French filmmaker Lucile Hadžihalilović came to prominence in the 1990s, working simultaneously as a director, editor, writer, producer, and actress. Her methods of filmmaking do not ascribe to a typical view of cinema, once stating that “what I like in cinema is being lost. I like films I don’t completely understand, so they stay with me longer after they’re over”. Her frequent collaborations with her husband, the visionary yet controversial director Gaspar Noé, known for films such as Enter the Void, Irreversible, and Climax, furthered her career as a filmmaker and the pair even formed a production company together called Les Cinémas de la Zone in 1991.
After graduating from university, Hadžihalilović began working with Noé, editing his first short film Carné in 1991, and its sequel I Stand Alone in 1998. However, by 1996, Hadžihalilović had released her first short film, entitled La Bouche de Jean-Pierre. The film worked as a collaboration between the pair, with Noé taking on the role of cinematographer, resulting in an almost nauseatingly lurid colour palette that perfectly matched the gross nature of the film’s themes.
La Bouche de Jean-Pierre follows a young girl, Mimi, whose mother attempts suicide, leaving the child to go live with her aunt and her boyfriend Jean-Pierre. Mimi is subjected to the paedophilic gaze of Jean-Pierre, in a short but impactful debut that MUBI perfectly describes as “resound[ing] with empathy for the lost children of an apathetic world”.
Despite being only 52 minutes in length, Hadžihalilović establishes an unconventional portrayal of childhood that she frequents in her future projects. After releasing a short film called Good Boys Use Condoms, which promotes exactly what the title suggests, Hadžihalilović released her first feature-length film, the two-hour mystery drama Innocence, in 2004. Starring a young Marion Cotillard, and inspired by the 1903 novella Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls by Frank Wedekind, the film won the filmmaker the Stockholm International Film Festival Bronze Horse award for best film, the first woman to ever achieve this accolade.
Innocence is an eerie and dream-like tale of young girls who are delivered in coffins to an all-female boarding school, where they are taught ballet and clothed in all white – an unsettling attempt to remain untainted by the outside world. Much of the film is left unexplained, and its brutal depiction of girls bred to be obedient and pure is at times hard to piece together. But as Hadžihalilović states, “I believe everyone can find their own stories within the film.”
Innocence moves with an almost horror-like sensibility, its haunting score and digitally enhanced, non-realistic colour palette, paired with the shots of expansive wooded areas in which some of the older girls unexplainably retreat at night, creates an overarching sense of mystery and uncertainty. There is an underlying sinisterism to Innocence that bubbles and lingers beneath the surface of the rushing water that opens and closes the film, making it one of the most innovative and interesting portrayals of girlhood of the past 20 years.
After the release of another short film – Nectar – Hadžihalilović released her second feature length film in 2015, entitled Evolution. Focusing yet again on childhood, the film focuses on an 11-year-old boy called Nicholas who lives by the sea with his mother. After exhibiting some strangely violent behaviour following the discovery of a dead body in the ocean, he is sent to the local hospital where he is subjected to a series of operations. There he discovers more boys that are being operated on, all in an attempt to halt the natural process of evolution. Just like Innocence, Evolution possesses a similar creepy and unnerving tone that permeates throughout, and explores themes of child abuse, harking back to La Bouche de Jean-Pierre.
The cinematography of Evolution is striking, just like Innocence, proving that Hadžihalilović’s eye for depicting natural imagery is unparalleled. She frequently connects childhood, innocence, and growth with images of the natural world, whether that be thick forestry or absolutely breathtaking underwater shots. Hadžihalilović has the ability to say so much through images of nature, representing untainted, pure landscapes that mirror the desires of her adult characters to be separate from capitalist, man-made cities, instead dwelling away from society in their own twisted fantasy worlds.
Her most recent release, Earwig, her first English-language feature, starring The End of the Fucking World star Alex Lawther, has been described by the Guardian as “a dark shiver of sadness”. Focusing partly on body horror this time around, Hadžihalilović explores the obedience of a young girl who is fitted with dentures made of ice every day and wears a strange contraption that collects her melting drool in capsules on each side of her mouth.
Shot as beautifully as always, Earwig is unsettling and uncertain, and like Innocence, the motivations behind events are never fully explained. However, despite its gorgeous cinematography, many critics have described the film as claustrophobic, foggy, and cold. Earwig may have been less of a success compared to the director’s other films, but one thing is for certain, Hadžihalilović’s strange artistic visions attest to the true meaning of cinema – to push boundaries whilst remaining authentic, and to create films that leave a lasting impact on the audience.