The victims of war are not all to be found on the battlefields or in the cities. The Innocents depicts those who must deal with the consequences of war passing over, or through, their community, and the inspiring and terrible acts that occur in its wake. It’s a harrowing story told with a steady gaze and unwavering commitment – a balance which, perhaps, ultimately does a disservice to the ragged and roiling events churning beneath its composed sheen.
Growing up, a familiar refrain would accompany a great many of the films we watched as a family: my mother’s cry of “she would never look like that after all that!” Whenever a woman would emerge from some terrible ordeal – fighting an axe-murderer, say, or engaging in a protracted gunfight or appearing in a Simon West film – with perfectly coiffured hair and makeup intact, derision would swiftly follow.
I have something of a similar problem with The Innocents. Aside from the fact that no one looks as good as Lou de Laâge does here after months tending to the sick and wounded on the Eastern Front, the film as a whole just seems too smooth and too well put together for its subject matter.
And the subject matter is one which demands the most sensitive of touches. A Polish nun (Sister Maria, played by Agata Buzek) approaches Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) to ask her to help a sick nun back at her convent. It swiftly emerges that the nun is pregnant, as are many of the others, following a forced occupation of the convent by a group of Soviet soldiers some months prior. Mathilde quickly finds herself treating a dozen nuns, while battling PTSD and Catholic guilt to try and help them.
Fontaine is a smart enough filmmaker to know when to leave things unsaid, an especially valuable talent in a story like this. “They stayed for days” is the only comment or detail we get about the occupation of the convent by the Russians, and it’s plenty. Unfortunately that faith in the intelligence and empathy of the audience is often conspicuous in its absence.
Mathilde, despite her bouts of moody brandy-sipping in cavern bars in her time off, swiftly becomes little more than an angel of mercy for these nuns. Part of the problem is the very visceral intensity of Fontaine’s central story; the emotional trials and tribulations of a pretty French girl are bound to be subsumed by the unimaginable trauma of the driving event.
While Fontaine may know when to hold back in the narrative, the technique of the film isn’t equal to its subject. The use of sharp digital film is interesting at first, put to good use as the black habits of the nuns flutter against snow and leaves silhouetting themselves against a frigid sky in the surrounding forest. But this crispness and detail soon turn against the film: just when it’s calling for warmth and engagement, when we would expect to see a chapel softly lit with filtered daylight or a makeshift hospital cluttered with dark and dirt, everything is as discernible as if floodlit.
This misstep is most clearly evident when placed against the film’s score. As delicate and minimal as falling snow, it comes to the fore in scenes where the nuns are gathered in the chapel to sing hymns; sweet and lovely, they have a humanity which is too often frightened away by an overly intense and relentless camera.
If this directorial intensity is indicative of a fundamental lack of trust in the actors, it’s misplaced. de Laâge handles her character’s lacings of ennui and resigned determination with aplomb, demonstrating that her impressive turn in Melanie Laurent’s Breathe was no flash in the pan. Also of note is Agata Kulesza as the emotionally tortured Mother Superior, and Vincent Mangaine as the gruff doctor nursing a schoolboy crush on Mathilde.
All this, along with a strong supporting cast and a script which manages to hold the balance between humour and pathos fairly well (at least until a wholly unnecessary sickly-sweet ending), just about saves the film from itself. It’s a generally well-executed picture with some notable highlights and a story very much worth telling. But it’s difficult to shake the sense that there’s a great film somewhere in the shadows of this acceptable one and, as the detritus of suffering fades from the screen, one imagines what could have been. 3/5