By Maxime Bey-Rozet
Although she has directed just three feature length films (and a couple of shorts), French director Lucile Hadžihalilović has been an important figure in the French film industry for a few decades, particularly on the experimental and horror scenes. Born in France to Bosnian parents in 1961, she lived in Morocco until she was 17, then moved to France to pursue studies in art history. As she has candidly stated in interviews, she attended a film school - and not just any, the prestigious “Fémis” from which graduated the likes of Claire Denis or Volker Schlöndorff - because she had “heard that there were such things as film schools.” 
Her career spans over two decades, but she is mostly known for three films: La bouche de Jean-Pierre, aka Mimi (1996), a medium-length film which she produced, wrote, directed and edited about a young girl who is forced to live with her aunt, whose partner sexually abuses her; then came Innocence (2004), for which she became the first woman to win the Stockholm International Film Festival annual Bronze Horse top award for best film; and her most recent film, Evolution (2015), a dark fairy tale about a secluded island community, whose only occupants are young boys and their threatening, otherworldly mothers.
Hadžihalilović is perhaps best known for her long-time partnership, both personal and professional, with notorious provocateur Gaspar Noé (director of Irreversible, Enter the Void and Love, among others). She worked as the editor of Noé’s first film, Carne (1991), the same year that both of them collaborated to create “Les Cinémas de la zone,” a production company which, with only a few exceptions, served to produce their own films. Hadžihalilović would go on to be a producer and editor on I Stand Alone (1999), as well as the co-writer of Enter the Void.
Classifying her work as horror is perhaps a stretch, and Hadzihalilović herself has been hesitant to categorize her films one way or the other, although she has not denied making genre films. La bouche de Jean-Pierre, made in close collaboration with Noé, bears some some of the stylistic marks of what would later be better known as “extreme cinema” - a corpus of provocative arthouse films veering towards pornography and/or the extremely violent - and, more specifically, anticipates I Stand Alone, with its sickly photography, sordid working-class setting, and unnerving editing. Hadžihalilović repeatedly confessed that funding her films is a struggle, explaining the long intervals between each of them. Even after the critical success of Innocence, it took eleven years to fund Evolution, in spite of its more straightforward narration.
Innocence would bring her international recognition, as well as a unique style and tone. Set in a luxurious forest somewhere in France, it tells the story of a secluded boarding school for girls, where they learn how to be dance, how to be graceful, and how to behave - a training ground for proper womanhood under paternal law. Although quite different in form and content, Innocence and La bouche de Jean-Pierre show similar tropes, such as the idea of a radical rift between adults and children, and power dynamics driven by deception and violence - physical or otherwise.
But unlike La bouche de Jean-Pierre, and unlike the tormented ugliness of Noé’s films, Innocence is a “pretty” film whose violence exists in the shadows of its bright lights. Hadžihalilović has explained that her interest in isolated, sheltered places comes from her own experience of growing up: “When I was a child, I had a quiet, protected childhood. I had good parents. Nothing terrible happened. But I had the feeling that they kind of protected me from reality somehow. I used to live in a little city by the sea, and the feeling of isolation—it was not like living in Paris or London. It was a bit apart from the main city, and [it gave me] this feeling of isolation and also being close to nature, with nature as a surrounding and also a frontier, from the society of the world. I guess this is what is in my films—the forest in Innocence, the sea in Evolution.”  The boarding school alternates between the idyllic and the dystopian, a space of joyful play as much as cruel discipline. At every turn, the girls are reminded of why they are here: to uphold the patriarchal ideal of womanhood, its objectifying gaze and predatory expectations. Given its explicit subject matter, Innocence could easily have a become a moralizing allegory with little political bite. But its strength resides in its cottony atmosphere, its hesitation between pastoral reverie and sinister nightmare. Violence is ever-present in the woods and rivers of the school, surging forth in the jealousy of a friend or the dismissive look of a judge.
Evolution, in many ways, is the twin of Innocence. It, too, features a secluded community where adults and children co-habitate, and where the former harbor sinister plans for the latter. This time, young boys live on an isolated island with their “mothers,” severe, not-quite-human women who perform secret and ominous medical operations on their “sons.” There, too, the idyllic setting is permeated by a disturbing, unspoken violence, seeping through words and glances, like the dark fairy tales that Hadžihalilović has channeled throughout her work: “I am very much interested in fairy tales. I guess that most of the films I like to do have this kind of aspect—even the very first one [La Bouche De Jean-Pierre], which was a more realistic environment, but kind of Little Red Riding Hood in the suburbs. With Evolution, which is a bit more of a sci-fi/horror film, I always thought it was more like a fairy tale. I’m very interested in also talking about children in this moment where you are going to become a teenager, and I think it’s very relevant to use a fairy tale to talk about that. Evolution has a lot to do with the unconscious, so for this reason I think that fairy tales are very good tools to tell that story.”  Like Innocence, Evolution ultimately remains wrapped in mystery and haunted by a captivating beauty, yet another story of cruel adulthood preying on innocent childhood.
Hadžihalilović’s cinema is one of contrasts, between innocence and cruelty, beauty and ugliness, delicate touches and violent blows. The monstrous, though ever present, is never in plain view. Its motivations are unclear. Hadžihalilović has been reluctant to interpret her own films, to unravel the enigmas they present. They remain open-ended, and easy enough to read for who should decide to decipher them. But they are also elusive, atmospheric pieces whose center is clear, but whose contours are foggy. Although Hadžihalilović is, with Julia Ducourneau (Raw, 2016) at the forefront of contemporary French horror, she has crafted a unique, genreless voice which never fails to seduce and disturb at the same time.
1. “Cryptekeeper 097: Lucile Hadzihalilovic.” YouTube, 6 March 2016.
2. Rife, Katie. "Lucile Hadžihalilović on the Subconscious Storytelling that Shaped Evolution." The A.V. Club, 1 December 2016.
Maxime Bey-Rozet holds an MA in Film Studies from the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Film studies program with a concentration in French. He is interested in “extreme” European cinemas and in their politics of excess, as well as in transgeneric modes of horror. His dissertation mobilizes the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline as theoretical models to explore the poetics of Impuissance in extreme cinema and the cinema of sensations.
Additional Resources on Lucile Hadžihalilović
Bibliography of Further Reading
Koresky, Michael. “Growing Pains: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence,” IndieWire, 5 October 2005.
Palmer, Tim. "Contemporary Feminine French Cinema and Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence." French Review: Journal of the American Association of Teachers of French 83, no. 2 (2009): 316.
Preston, Dominic. “Lucile Hadzihalilovic Interview: ‘The Adult World Is Something Mysterious,’” Candid, 5 May 2016.
Quinlivan, Davina. "The French Female Butterfly Collector: Hadzihalilovic, Denis, De Van and the Cinéma Du Corps." Studies in European Cinema X, no. 1 (2013): 35.
Romney, Jonathan. “Evolution Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic: ‘The starfish was the one worry,’” The Guardian, 28 April 2016.
Orapronobis, 1989, assistant editor
Carne, short, 1991, producer, editor, actress
La bouche de Jean-Pierre, 1996, director, writer, editor
Good Boys Use Condoms, short, 1998, director, writer
Innocence, 2004, director, writer
Enter the Void, 2009, writer
Nectar, short, 2014, director, writer
Evolution, 2015, director, writer
De Natura, short, 2018, director, writer
Except where indicated, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.