Given a warm reception at the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered in January, Anne Fontaine’s Les Innocentes is intelligent, nuanced filmaking at its best. The rape of Polish nuns in a Benedictine convent by Russian soldiers during the winter of 1945 raises a multitude of questions and contradictions skillfully handled by Fontaine in possibly her best film to date. Les Innocentes is the true story of Madeleine Pauliac, a French Red Cross doctor who was stationned in Warsaw at the end of Word War II treating wounded French soldiers before they were repatriated. During her mission, she was called to a nearby convent to attend several nuns who were pregnant after being sexually abused by Red Army troops. Fontaine keeps the focus firmly on the effect of the ordeal on these cloistered, devout woman who are brutally forced to confront the violent, ugly reality of the outside, post-war, world. She concentrates on how they react as individuals and as a group to the moral dilemma posed by their faith – how to accept an innocent child conceived in violence through an act which broke the vow of chastity.
But Fontaine’s film has so much more. The courage and devotion of the young French doctor, now renamed Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who was raised in a communist household and struggles to understand the nun’s acceptance of the horrors they suffered. The Reverand Mother, (Agata Kulesza), who makes difficult choices over her fears the nun’s shame will be exposed to the outside world and their way of life destroyed. And Sister Maria, (Agata Buzek) who is torn between keeping her vow of obedience to the Reverand Mother while witnessing the distress and anger of the abused nuns. It could all so easily have retreated into high drama, but Fontaine steps away from passing judgement and pays moving hommage to the human capacity for compassion.
It’s December 1945 and a novice nun arrives at the Red Cross headquarters in Warsaw seeking medical assistance for one of her fellow Sisters. Intially reluctant to get involved, Mathilde accompanies the nun to the convent where she discovers a young novice in mid-labour. She is told several other Sisters are in the same condition and agrees to provide medical assistance after being sworn to secrecy by the Reverand Mother. But the birth of each child and the menacing presence of the Russian soldiers begins to pull at the threads holding this isolated community together.
Not content with the gripping story of the Benedictine sisters, Fontaine drops in the seemingly insignificant side story of Mathilde’s half-hearted romance with a fellow doctor (Vincent Macaigne). It’s a clever move as Mathilde’s casual attitude to sex only amplifies the revulsion felt by the Sisters at the horrific, shocking loss of their chastity. And Fontaine steers clear of a depiction of the attack itself by Russian soliders. Instead the terror and brutality of the nun’s ordeal is shown in a chilling scene where Mathilde is brutally, manhandled by a couple of drunk Russian soldiers at a road-block in the middle of the night.
De Laâge, whose recent films include Mélanie Laurent’s Respire and Christian Duguay’s Jappeloup, is hugely convincing as the naïve, well-meaning young doctor. Kulesza, who made her mark in the Oscar winning Ida, is magnificent as the austere, unfliching Reverand Mother, while Buzek excels as the pragmatic, caring Sister Maria. In addition, cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s ingenious use of light gives a wonderful Vermeer-like quality to the interior convent scenes. Fontaine’s last film, the lightweight adaptation of Posy Simmond’s graphic novel Gemma Bovery, is light years away from the depth and intensity of Les Innocentes. As three female directors are nominated for the first time for the Best Director award at the upcoming César ceremony, Fontaine’s film could comfortably sit alongside Maiwenn’s Mon Roi, Emmanuelle Bercot’s La Tête Haute and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang.