Les innocentes (previously titled ‘Agnus Dei’) proved to be a rather different film than I expected. I didn’t really have any expectations other than having enjoyed director Anne Fontaine’s earlier films such as Gemma Bovery (France 2014) and Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) and I wasn’t expecting such a powerful and deeply moving film. I found it harrowing but also deeply humanist as well as sensitive in dealing with issues of faith. It’s based on the experiences of a historical character – a French doctor who had worked with the Resistance in Paris in 1944 and risen to the rank of ‘Lieutenant Doctor’. In 1945 she became the chief doctor in the French Hospital in Warsaw, in charge of repatriation of French citizens who had been prisoners of war or wounded in Poland and the Soviet Union. Madeleine Pauliac led a team of female ambulance drivers, the ‘Blue Squadron’, searching for the soldiers who would her patients and this is how she came across the incidents developed in the film. In 1946 she died accidentally during her work. Her nephew, Philippe Maynial, was the source of this historical account which was then developed by a team of writers including Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial as well as the director Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer.
The film narrative focuses on Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is younger than Madeleine and an assistant rather than the doctor in charge (and therefore more vulnerable). One day in December 1945 she is working in the hospital when a Benedictine nun is brought to her by one of the street children. The novice wants a doctor to visit the convent but Mathilde tries to shoo her away because she is only supposed to treat French citizens. When she reflects on her decision she decides to go to the convent anyway and is shocked to discover a nun in the last stages of labour and a difficult birth. Eventually she will realise that several of the nuns are pregnant following repeated rapes by Red Army soldiers. She has entered the convent secretly because the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) would not approve of her presence but once inside she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French fluently and acts as her interpreter and guide. Mathilde now finds herself doubly ‘disobedient’ – absenting herself from the hospital and entering the convent. She will later also find herself confronted with a group of Red Army soldiers on the dark road out to the convent in the by the forest outside the town. But there is no way back once Mathilde is committed. She can’t allow women and children to die in the circumstances she discovers.
What follows is a drama that develops the conflict between faith, humanity and practicality that underpins Mathilde’s battle with the Mother Superior and individual pregnant nuns in the face of further contact with the Russians and Mathilde’s issues with her superiors. A parallel narrative follows Mathilde’s growing relationship with another doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) – a Jewish man who lost his parents in the camps while he was overseas with the Free French. At first, I thought this might be a step too far in adding another layer to the complexity of the central story but it won me over.
There is an excellent Press Kit for the film available from Films Distribution and some of the following comments are drawn from it.
The look of the film and the overall tone of the story is measured and astutely handled. Veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier does an excellent job. She also shot the similarly themed but very differently located Of Gods and Men (France 2010). The setting is very distinctive with the isolated convent (a ‘real’ abandoned convent) set close to woods and snow-covered fields, the nuns in their blue and white habits and the shadows inside the convent. Anne Fontaine describes the look in these terms:
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.
This is a setting little changed from the Middle Ages suddenly disrupted by the arrival of khaki-clad men and women in jeeps and trucks. Anne Fontaine has constructed a narrative that moves effortlessly through dramatic confrontations, intimate scenes births and deaths and scenes of contemplation and prayer. I found the film’s 115 minutes sped by and I was reluctant to let it go when the credits rolled.
Praise must go to Anne Fontaine and her collaborators in a genuinely successful co-production. In must have been difficult to work for much of the time in a foreign language (and I note that quite a few discussions on set were conducted in English as a shared language for many actors and crew). She chose very well in casting two of Polish cinema’s most accomplished performers in Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza. I always find convent-set stories slightly problematic since so many distinguishing features (hair, neck and shoulders) are covered. Both the lead actresses were familiar to me but couldn’t place them. Later I realised that Agata Kulesza gave a stellar performance as the judge and aunt of the novice nun in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) and that Agata Buzek was the lead in Rewers (Poland 2009), both great films. Lou de Laâge as Mathilde is one of the rising stars of French (and European) Cinema. In one or two scenes I wondered if she looked impossibly beautiful for a doctor under stress but Anne Fontaine comments about her:
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.
That seems a good call. I’d finally add that the music in the film which included Handel and Rossini alongside chants by Hildegard von Bingen is beautifully integrated with a score by Grégoire Hetzel which as, Anne Fontaine suggests, is minimal and never overwhelms a film that feels intimate and natural.