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Haunting and imbued with a dreamy, meditative veneer
The final title, "for Gaspar" (Noe, director of IRREVERSIBLE), hints at the pedigree of the makers of this quite fascinating study of young girls on the cusp of adolescence.
Benoit Debie, the cinematographer of IRREVERSIBLE, shot the film.
Six year old Iris (Zoe Auclair) arrives at her new country school in a coffin. She becomes infatuated with twelve-year-old Bianca (Berangare Haubruge) who disappears each evening and returns in the morning. The girls spend most of their days studying ballet and preparing for an important exam.
The school is like a keep. The girls are encouraged to find happiness in obedience. Parents never visit. The world beyond its tall hedges exists like something within a dream.
Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic imbues every aspect of the film with a dreamy, meditative veneer. Shots of the pre-teen nymphs dancing, cartwheeling and splashing about in shallow water recall the grainy erotic imagery of David Hamilton's early feature films -- in particular, LAURA and BILITIS. The ballet sequences and striking compositions of solitary female figures in towering external landscapes owe a small debt to Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA and, to a lesser extent, his PHENOMENA. But this is not a deliberate softcore meditation on childhood sexuality. It is a metaphorical examination of how innocence is ruptured by its own curiosity.
The camera angles stress the importance and prominence of legs to a fetishistic degree. This focus is an organic extension of the girls' ballet training; a darker purpose for legs is indicated later in a chilling line of dialogue. Debie's cinematography emphasizes light and shade and is never pretty for its own sake.
The forest filled with lamps has a deliciously surreal, fairytale quality. The sequences where the girls dance for a faceless audience reminded me of one of MULHOLLAND DRIVE's most haunting sequences. The film's sound design also echoes the internal voids of the Lynchian world.
The film is not big on explanations and is a touch too slow at times, but it presents a thoroughly realized universe that is a stark metaphor for life's discoveries and disappointments. The performances possess perfect pitch and the tone remains both haunting and consistent.
What exactly is the film about? The girls may be in a purgatory of sorts, a resting place between life and death. Perhaps not. Perhaps they are in a holding pattern between childhood (innocence) and adulthood (a state requiring some loss of innocence), and when they manage to escape (succumbing to their pre-adolescent curiosity), they have forfeited their place in childhood forever. But only perhaps.
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