full effects on the nuns. The film seems to focus more on the pregnancies rather than how they got to be pregnant. Granted, this would have made for a very long film; but a better one nonetheless.
Overall, Anne’s powerful drama delivers on what it sets out to do. It is haunting and it does leave you thinking long after the credits roll. I’d recommend catching this before Lou de Laâge becomes a household name, and then you can say you were there from the start!
Cineroom’s Rating: 3.5 Stars
The Innocents will be available on DVD early next year – certificate 15