Based on an obscure 19th-century symbolist novella by Frank Wedekind — the German dramatist whose cycle of "Lulu" plays served as the basis for G.W. Pabst's classic PANDORA'S BOX — Lucile Hadzihalilovic's haunting feature is an uncanny allegory of female adolescence. Like the dank, dark tunnels that run below the idyllic park in which it's set, there's...read more
Based on an obscure 19th-century symbolist novella by Frank Wedekind — the German dramatist whose cycle of "Lulu" plays served as the basis for G.W. Pabst's classic PANDORA'S BOX — Lucile Hadzihalilovic's haunting feature is an uncanny allegory of female adolescence. Like the dank, dark tunnels that run below the idyllic park in which it's set, there's a sinister undercurrent to life at a school for prepubescent girls. Iris (Zoe Auclair) arrives at the school in a locked coffin, as all new students do, emerging like a butterfly when she reaches her new home. After being introduced to the four older girls with whom she'll be living — each of the school's five houses is home to five girls ranging in age from 6 to 12 — Iris is given the red hair ribbons that indicate her status as the youngest in the group. The oldest, Bianca (Berangere Haubruge), now assumes the violet ribbons recently worn by Natascha before her mysterious departure. At first, Iris is homesick and misses her little brother; after being told the school is now her new home and that she mustn't expect to see her family ever again, Iris attaches herself to Bianca and begins settling into the school's rigidly scheduled life. Iris is attended to by a staff of elderly women who are punished if they don't do exactly as they're told. The other girls teach her to swim in the nearby stream. She attends classes taught by pretty Mme. Edith (Helene de Fougerolles) and dance lessons given by Mme. Eva (Marion Cotillard), whom, it's whispered, was crippled years earlier when she tried to escape from the school. Mme. Eva, it seems, is one of the lucky ones: Other girls who dare stray from the well-lit paths and attempt to scale the stone wall that surrounds the park are never seen or spoken of again. Iris is nevertheless relatively happy, though troubled by Bianca's nightly disappearances. Unable to stifle her curiosity, Iris slips out and follows Bianca to the main house, only to be confounded by an even greater mystery lurking behind its doors. Hadzihalilovic's creepy first feature vaguely resembles Dario Argento's girls-school screamer SUSPIRIA (1977) reimagined by "outsider" artist Henry Darger, who populated his fantasy worlds with prepubescent girls often clad only in their undies. The unavoidable comparison, however, is with Peter Weir's puzzling PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975). Like Weir, Hadzihalilovic succeeds brilliantly at crafting a meaningful enigma that somehow grasps the essence of adolescence, but only grows more mysterious with each revelation.
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