Innocence is a beautiful and complex film. Long before The Mother (2003) was hailed as a breakthrough in the cinematic representation of sexual desire in an older woman, and Cloud 9 (2006) widely given as an example of images of an old couple making love, Paul Cox gave us this intelligent film. Very well received at the time it is now unavailable on DVD in the UK.
Like in The Mother and Cloud 9 the main protagonist Claire – nearly 70 – exhibits sexual behaviour but this is set in the general context of an older woman’s life and not as the main subject of the film.
Cox’s style is very distinctive. He uses colour in a masterful way. In every scene the colours reflect the mood of the instant. Light outdoor scenes contrast with dark interiors. The music, sometimes nostalgic sometimes majestic, is also extremely important and effective in marking a contrast. Recurrent motifs and metaphors abound: speeding trains, station platforms, rushing water, forest of denuded trees, cafe scenes, meal scenes. But also more subtle images: the restaurant bill impaled on a spike, Claire’s eye condition (one eye always weeping, the other too dry), the screech of a big black bird, the contortionist in the restaurant. Super 8 (film stock for home movies) gives the flashbacks a grainy and faded look.
The editing is complex. There are many ellipses, subjective repetitive flashbacks from different points of view, jump cuts, cutouts, montage sequences, extreme close-ups. The dialogue is a peculiar mixture of personal expressions of feelings and generalised ponderous statements on women, life, love, faith and death uttered not only by the three main protagonists but also by their children.
Because of this complexity of mise-en-scene and the fast pace of editing, I found it impossible to analyse in any coherent manner the way Cox tells the story. It would take more time than I have to disentangle the different interwoven components of this intriguing film that deserves more interest than it has been given. I will just mention a few impressions.
But first, the very simple story. Claire and Andreas were passionate lovers in their youth. Andreas’s father stops them from seeing each other. Claire marries boring, dependable and very kind John. During their married life, he has an affair that she forgave in time. They have not had sex for 20 years. 45 years after their separation, Andreas, artist and musician, contacts Claire. He had been married and his wife died 30 years ago. He presses Claire to renew their loving relationship. After some initial hesitations Claire leaves John to go to Andreas only to die of her bad heart soon after.
What is striking is the way the director without spelling it out, considers the unreliability of memories of Claire and Andreas. The flashbacks are not to an objective past but to the emotional impact their separation in the distant past had on each of them. And this is conveyed uniquely visually. The opening and titles scenes are of Andreas remembering: “I remember your youth, your innocence, your smile…all my life I’ve always had an image of you travelling with me. ” Visually, a happy young couple cycle down a country lane, they stop on a bridge, kiss, cut to rushing water, they walk by the river, brief view of a forest of denuded trees and bird cry, cut to close-ups of them making love on the grass, cut to train platform kissing, cut to speeding train with superimposed out of focus two lovers. Cut to Andreas on the platform waiting and two brief cut outs of Claire: kiss and separate, and her on bicycle. During these flashbacks Claire is happy, smiling and she wears a prominent red beret. Claire comes off the train “Andreas ?” they kiss on the cheek. The train speeds away cut to Claire nestling her head on the shoulder of Andreas sad and distressed, the blue jumper is in evidence and there is no red hat – cut to speeding train again and cafe scene where the two exchange thoughts about the past and the future. In the same way, the awakening of Claire’s sexual desire is beautifully expressed visually when she changes her mind about not seeing Andreas again. His phone call elicits a brief cut out of love-making. She lies on a sofa and touches herself recollecting. She goes to the mirror. She sees herself young, wipes the steam off the mirror to reveal herself now. She wipes the mirror again sees herself young. When she goes back to his house and they make love, the images of the bodies are alternatively their young selves and their old selves. These sequences do not lose any sensuality. On the contrary the age changes reinforce the love and passion.
It is surprising that while the images are understated and very effective, the dialogue is overblown. Throughout the film two words recur insistently : age (or platitudes about age) and love. It is normal that after a certain time a marriage gets jaded, after all these years we are still the same, you have not changed, of course I have changed, life is short, too late to pick up the threads, we are too old to ruin our lives and hurt people who love us, too old for that, if we are going to do that lets do it (make love) like grown ups, we are grown up now, you are nearly 70, I am treated like a teen ager now, too old for lies, too old for secrets, falling in love at her age, I am old and tired, if I was 30 years younger I would leave you, jealous at my age…. Also the feeling of time passing by is pointed out : things happened 45, 40, 30, 20 years ago.
The word love is no less frequent: like? how about love? I loved you very much and it affected the rest of my life, I shall love you always, we should love, what matters in life is love, I love you I will always love you, I am in love with my first love, I know she loves me too, I am in love with him, you don’t love me, I want love, falling in love at her age, too much love is worse than no love at all, I do love you, I always loved you, to love is to be aware of eternity, I am in love again, it happened to me twice, I thought you loved me, I cannot accept your love because I cannot return it, you do not love me as you once did, that old love is gone, each day has a different kind of love, deeper pared down to its essentials, we spend years to destroy that kind of love that gives us pain, how can you love me if think that, I love you much less selfishly now, I love you simply and justly, John also loves me simply and justly, I love you dearly, the only way to be happy is to love, to love everybody and everything, to love the world, I love you both differently but completely, my love will always be with you.
Finally the consciousness of approaching death is present throughout. It is in the cemetery where Andreas supervises the remains of his wife that he asks Claire to comfort him by spending the night with him. He discusses with her the practice of ascribing death to a disease rather than old age. When he is diagnosed with cancer, there are again big verbal statements: we live on borrowed time, how long have I got … if I am going to die let’s do it as grown ups, there are two kinds of death: bodily death and the death of what is important, attachment, must not separate life and death they are the same really, people die what do you say to them? goodness tenderness never die. He refuses treatment after a discussion with the doctor. There are two references to another Cox film A Woman’s Tale that is about a dying woman. Finally it is Claire who dies of a heart attack.
Now to Claire – nearly 70 says her son – who is a beautiful and elegant fair woman with blue eyes. Her white hair is tied to the back with wisps framing her face and it is let loose when she is in distress. She is seen faltering when walking in the countryside. She has a heart condition and is seen swallowing some pills. Although Claire describes herself as “a frail old woman with a son and three grandchildren” there is no sign that they are part of her life. Her son acts as emotional support to her and John his father. Andreas has a daughter that he is very close to and with whom Claire has an immediate rapport. Although the two men are seen to have independent lives, Claire seems to only exist in relation to them.
On my first viewing I thought it was an extraordinary, beautiful film giving an overall impression of years speeding away. I thought that the device of Claire dying as closure illustrated wonderfully well the impossibility, that we experience sometimes, of making the right decision. On further viewings I notice more and more contradictions. I feel an uncomfortable ambiguity in this film. Is Claire moved by ‘innocent’ love? Is she behaving in a teenager’s way in spite of her declaration of being adult? She arrives home with her clothes in disarray, she bangs the door and shuts herself in, she breaks down and asks Andreas to take a decision for her. Is she behaving in a very callous way with John in spite of her assurances that she loves him? Andreas also acts in a way that contradicts his deep pronouncements about love and death. He presses Claire into a relationship disregarding her situation. He will not divulge his decision of having advanced cancer and refusing treatment. His nightmare in hospital if studied in detail may give more information about his inner self.
Am I reading too much in the discrepancy between words and images? Am I seeing metaphors where none are intended? The film deserves a detailed analysis that I cannot do in this blog. It deals with time passing, memories, love and sex, risk and security, parent/adult children relationships, end of life decisions – all subjects relevant to ageing. But it is also fascinating in the way in conveys ideas through film techniques.