The secret life of children

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to: Daniel Kuthenshult

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An ordinary playground in an ordinary Norwegian apartment building. © Capellat

Norwegian Eskil Vogt cast ten-year-olds in the main roles in his unique horror film The Innocents.

When 10-year-olds play the main roles in a horror movie, this is a real event. The windows of the film’s history are involuntarily opened, viewing the supernatural through the eyes of children – and sometimes the horror itself emanates from them.

Since Walt Disney chased his Snow White through the Dark Forest and since Charles Laughton’s recent release of Hansel and Gretel’s “Night of the Hunter,” there have been some of the more famous moments: for example, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” or Jack Clayton’s elegant horror play, From which this Norwegian drama did not steal only its title: The Innocents. Based on the novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Deborah Kerr played a nanny who believes that the children under her care are in direct contact with the dead. However, no secret can be extracted from the little ones.

The four children who meet around an unidentified apartment building in the Eskil Vogt movie of the same name have no nanny to hide from. The fact that they belong to a less affluent social class may explain the large amount of idle time they spend during the hot summer in the basement of the house, in the playgrounds, at the edge of the woods, or on the highway embankment. One of the children, little Ida, is the caretaker of her slightly older sister, who has autism, Anna. She lost her language at the age of three, but strange events made her speak words again.

She appears to have a telepathic connection with the girl next door, Aisha, and Ida has also found a friend with psychic abilities. Ben, the same age, has an uncanny ability to impose his will on people. Anna also discovers that she has a talent for telekinesis, but while she only uses it to spin pot lids, Ben has a vague imagination. Even before his supernatural talents are revealed, a frightening scene reveals his cruel curiosity about dealing with a feral cat.

The remarkable thing about these episodes is the nature of their stages. Children’s play is of an unbroken nature, and the paranormal emerges from the everyday situations that surround them, seemingly without direction. The subtle coloration of the catchy camera action (Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) calls to mind another classic about childlike cruelty, Roland Klick’s “Bübchen”. Then Ida is on her own to find out how to put an end to her fellow murderer; Her parents could not convey the incredible. An inexplicable tragedy has already occurred.

It is not an exaggeration to rate this unusual film among the great classics of cinema. Even if it has nothing to do with the visual richness typical of the genre, at second glance it reveals a remarkable aesthetic. The hermitage towering majestically above the wooded landscape looks no less artificial than a Victorian villa.

In this breathtaking children’s play, the director generates a perfect counter world to external realism. And in doing so, very imperceptibly, he builds a bridge to the world of fairy tales, which, of course, is stripped here of all romantic magic. It only seems to be a bias for everything inexplicable that adults assign to children, because it has no place in their everyday lives.

In the choreography of this dramatic film, which is almost a nice touch, all the elements play together – not least the music of Pessi Levanto’s movie with her dominant playing on a children’s piano. But precisely because there is nothing left to chance here, one also wonders what the apparent social and ethnic localization is all about. While Ida and Anna are ethnically white Norwegians who grew up with both parents, Aisha and Ben have an immigrant background and grow up without fathers. The association of non-white children with the supernatural would not be subject to accusations of strangeness if their circumferences were drawn with the same precision as those of the sisters.

Presumably none of this was intended, and the director’s intent was simply to represent the multi-ethnic community that resides in the house. Since the film is told largely from the perspective of children, for whom this is not a problem, there are still a few gaps. However, it is even more impressive as the film develops a great skill in rendering imagination in a believable natural setting.

In Cannes, where the genre drama competed in Un Certain Regard, the director explained his inspiration with an astonishing daily note: When he came to pick up his children from school, before he was noticed, they acted like complete strangers…

innocent. Norway / Sweden / Denmark / Great Britain 2021. Director: Eskil Vogt. 117 minutes

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