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Age of innocence

The Fallen  

As a child, when you have an elder sister, much of what you read ends up being hand-me-downs. Hence, I possess much greater familiarity than I should with Enid Blyton’s St. Clare’s, Malory Towers and The Naughtiest Girl series. I therefore had an idealised view of what life in a girls’ boarding school was like, not realising at all that the books were written half a century before I had read them.

My image of British boarding schools was shattered forever when I watched Lindsay Anderson’s if…. (1968) for the first time. The image of unruly schoolboys discovering a cache of automatic weapons and revolting against the establishment is unforgettable, as is the indelible final close-up of the protagonist Malcolm McDowell, as he repeatedly fires a gun, setting the stage for a career playing manic characters in films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), O Lucky Man! (1973), where he reprised his if…. character and, of course, the much-reviled and celebrated Caligula (1979).

Revolting schoolboys are also the subject of Jean Vigo’s celebrated featurette Zero for Conduct (1933), where if the boys earned the titular mark, they are barred from their cherished Sunday outing from their repressive boarding school. But I digress. Whatever childhood literature memories I had of girls’ boarding schools were wiped out forever when I watched Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004). To be honest, I went into the screening expecting something very different, as Hadzihalilovic had previously worked closely with shockmeister Gaspar Noé on several shorts and features. Innocence is set in a girls’ school in the middle of the forest, and after an initial calm where Hadzihalilovic effectively builds up a creepy atmosphere, dreadful things begin to happen. In its observation of the girls as sexually flowering beings, the film walks a very thin line, and if Hadzihalilovic was male, there might have been hell to pay.

Innocence naturally led me to Mädchen in Uniform. A handy DVD box set combined both the 1931 version by Leontine Sagan and the 1958 version by Géza von Radványi. Both are based on Christa Winsloe’s play, Yesterday and Today. The films are set in an all-girl boarding school, run with military strictness by the headmistress. A new entrant to the school, who has just lost her mother, is desperately in need of love, and the only teacher who shows her some sympathy becomes the object of her affection.

Obviously, the idea of what happens to people with burgeoning sexualities being thrown together in a confined space is something that has fascinated filmmakers time and again. Carol Morley’s The Falling (2015) is set in an all-girl boarding school in 1969. Again, a neglected young girl in need of love fixates on a sympathetic character, this time not a teacher, but on a fellow student. The film also explores the idea of escape from this confined space. Similarly, in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go (2010), based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, the inhabitants of an exclusive and sinister residential co-ed school yearn to experience the world outside, but their desire is soon tempered when they realise what is in store for them. All these films leave us with the question, is a cocoon preferable to the big bad world outside?

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Printable version | Jun 8, 2021 8:43:53 PM |

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