A rare and singular figure of French cinema, Lucile Hadžihalilović has developed a body of work, filled with haunting images, mysterious characters and a taste for bizarre details. Thanks to her refined art of imagery and soundscaping her films, Hadžihalilović can easily be thematically or formally linked to such directors such as David Lynch, Dario Argento or Maya Deren. Yet the ingredients to these films of fascinating mystery need to be found from further afield. It seems essential to rediscover these films of fascinating mystery by this truly independent filmmaker. 

As a youth in the ‘80s, Lucile Hadžihalilović was very early on a fan of ‘genre films,’ and the era’s golden age of 35mm horror films. Unlike her typical films school peers of the time, Hadžihalilović would spend a lot of time in theatres, often only woman in the audience1. The fascinating power of the big screen image, and the excitement of going out, to encounter fear, have infused the director’s imagination and her films, from early student shorts to her most recent feature. With a background in art history, Lucile Hadžihalilović studied filmmaking at the famed Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC, now known as La Fémis), where she met her lifelong accomplice Gaspar Noé. Founding the production company Les Cinémas de la Zone, they started working together on each of their first films: sharing responsibilities of script, production, artistic direction, editing. There is a clear shared sensibility and connection between the medium-length films Carne by Noé (1991) and La bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996): a shared Hadžihalilović – Noé world of outsider characters with incestuous impulses, a meticulous concern for the framing and the colors of in images, and stories that oscillate between social realism and pure nightmare. 

Hadžihalilović has since built a filmography of her own and of great coherence, with childhood holding a very special place. It is no surprise that her first feature film is called Innocence (2004) and her second Evolution (2015): they are deeply rooted in the untamed psychology of a child. Her characters are thus often (very) young girls or boys, at the age where imagination can wildly shape mental and filmic space: before adolescence and its impulses, before raw and ‘graphic’ images take over. Her films follow the characters in this blurred zone, where unknown sensations create a floating feeling, between dream and reality. Aesthetically, her films are like cocoons, where one color (often yellow or green) sets the tone and feels as protecting as suffocating for its young characters. Far from realism, Hadžihalilović’s films invent their own place and time. 

These films take us right to the heart of children’s nightmares, where fear is born. The teenager confronted with the sexual desires of her “uncle” in La bouche de Jean-Pierre, the girls in (trans)formation in the dance school in Innocence, the hospitalised little boy in Evolution, the little girls left alone in nature in De Natura (2018), or Mia, in her film Earwig (2021), a girl whose fragile teeth seem to make her the prisoner of an adult: all those children are facing a strange and unsafe environment, even though they nor we understand where the danger comes from. She never uses unbearable images, gore or graphic violence, but film after film Lucile Hadžihalilović explores our primary fears in a very personal way. Like the children in her films, the spectators are facing a mystery that never offers a face or a distinctive image, even though the power of a picture is at the core of her stories. Paintings, drawings, mirrors, many frames in the frames are to be found in the films, like keys to enter the mystery. The art of coloring is also quite noticeable in Hadžihalilović’s work: her images, most often shot in film, convey a feeling of depth, a thickness to her dark universe, emphasized by the slow-paced rhythm of the narration, slowly but surely diving us into the abyss. 

If her visual style is easily recognisable, one shouldn’t underestimate how powerful and mastered her films’ soundtracks always are. The use of Leos Janacek’s delicate music piece in Innocence, in opposition with the brutal sounds of the dance school, the wooden surfaces and the creaking old house, creates a dramatic dimension to the story. In Evolution, watery sound effects link the spectator to the aquatic underwater world, and in Earwig, musicians Warren Ellis and Augustin Viard create a gloomy yet melancholic soundscape that opens up a bit the darkly toned images of the film. Earwig’s sound designer Nicolas Becker even uses a Cristal Baschet, an instrument that sounds at the same time watery, metallic and crystal clear. This sonic presence feels like a connection to the character, Mia, as well as a guiding line into her mysterious journey.

The question of Nature is the other key theme that nourishes her films. Nature is versatile, unreal and brings us one step closer to a fairy tale. Nature, which could eventually free the characters and give them a desirable horizon (The woods that surround the school in Innocence, the seaside in Evolution, the forest in Earwig…), feels more like walls, a suffocating environment. It is above all a fantasied, almost symbolist setting. There is a primary dimension, somewhat naive, in these stories that move forward by an association of ideas and images. Those poisonous images that become embedded in the viewer’s mind and never leave them. It is impossible to forget the ballet of the young girls of Innocence, the superb aquatic shots of Evolution or this scarred woman who walks slowly in Earwig, appearing in a park in the middle of the film to haunt it until the end. Or just like these women bees around their queen in Nectar (2013), which propels us from an unreal nature to the towers of Paris’ suburbs, seen as human hives. Bee women, guinea pig children, disfigured adults, the films are filled with characters in mutation. Maybe this is where the humanity takes its place: being alive is mutating. Evolution is mutation. Mutation is natural. Lucile Hadžihalilović’s films are a beautiful invitation to let go. Not to find understanding through logic, but to find meaning in sensations, impressions, to be taken in by the power of cinematic images and sounds. Like the aquatic imagery that suffuses Hadžihalilović’s work, her films flow like a deep and dark rivers.

These are films of metamorphosis, transitioning from one state to another. They act like an alchemy, the laws of which must remain secret.


  1. Lucile Hadžihalilović, Personal Interview with Laurence Reymond. Also repeated by Lucile Hadžihalilović, Interview with John Edmond and Alison Taylor Film Rituals: Interview with Lucile Hadžihalilović Senses of Cinema, issue 102

About The Author

A cinema studies graduate, Laurence Reymond worked in film distribution in France for 8 years. In 2002, she started working as a programmer for festivals. For seven years, 2012-2018, she was in charge of the short films selection at the Directors' Fortnight, Cannes. She also worked as festival coordinator for Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, as selection committee member of Quebec city film festival, as head programmer for the Champs Elysées Films Festival. She is now an associate programmer at the Women Films Festival of Créteil, Entrevues – Belfort international film festival and the curator of the Short films Test Screenings at Riga International film festival. She’s kept a regular activity as film critic for various magazines and website (Cinéastes, Fluctuat.net, So Film, Bref Magazine).

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