We know what black comedy is but I wonder whether some stories don’t call for another colour. Pale grey, for example, might be about right for Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (2014), a stately, not obviously funny film in which an English woman stumbles into Flaubert’s plot and dies not deliberately by arsenic poisoning but accidentally by swallowing, or rather failing to swallow, a chunk of baguette. I am still trying to think of the colour that would suit Fontaine’s new film, The Innocents. Not to be confused with The Innocents (1987), directed by André Techiné or The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton.
The sensible move, of course, would be not to regard it as a comedy at all, and then the colour wouldn’t matter. And how could it be a comedy, since it concerns the rape and pregnancy of seven nuns in a convent in Poland in 1945, and the activities of the French medical student who helps them? The sensible move is largely the right one, no doubt – the only question is what it misses.
We can’t miss the horror of the story, which has both violent and delicate forms. Most if not all the nuns in the convent were raped by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. We think of this throughout the film, of course, and especially when we see another group of Russian soldiers well on the way to raping our heroine, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), the student who is working in an army hospital for wounded French soldiers – she is saved only by the script and a commanding officer who tells his men to leave her alone. But the pregnant nuns are horrified now in new ways. They are afraid of their bodies, and panic at the thought of being touched in their private parts, even by another woman. What will God say of such intimacies? The other nuns are trying to behave normally, chanting fervently in the chapel to drown the screams in other rooms. The convent is quite isolated and there are many beautiful shots of snowy fields which, along with the constant views of white veils and black habits, give the effect of a film with no other colour, or where the colour flickers in and out as we get glimpses of hands and faces. The cinematographer is Caroline Champetier, and the elegant neutrality of the framing, which must be what she and the director want, makes us feel the movie itself is trying not to intrude on the story it is crass enough to tell. Sometimes the effects are artistic: the nun with the lamp comes from a painting by Georges de La Tour. More often the faces, patiently lingered over, are inscrutable, extended texts we just can’t read. The nuns speak in Polish to each other, and only one of them can speak French, so the sense of a world we (and Mathilde) can only guess at is reinforced by the displacements of language. The tempo of the film is interesting too: slow but never sluggish. Fontaine knows when to linger over a long walk through the snow, for example, and when to cut sharply from departure to arrival, leaving out a whole journey in a jeep.
At one point the soldiers we have seen attacking Mathilde appear at the convent, and seem all set to ravage the place and the sisters again. Mathilde has an inspiration, and tells the soldiers there has been an outbreak of typhus: the place is not safe. They leave as quickly as they can and the stony Mother Abbess, who has not been at all pleased with Mathilde’s help so far, thanks her for her presence of mind.
Critics have thought de Laâge was too romantically simple in this part, too much the sweet do-gooder, and it’s true that there is something monochromatic about her performance. But I don’t think she looks too virtuous, I think she looks lost, stranded in a world where she has her practical skills and nothing else, and her incomprehension is part of the suggestion that some sort of conceptual comedy is in the air, something like a riddle. What is a nun, and what is a baby, and why can’t they live in the same house? I don’t think the film wants for a moment to suggest that the rape of a nun is more awful than the rape of anyone else. But it is clearly haunted by the incongruity of the event, as if it were a category mistake or a terrible joke as well as a moral horror.
Mathilde is a child of Communist parents, and is alternately fascinated and bewildered by the nuns’ fears and prohibitions. When she asks whether they can’t forget about God for a moment and be practical, a nun says: ‘One doesn’t put God in parentheses.’ In the end that’s what they do, though, when they realise the babies need not only to be born but to be rescued from their supposed rescue. The abbess, grimly and movingly portrayed by Agata Kulesza, knows her duty and what her superiors will think of babies showing up in her domain. On the pretence of finding foster parents for the babies, or giving them to the mothers’ families, she plans to take them out into the snowy fields and leave them to die. We see her on this mission with one of the babies. When its young mother finds out what has happened she commits suicide, and the sisters refuse to obey the abbess, who seems to be dying of advanced syphilis caught from the soldiers.
Something happens to the film, and perhaps to the real-life story it is based on, when this gothic turn takes place. ‘She is the mother of us all,’ one of the nuns says of the abbess; she can’t be questioned and she is always right. What happens when such a figure falls from these heights? The disconcerting story of the pious, pregnant sisters is eclipsed by the tale of the monstrous, murdering mother, and the horrible allure of what is presumably her logic. We can’t have babies in a convent. We can’t trust the locals, if we ask them to help, not to blab about babies’ origins. So the babies have to vanish. The abbess knows she will go to hell for her action, but someone has to do it. In this mode Catholicism doesn’t seem all that far from old-style Communism, even in Poland, or especially in Poland, and there is something impressive, in its ghastly way, about the ferocity of the resolution.
Not comic, though, and the further turn is created by another inspiration of Mathilde’s. She suggests that the nuns take in some of the war-orphaned children who hang around the hospital, an act of kindness which will also provide a cover for the babies, who will now look like recipients of shelter rather than natives of the convent. This duly happens, and all the nuns turn maternal, running around the cloisters with the kids, dandling the babies on their laps. Then they pose for a photograph, clustered together, beaming, an image of cross-generational community. The flash goes off, the frame in the film turns into a still which itself stands in for the photograph to come, and this is the moment that even the critics who most admire the film have found sloppy and ridiculous. This is not a happy ending, it’s a travesty of happiness as a form of mindless oblivion.
It’s possible that Fontaine and her writers just lost the thread at this point, or couldn’t wait to shut off the horrors the gothic dip in the story had awoken. It’s possible too that a comic note of some colour is what they’re after, whether they quite manage to strike it or not. In this reading, the element of travesty would be essential. This is not Mel Brooks turning a nunnery into an Esther Williams musical, but it could be a celebration of banality. Fontaine, perhaps, like Mathilde, is still bewildered by the mere idea of being a nun, and one way of both parading and pacifying the feeling would be to turn the convent into one happy single-sex family. The proposition can’t be true, but it does introduce colour into the darkness. What colour, though?