"Surreal" is the most obvious tag to stick on Innocence, but then, the film features a cast of preadolescent girls, and being a kid is inherently surreal. The world is too big, adults control the clock, and waking hours are spent in a condition halfway between hyper and sleepy. Innocence adapts Frank Wedekind's 1888 symbolist novella Mine-Haha, Or The Corporal Education Of Young Girls, which takes place at a remote boarding school where every academic ritual is imbued with deep feminine meaning. First-time writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic doesn't skimp on the story's pageants and dance recitals, in which students put themselves on display for a faceless audience—presumably of men. But Innocence spends just as much time watching the girls at play, as they twirl ribbons, hide in dark rooms, look at ponies, invent games with complicated rules, and occasionally pick tall weeds out of the ground and whip each other red.
For about the first hour, Innocence looks like a beautifully shot behavioral documentary. It's remarkably similar in feel to Peter Brook's film adaptation of Lord Of The Flies, only without so much pig-killing. But there's a plot, of sorts. In between their charm classes and their gossip about what the teachers do at night, the girls talk about the annual selection, where one lucky "blue-ribbon" (a designation of maturity) gets to leave the grounds and go home with some nice, rich family. As the blue-ribbons prepare to be chosen, their instructors reminds them that they are "the most evolved" children on Earth, and that that must behave as such, because "Obedience is the only path to happiness."
The more overtly allegorical Innocence becomes, the duller it gets. There's some tension late in the film, as the "violet-ribbons" (who've just had their first period) make a long march through underground train tunnels to permanent exile. But for the most part, Hadzihalilovic strains when she tries to concoct visuals for Wedekind's pre-Freudian psycho-sexual analysis, and the movie suffers. Innocence is at its best when Hadzihalilovic lies back and lets the natural weirdness of kids' games carry the film's David Lynch-esque load. For tantalizingly long stretches, Innocence explicates the peculiar fugue state of childhood, where every sunbeam looks like the finger of God, and even the irrational makes perfect sense.