Lucile Hadžihalilović in Melbourne

Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Innocence (2004)

The weekend has brought us another bountiful issue of Senses of Cinema. This one, #102, features articles on Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, and Pedro Costa as well as festival reports that offer more than a string of capsule reviews. See, for example, Bérénice Reynaud on Sundance, Marco Abel on Berlin, and Daniel Fairfax on Cannes. Fairfax also remembers critic, theorist, and filmmaker Jean-Louis Comolli, a coeditor of Cahiers du cinéma during its radical, post-May ’68 years, and Emmanuel Bonin bids farewell to Trafic, the influential journal cofounded thirty years ago by Serge Daney and Jean-Claude Biette.

The centerpiece of the new issue is a pair of interlocking dossiers. Reminding us that the Melbourne International Film Festival is “the largest and longest surviving film festival in the southern hemisphere,” Wendy Haslem has put together a collection of pieces on some of the highlights of the seventieth edition, which is currently running through August 21. MIFF 2022 is presenting two retrospectives, one dedicated to trailblazing Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros, and another to Lucile Hadžihalilović, the focus of the other Senses dossier.

Over the past three decades, the French writer, producer, and editor has directed a handful of shorts and—if we’re counting the fifty-two-minute La bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996)—four features. “I say that my films are very much autobiographical,” Hadžihalilović tells dossier editors John Edmond and Alison Taylor, “and people laugh at that, but in fact it’s true.” In the 1950s, her Bosnian father, a physician, left what was then Yugoslavia for Morocco, where he met and married a French doctor. In 1961, her parents made a quick jaunt to Lyon so that Lucile could be born a French citizen.

An avid reader and moviegoer, Hadžihalilović spent most of her childhood in Casablanca, but there was a crucial three-year interruption. For the sake of her mother’s health, the family relocated to the low mountains of eastern France when Lucile was seven, and they didn’t return to Morocco until she was ten. “We lived in a little village surrounded by woods, so you can guess that maybe Innocence appears there,” she says.

“When it comes to the work of Lucile Hadžihalilović, there is an after Innocence (2004) and a before it,” writes Beatrice Loayza. “Those films that come ‘after,’ like Evolution (2015) and Earwig (2021), seem to exist in the same surreal constellation. Each is set in an alternate universe dictated by a quietly nefarious and inaccessible logic; and each explores a cloistered, or ritualized, existence in tension with a sensuous encounter that unshackles the protagonists’ perception of reality, opening the floodgates to new kinds of pleasures and pains. But before Hadžihalilović settled into this explicitly fantastical mode, she had her foot in a kind of social realism with La bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996).”

Hadžihalilović studied art history before enrolling in the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies, which changed its name to La Fémis in 1986, the year she graduated. While her fellow students were watching films by Maurice Pialat and Eric Rohmer, she found herself gravitating more toward “Dario Argento, giallo, and horror films.” Hadžihalilović and a student from the Louis-Lumière film school she’d met on the set of a short film, Gaspar Noé, cofounded Les Cinémas de la Zone, an informal collective that officially became a production company in 1991. The name references not only the Zone of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) but also the outlying multicultural spaces surrounding Paris that Hadžihalilović and Noé, an immigrant from Argentina, were drawn to.

Hadžihalilović and Noé’s “multi-modal trajectory—with some echoes of Georges Franju, Agnès Varda, and Chris Marker before them—manifested in media of all running lengths, from nonfiction miniatures, to highly stylized commercials, carefully conceived music videos and assertive longer fictions,” writes Tim Palmer. Hadžihalilović edited Noé’s 1991 short, Carne, the story of a butcher that continues in his 1998 feature I Stand Alone, which they both produced and edited together.

In La bouche de Jean-Pierre, ten-year-old Mimi is sent to live with her aunt after her mother attempts suicide. The aunt’s boyfriend, Jean-Pierre, abuses the middle-aged woman and then makes a move on Mimi as well. Following her mother’s example, the girl swallows a handful of pills, “which reads less as a conscious act of suicide than one of naïve escapism,” as Loayza points out.

Inspired by Frank Wedekind’s 1903 novella Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, Innocence is set at a boarding school where new students arrive in coffins. In Evolution, grown women care for young boys in a secluded community on a rocky coast. “An implacable, at times sinister unknowability . . . nourishes Hadžihalilović’s child-centric spaces,” writes Palmer. Janice Loreck notes that Hadžihalilović has suggested that “her filmmaking method is akin to ‘pinning butterflies in a box.’ Her self-description conveys a meticulousness of staging and composition as well as a taxonomical ordering of chaotic onscreen subjects. It also triggers a variety of images and associations—the natural, the minuscule, fragility, stasis, metamorphosis, and death—all identifiable elements of her authorial signature.”

As noted a couple of weeks ago, Brian Catling couldn’t be more pleased with Hadžihalilović’s adaptation of his 2019 novel Earwig, the story of a middle-aged man caring for a young girl whose frozen teeth must be replaced daily. “You could spend your life exploring its dream logic without arriving at a definitive destination,” writes Anne Bilson. “Earwig encapsulates Ingmar Bergman’s observation that ‘No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.’”

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