The Innocents

Retracing history and probing iconography and assumptions, Anne Fontaine's convent-set drama steps beyond the monochrome.
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It’s easy to tell a nun-centric narrative in black and white. The distinctive tones that adorn their rigid habits provide an instant colour palette, and their lives of religious devotion appear to leave little room for variation. Taking its tale from real-life circumstances at the end of the Second World War, the Polish- and 1945-set The Innocents (Les innocentes) can’t brighten stark outfits or change a specific type of existence, but it can throw up the splashes of red that represent the blood pulsing behind their faith-fuelled plights, and couch their exploits in shades of grey and – eventually – even warmth.

Indeed, writer/director Anne Fontaine (Gemma Bovery) steps beyond the monochrome in several ways. Her opening shot might show habit-wearing women walking dutifully towards chapel, with their turned backs offering a sea of darkness peppered with one sole light veil – but, as prominent as their clothing remains throughout the film that follows, everything else within her frames paints a picture between black and white extremes. So too does her narrative, as the central group of nuns are forced to confront the space between the beliefs they’ve pledged to live their lives by and the reality thrust upon them in a time marked by conflict.

When French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge, The Wait) comes across the Benedictine cohort courtesy of an urgent plea for help by one of their number, she’s dismissive. Looking past her initial impressions and original instructions that they seek local medical advice – her job is to care for wounded military men, not ill villagers – she comes to understand their unusual predicament. Seven of their number are pregnant, a scenario they’re physically, emotionally, and spiritually ill-equipped to handle as libidinous Soviet soldiers and the need to keep their state a secret from the rest of the community tests more than just their dedication. 

Inspired by the experiences of doctor and French Resistance member Madeleine Pauliac, and turned into a screenplay by Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer (Valentin Valentin), Sabrina B. Karine (French TV’s Call My Agent!) and Alice Vial (Five) based on a concept by Pauliac’s nephew Philippe Maynial, The Innocents first demands attention as a portrait of contrasts: women who aren’t supposed to be mothers, life wrought from trauma, and a place of solace placed under attack all offer juxtapositions as potent as its introductory visuals. As it unpacks each – in the same manner that cinematographer Caroline Champetier (Looking for Her) lets shadows sprawl across her images, even when they’re filled with white snow and dark trees in a clear display of symbolism – the film becomes a study in fortitude and endurance; it takes mettle to commit to the convent, and also to reaffirm that connection in the face of unease at best and tragedy at worst. 

Accordingly, The Innocents may be understandably solemn in mood and sober in approach, but it’s illuminating in probing the minutiae of resilience amidst the unexpected and the horrific. Fontaine’s cast – which is commandingly led by the understated de Laâge, and also includes Agata Buzek (11 Minutes) and Agata Kulesza (These Daughters of Mine) as a sympathetic member and stern Mother Superior respectively, as well as Vincent Macaigne (Two Friends) as a fellow physician – convey the weight of their characters’ troubles and struggles with an air that favours texture and truth over simplicity. Of course, from the moment it proposes to peer past the iconography, assumptions, and engrained ideas associated with the nun’s habit, that’s the film’s chosen path; here, nothing but the obvious is black and white, despite a much-too-neat ending.


Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5


The Innocents (Les innocentes)

Director: Anne Fontaine

France | Poland, 2016, 115 mins

Release date: April 27

Distributor: Rialto

Rated: M

Sarah Ward
About the Author
Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay