When it comes to movies about the strange goings-on at schools for girls, the Citizen Kane of the bunch is undoubtedly Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Australian director Peter Weir’s film easily accommodates such adjectives as beautiful, provocative, intelligent, ambiguous, and mystifying. Though it has yet to be equaled, three more recent films (from France, England, and the U.S.) can at least lay claim to a similar concept—the weird goings on at exclusive girls’ schools.

Innocence (2004), written and directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, takes place at an isolated school whose various buildings are connected by forest paths, the wooded complex ringed by high walls. The students are all pre-pubescent girls whose teachers, all female (including future Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), seem mainly interested in poise and dance. The girls are not allowed to leave the grounds nor to see anyone other than the staff. Parents are not a consideration.

Indeed, the film opens with the newest student arriving at the school in a coffin, from which she is awakened by her classmates and then duly assigned her place and duties. The girls’ various questions about the larger world remain unanswered as they are prepared for whatever awaits them beyond.

The film’s writer/director is married to the controversial Gaspar Noe (Enter the Void,Irreversible, and Love) and her source for the film is a novel by Frank Wedekind whose other works were the basis for the silent classic Pandora’s Box (with Louise Brooks) as well as the recent Broadway musical Spring Awakening. All those names might well suggest the underlying sexual themes beneath the film’s ironic title.

Beautifully photographed with marvelous performances by the young cast, Innocence is ultimately very disturbing in its implications (as it is meant to be). These young girls’ futures are not to be their own.

The Falling (2015) stars Maisie Williams (Arya Stark in Game of Thrones) at a ‘60s girls’ school whose pupils are unaccountably (or maybe not) visited by a wave of sudden fainting fits. There are, of course, numerous subtexts attending the apparent malady, including sexual awakening, jealousies of all sorts, and rebellion against authority. Nonetheless, for most of its running time, the film does retain a disturbing ambiguity about what is really going on and why.

Much like Picnic at Hanging Rock and numerous scenes in Innocence, lingering shots of the trees and surrounding natural habitat suggest an eerie resonance between the human and natural worlds. However, rather than relying on the symbolic as in Innocence or the inexplicable of Hanging Rock, writer/director Carol Morley finally opts for a more prosaic and psychological explanation to explain the drama and conflicts.

What falling-off there is in the film is due more to Carol Morley’s script than her direction which, like the acting and cinematography, is engrossing. Florence Pugh, the radiant young girl whose death is the film’s central catalyst, is clearly going to be a big star. Maisie Williams acquits herself well too, proving there is life beyond Game of Thrones.

Like the prior two films, The Moth Diaries is also written and directed by a woman, in this case with the most impressive credentials of the three. Mary Harron’s earlier feature films include I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), American Psycho (2000), and The Notorious Betty Page (2005), all of which were critical favorites.

That’s what makes The Moth Diaries (2011) disappointing, if not uninteresting. It could have been so much better.

An exclusive girls’ academy somewhere in the American northeast welcomes into its roster a very strange new student named Ernessa Bloch (Lily Cole) who is either a vampire or a ghost or both. No doubt about the supernatural this time — in the long run, at least. No one believes the film’s tortured protagonist, of course, but events soon prove her right. 

The Moth Diaries is a slightly above-average horror film from a talented filmmaker whose middling screenplay fails to equal its promising premise.  But don’t be too put off. There are a lot worse films out there, as genre fans clearly know.

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october, 2021