This is the film that shook Cannes, Gérardmer or L’Étrange Festival, to name but a few. The very successful and harrowing “The Innocents” is finally released in our theaters, and its director, the Norwegian Eskil Vogt, tells us about it.
We talked a lot about Léa Seydoux and Mathieu Amalric, thanks to the many films they presented in a few days. But not by Eskil Vogt. Or not enough, when he was one of the strong men of the last Cannes Film Festival. Co-screenwriter of Julie (in 12 chapters), which offered a Best Actress Award to its actress Renate Reinsve and today earned her a nomination for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, he has also distinguished himself as as director, in the Un Certain Regard category.
It was there that he unveiled The Innocents, his second feature film. Or the story of four children who discover powers and have fun pushing their limits, without suspecting the worrying turn their games will take. A real shock film, brilliantly staged, which maintains a constant tension and proves fascinating in its way of theorizing on the notion of gaze.
Fascinating, its author is also. Passed by FEMIS, the Norwegian expresses himself in almost perfect French, as we could see on the Croisette, the day after the official presentation of his baby, then rewarded at Gérardmer or L’Étrange Festival.
AlloCiné: In its approach to the fantastic, “The Innocents” recalls “Thelma”, which you wrote with Joachim Trier. Is it the fact of working on this film that triggered the desire to make “The Innoncents”?
Eskil Vogt : Yes, and even before Thelma was conceived. It was at the very beginning, when we knew with Joachim that we wanted to dig, in our own way, this vein of genre cinema, with more iconic images… Everything that genre cinema allows, unlike realistic films .
We discussed several ideas, and that’s when this one came to me, very simple, to take children’s imaginations seriously. Because when you are a child and you play, you believe in it so much that it seems true to you. And here, magical things happen, and then everyone goes back to their parents and everything disappears a little, so that we wonder if it was real or a figment of their imagination.
I proposed this idea to Joachim [pour qu’il réalise le film], but he was less interested in it so I put it aside. Except that we continued to explore this register by creating Thelma, and that worked for me more and more.
The fact that these children’s games turn into horror, is this a way for you to show the impact that today’s world can have on them and their imagination?
Rather, I wanted to talk about childhood in general, and not just today. It’s a moment that we have all experienced, and I wanted to evoke the imagination of children and their ability to feel things very strongly, which can turn against them. Because a simple shadow on a wall in the evening can terrify you to the point of preventing you from sleeping.
As an adult, I have never felt fear as strongly as when I was a child, so it had to be part of the film. Making a film about childhood from the angle of nostalgia, saying that everything was fine, that doesn’t have much interest. This aspect was needed, but also the unpredictable side of children, who experiment and push the limits of the morality imposed on them. They have to wonder about it to find their inner morality. All of this creates something more complex, more interesting than a classic childhood story.
As soon as you go too far with the violence in the cinema, you no longer have an impact
You yourself also seem to push the limits, because “The Innocents” shows a lot of amazing things that we are not used to seeing with children in the cinema. How did you find the balance between what you wanted to show and what you wanted to leave out?
What interests me in horror cinema – and the debate is open as to whether my film is part of it or not, I accept it – is that the viewer’s body also participates. And for that, you need something violent on the physical level.
Maybe not a lot. but just for a moment. And if you do it once, you can be more subtle the next time. Because people know that anything can happen in this kind of film. If you don’t, the spectators are more comfortable because they feel less danger. This story allowed to do it in an interesting way, because the fact that they are children makes things unexpected. It’s in their game, they had impulses, ideas, experiences. It’s innocent without being, because their actions are extreme.
But I wanted the film to stay within a certain framework. As soon as you go too far with violence in the cinema, you no longer have an impact. The head exploding with blood everywhere, I find it funny and I laugh because I know it’s not true. But I don’t identify myself. A hammer blow on a finger, on the other hand, I feel it all over my body.
Because we know it can happen to us.
Yes, and we experience somewhat similar pain. We have probably experienced something similar. And I wanted most of the scenes to revolve around that kind of violence. Let it not be something too extreme either, because it remains a film with high stakes, about life and death in particular. In a subtle way I hope.
How do you direct children in these scenes? What does it require in terms of preparation and support to be able to film this?
Already we did a casting for a very long time. Then workshops with them, so that they learn how to work, so we had a lot of time to create a bond of trust. And the four kids became friends, which made for a very relaxed vibe, and that was super important. From the start, I told myself that you should always tell them the truth, never cheat or surprise them.
If you have a child for a day or two on set, you can cheat to have some real moments of surprise. Not if you spend thirty or forty days with it. It hurts your relationship. You have to do the opposite: explain everything, give them the opportunity to ask questions. When we had tough scenes to shoot, we had to prepare them well. But in the end they find them very funny to do, because it’s a game. were more extreme, they loved (laughs)
Because they didn’t realize what the scene contained?
Shooting is very fragmented, with one shot, then another… The most important thing for me was that they could put themselves in the emotional state of the characters, and that’s what we worked on a lot. So they could put themselves in that state of fear, with rapid breathing and tears in their eyes, but when we said “Cut!”they started running around because they had plenty of energy to release.
And they love the attention we give them. It’s not usual for them to have so many adults interested in what they do. But I didn’t want them to see the finished film. Because there, when you put all the shots together, the music, the sound, you get something potentially more traumatic than what they experienced on set.
In genre cinema, you have the right to create a new visual logic to tell things
So they didn’t stay for the official session?
No. They stayed for the first fifteen to twenty minutes, to see each other on screen, and then they came back for the end credits. They blame me for that (laughs) But it’s up to the parents to make that decision. Now that they have seen it, they know if there is one point or another that can get stuck. I was a little afraid for them.
Whether you’re talking about showing the young actors or not, the film continues one of the central themes of “The Innocents”: that of the gaze. Because it is thanks to him that a bond is created between the children on the screen, there is what you choose to show and leave off-screen, and it was already a central element of “Blind”, your first feature film. Why is this so important to you?
For me, the gaze is essential to cinema. That’s why the challenge of filming a blind woman in my first film interested me so much.
How do you reinvent cinematographic language when you can’t make these connections to the gaze that we always do in the cinema? Usually, you wait for the gaze to change to do the reverse shot, but not here. It was impossible with a blind woman. I like to play with these basics of cinema and, here, I was also interested in the inner gaze. Especially with Aisha and Anna, who see each other without seeing each other. Ben participates too.
Find this kind of link, which goes beyond the normal cinematographic connections, you have the right in genre cinema. You have the right to create a new visual logic to tell things. How unrealistic that really is. There is a basis of realism, and it was important that certain details were realistic. But it was also important to create a visual logic that didn’t exist anywhere else. And that’s one of the things that cinema allows.
One of the strengths of “The Innocents” is the tension you manage to maintain from start to finish. How is it created during editing?
It was complicated and we worked on the editing for a long time. In the end, the result is quite close to the script. But it’s really in the details that the suspense, the anxiety and the atmosphere are played out. And sound, of course. The sound work also took time. But we had to find the right rhythm, because the film starts slowly, but we have to feel right away that something is going to happen.
It’s not a drama about a child being ignored by her parents because her sister demands more attention because of her autism. We might have thought so at first, without all these details that create an atmosphere of anguish. It also helped that the film was set during summer vacation, because we had these empty spaces, these abandoned places that we could use for the atmosphere, where you can worry when you see someone other.
The challenge of the film was really to create this suspense in the details. With these little gestures, these looks. What affect children, who have this ability to be interested in small details, for sometimes mysterious reasons. We film the children’s secrets, and that contributes to the atmosphere.
It’s hard not to think of Jack Clayton’s “Innocents” and the writings of Henry James when seeing the title of your film. Is it in reference to that that you chose it?
I like this film a lot, but it’s not because of that. There is no other movie called “From uskyldige” in Norway, and Jack Clayton’s is not known by that name there. And when it took an international title for ours, I didn’t want to give it up because I found it so good in relation to its main theme.
And then I love Jack Clayton’s film, so it doesn’t bother me that people see my title as a wink, even if it has very different themes from mine. He talks more about the psychological fragility of this woman [jouée par Deborah Kerr, ndlr], and we wonder if what is happening is true or not. It’s a ghost movie too. They are very different, but that does not bother me, it is a beautiful film. A nice reference (laughs)
Interview by Maximilien Pierrette in Cannes on July 12, 2021