2016 San Francisco International Film Festival
Also screened at this year’s COLCOA in Hollywood, The Innocents (Agnus Dei) is the latest from director Anne Fontaine. Best known for frothy productions like the Audrey Tautou vehicle Coco Before Chanel (2009), French/Polish co-production The Innocents is a disturbing historical drama.
In Warsaw at the end of war, The French Red Cross has an outpost to aid their stranded citizens. It’s where medical student Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) is a volunteer. In halting French, a novitiate at a nearby Benedictine convent begs for her help. Even though against regulations to aid the locals, Mathilde visits and discovers a terrible secret.
Like Academy Award winner Ida (2013), The Innocents examines Polish history during the early Soviet Era when “liberation” from the Nazis by the Red Army also brought extreme suffering. Agata Kulesza (Red Wanda in Ida), here stars as the stern and conflicted mother superior,
Mère Abesse, who keeps secrets inside of secrets. At forty-two, Kulesza is younger than the character but she bring the gravitas of a more mature actress, something that director Fontaine recognized: “She put on a veil and without makeup – just by the force of her acting – she was able to project what we see on the screen.”
She is graced with a strong, distinctive beauty. I sensed that this grace, combined with her slightly stubborn side, along with her freshness and a fragility that lie just beneath the surface, would well serve the film. Lou is never insipid; she can sometimes be harsh. . . What was important was to feel the metaphysical questioning that is experienced by the protagonist and how it changes her. How does one understand life’s meaning in the midst of such chaos? . . . Lou’s dramatic insight is impressive; she doesn’t set boundaries – she is courageous and hardworking, a bit like Mathilde. It wasn’t easy for her to end up deep in Northern Poland surrounded by Polish actresses whose language she didn’t speak.
Mathilde begins a relationship with Samuel ( Vincent Macaigne), a French Jewish doctor at the Mission. They’re a mismatched pair but as Fontaine says, “It always pays to start off with a couple who sleep together without any obvious commitment, yet whose feelings for each other rise to the surface unbeknownst to them. Moreover, it is quite easy to imagine the medical personnel in these units having these types of relationships in order to evacuate stress.”
Samuel is self-effacing with a high-pitched voice and smitten with his young colleague. In an American romantic comedy, he’d likely be the best friend of the heroine who doesn’t stand a chance. Fontaine and co-writer Pascal Bonitzer had other ideas. “Samuel casts a different light onto Mathilde in an original way: he is not a classically handsome man and I find that Vincent Macaigne brings a great deal of humanity to the character’s dark sarcasm . . . Pascal Bonitzer and I really enjoyed ourselves while creating this character. We thought he would give the audience some comic relief before returning to the convent. And also, it was a way to tackle the war from a different angle and to underscore what had just happened in Poland: Samuel is Jewish and his family died in the camps.”
The cinematography by Caroline Champetier is also exceptional, using light and shadow to convey the grimness of the interiors and the stark Polish countryside in winter. Fontaine said of her longtime collaborator: “I knew that she would bring the fervor that the project needed. We began our work well in advance of the shoot and worked very closely together. We researched iconography and conducted a thorough study of colors. We wanted to give the impression of being in a painting – we were thinking, naturally, of the Quattrocentro period Madonna with Child paintings – while breathing life and movement into the scenes. The air had to be palpable.”
Opens July 1 2016 in select cities