Coming of age is often conceptualised in religious terms as a rite of passage and an initiation into adulthood, – and so Lucile Hadžihalilović’s films figure themselves as ritualised mysteries, with children at their centre, and transformation their core event. Her medium-length La bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996) focuses on a prepubescent girl who, in the face of abandonment, abuse and adult hypocrisy, prematurely becomes the mirror image of her suicidal mother. Hadžihalilović’s subsequent, longer-form features consistently dramatise this same basic theme: the growing pains, both psychological and physiological, of childhood. Though far from didactic, these films are very much concerned with education, as wide-eyed innocents are dragged into an enigmatic adult world beyond their comprehension – and surrealist strategies in Hadžihalilović’s storytelling (largely missing from La Bouche…) ensure that viewers share the children’s confused perspective.

In Innocence (2004), girls spend their preadolescent years in an all-female woodland idyll enclosed by a perimeter wall. This is expressly an educational institution where the girls board together in houses and attend regular classes. The prep school’s broader purpose remains ill-defined and sinister, but for the most part the girls’ hierarchical progression through the establishment and their eventual release into the world beyond play like an allegory for both the social construction, and the estranging disorientation, of female adolescence itself.
The girls’ progress mirrors the life cycles and evolution of fauna seen in the park: a snail, a spider, a young deer, a ladybird, and especially a snake sloughing its skin. This parallel is spelt out in the teachers’ lessons. “You’re still just ugly little caterpillars,” the dance teacher Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard) tells her pupils, “Sadly, not all caterpillars become pretty butterflies.” Later the biology teacher Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles), herself an amateur entomologist, show the oldest girls a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, telling them: “You girls metamorphose too. The first time you lost your baby teeth, age seven. The second will happen soon. Your whole body will change. For a few days each month, you’ll lose some blood.” In their final year at the school, the girls dance on stage nightly in butterfly costumes, choreographing their own emergence and bodily changes.
Innocence is adapted from Frank Wedekind’s novella Mini-HaHa, or on the Corporeal Education of Young Girls (1903), whose title in turn derives from a word in the Dakota language (‘minnehaha’) meaning ‘rapid water’. The chaotic turbulence of water rapids is both heard and seen in the opening sequence of Innocence, much as, in a lesson on evolution, Edith will say that life began “in the sea”. On their slow path to adulthood, the girls learn (and in one case fail) to swim in the park’s lake. Ultimately the oldest girls will be taken beyond the boarding school’s grounds to a public water fountain where they frolic for the first time with boys their age. This sexual dance cum mating ritual, conducted amid the suggestive imagery of gushing, overflowing liquids, might just lead to the whole cycle beginning again. Adolescence, after all, is our most fluid phase. 

 Evolution (2015) forms a diptych with Innocence. Set mostly on an island, it is similarly preoccupied with water and (marine) biology, while switching its educational focus from girls to boys. Diving under the ocean’s waves, young Nicholas (Max Brebant) sees a starfish on what might be the belly of a drowned boy. After this primal confrontation with mortality, dreamy Nicolas begins to fathom fundamental children’s questions about sex and death: where people come from, and where they go when they die. Such questions come with a real, urgent mystery in an isolated community where all the children are male and all the adults female.
Losing his bearings and even doubting the very identity of his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), Nicolas will find implicit, inchoate answers involving not only mutant hybridity and surgical alteration, but also the kind of hermaphroditism and asexual reproduction observable in starfish. Here Nicholas’ coming of age is presented as a liminal experience, with his ignorance of sexual otherness, and his fear of the feminine within, playing out as a matriarchal nightmare where the bodies of boys like himself are seized and surrogated for procreative purposes. Nicolas will flee the relative security of the shoreline for the open sea of adulthood, ultimately replacing this liquid, literally littoral locus of childhood with a very different world of metal and flame.

Set postwar in a European city and adapted from a 2019 novel by Brian Catling, Earwig (2018) extends the lessons of Innocence and Evolution to young Mia (Romane Hemelaers). Like Nicolas, Mia has been subjected to transformative child surgery: her teeth have been removed and her unconventional dentures must regularly be replaced. These have been moulded from Mia’s own frozen saliva, as a surreal signifier of a self that is fluid and formative, its very fixity merely ephemeral. The routine breaks down completely when Mia starts bleeding from her gums – a clear evocation of menarche which coincides, significantly, with a phone call to her guardian Albert Scellinc (Paul Hilton) demanding that he “teach her how to behave outside”. Mia’s eventual egress is also her coming of age.
In Earwig, as in Innocence, insects furnish a metaphor of adolescence. For in the spacious apartment that has also been her childhood prison, Mia’s only playmates are an earwig and some houseflies. As unloving Albert takes his young ward – who is also quite possibly his own daughter – out of her cocoon and across the border to a place where he too may once have been abandoned and orphaned, this Kafka-esque fable sees humans trapped (like flies) in a metamorphic life cycle that neither they nor we ever fully comprehend. As Mia is brought out into the world, her education has also been a stultification, ensuring that if she ever mothers her own child, the whole brutal, bewildering process can start up again in the next generation. It is a bleak life lesson, where identity is in flux, but the tradition of trauma remains frozen in place.