When it comes to the work of Lucile Hadžihalilović, there is an after Innocence (2004) and a before it. Those films that come “after,” like Evolution (2015) and Earwig (2021) seem to exist in the same surreal constellation. Each is set in an alternate universe dictated by a quietly nefarious and inaccessible logic; and each explores a cloistered, or ritualised, existence in tension with a sensuous encounter that unshackles the protagonists’ perception of reality, opening the floodgates to new kinds of pleasures and pains. But before Hadžihalilović settled into this explicitly fantastical mode, she had her foot in a kind of social realism with La Bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996), her mid-length breakthrough work and her first as writer-director after graduating from the prestigious Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies (IDHEC), or La Fémis.  

Made after Hadžihalilović joined forces with Gaspar Noé (they had met working on the set of a film being shot at IDHEC, though Noé was not a student), La bouche de Jeanne-Pierre was the duo’s first time executing one of Hadžihalilović’s ideas. In 1991, Hadžihalilović and Noé had formed a production company, Les Cinémas de la Zone, and collaborated on Noé’s short, Carne (1991), a woozy revenge tale about a butcher who butchers a young man he (falsely and too readily) believes to have raped his daughter. Then, the two filmmakers tackled the feature-length sequel to Carne, I Stand Alone (1998), which was directed, written, and coproduced by Noé, and coproduced and edited by Hadžihalilović. La bouche de Jean-Pierre was developed roughly at the same time as I Stand Alone, and it was ultimately completed using funds intended for that film as well. 

Jean-Pierre opens with a metallic clang and a title card that reads “La France Aujourd’hui” –France today – before descending into a unique hell: still shots of emptied concrete spaces glowering with a sense of menace, with each shot taking us through an apartment building and bringing us closer to the inside of one unit where, eventually, we see a desperate woman getting pushed around a narrow entryway by her departing ex-lover. Then, the manic woman stumbles to the bathroom, and – her lips in extreme close-up – attempts suicide by ingesting multiple pills. The woman’s blonde, chubby-cheeked daughter, Mimi, watches by the door. It is Mimi’s first of several encounters with the “France of today,” here envisioned as a hotspot of physical and psychological violence that unfolds within a domestic space. 

La Bouche de Jean-Pierre

With Noé as artistic director and cinematographer, Jean-Pierre and its bluish-yellow color palette reeks of urban malaise; its vibrant, gangrenous, look is one viewers might associate with I Stand Alone’s “in the bowels of France” critique of French nationalism, obsessed as it is with patrimoine et tradition despite a rotten underbelly of neglect, deprivation, and violent anti-immigrant sentiment. Jean-Pierre is certainly a product of the pair’s collaborative cross-pollination, but Hadžihalilović had her own reasons for engaging with the country’s woes. Hadžihalilović has repeatedly discussed the trauma of arriving in Paris for the first time at the age of 17, and the shock of encountering widespread xenophobia and witnessing social tensions play out in every street corner.1 This was the era of social-issue dramas like La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995), a time in which the rest of France began to see more clearly the great turmoil and police violence taking place in the working-class banlieues. 

Following her mother’s hospitalisation, Mimi is sent to live with her Aunt Solange, a middle-aged woman living in the Parisian suburbs with her somewhat younger boyfriend, Jean-Pierre. The first evening in her new abode – her makeshift “bedroom” a storage closet with a flimsy curtain for a door – Mimi observes her aunt’s mature body as she peels off her stockings. That night, Mimi also sees Jean-Pierre for the first time, raping Solange in a Caravaggesque still-frame of two struggling nude bodies. It’s an especially savage primal scene, in part because Solange’s struggle is muted, resigned, suggesting the rape’s banal regularity.

La Bouche de Jean-Pierre

Jean-Pierre is a white, average-looking Frenchman whose innocuous appearance might seem at odds with his potential for brutality. This, for Hadžihalilović, is the real face of wickedness –

 the tight-lipped bouche and shifty eyes of a bland bourgeois harboring foul fantasies of power and vengeance. In one scene, Jean-Pierre rides an elevator with women speaking a language other than French. Captured in profile, Jean-Pierre is visibly disturbed as the women converse, with a cut to his ear in close-up signifying his inner rage. Mimi, who is forbidden from leaving the apartment yet mostly left to her own devices, befriends a neighbor who appears to have Arab roots. At one point, she joins the young man and his friends as they hang around and rap while one of them fiddles with a guitar. It’s a completely innocent encounter that sends Jean-Pierre into a self-righteous fury, storming over to the neighbor’s place to berate him for his indiscretions. 

La Bouche de Jean-Pierre

Naturally, this outburst has less to do with protecting Mimi, and more to do with racism. After all, there is no one who poses a greater threat to Mimi than Jean-Pierre himself. The film’s most indelible image, the culmination of its mounting unease, sees Jean-Pierre sexually assaulting Mimi in yet another unbearably motionless still-frame. As the girl plays with her dolls on the couch, Jean-Pierre descends like a wolf. (Little Red Riding Hood, Hadžihalilović has noted, was one of the film’s primary influences.2) He hovers over her, then gradually positions his body closer to hers, moving his hands over her shoulders, chest, and legs while whispering sweet nothings into her ear. For her part, Mimi tries her best to remain disengaged, defensively keeping her gaze unfocused, and, when Jean-Pierre ultimately gives up the battle, she immediately turns to her dolls and mindlessly picks at them. It’s a harrowing vision, but also one that feels in control of its provocations. The tense interplay between the overwhelmed child’s stilted physical response and the aggressor’s vampiric advances palpably summons the acute horror of the assault without succumbing to the creation of spectacle. Upsetting as the sequence might potentially be, I find that Hadžihalilović locates a balance between the artistic prerogative to show, without the softening of allegory or metaphor, and the meat-headed will to provoke without justification. Shortly after this encounter, Mimi, like her mother before her, takes pills and is rushed to the hospital, which reads less as a conscious act of suicide than one of naïve escapism. In this world, the kind of learned behavior that teaches girls how to become women is a double-edged sword of self-preservation and self-harm.  

There are only two shots in the entire film that point at the daylit outdoors. In the first, we see children playing in a courtyard, or sidewalk, from the indoor perspective of our isolated child protagonist; in the second, Jean-Pierre leans out over the apartment balcony and watches Solange walk away, ensuring that he is alone with Mimi before he attempts to seduce her.   

La Bouche de Jean-Pierre

I single out these incongruous images because they signal a dynamic that will ultimately distinguish Hadžihalilović’cinema: that of a gaze newly cognisant of its imprisonment paired with a Gods-eye view that, for reasons that her later work will leave mostly ambiguous, presides over the unaware. All of Hadžihalilović’s feature films are coming-of-age narratives of sorts (with the exception of Earwig unfolding from the perspective of a child’s caretaker). Yet the director’s interest in children and the encounters that change them has more to do with the phenomenological intensity of adolescence, its ability to translate novel experiences with a certain force and clarity. In the case of Jean-Pierre, the cruelties of the modern world, the violence and oppression that plays out at home between lovers and neighbors, family members and friends, unfolds within an all-too-familiar urban context, instilling ‘France today’ with the sensation-al punch of her later, otherworldly phantasmagorias. 


  1. Hadžihalilović interviewed by Daniel Graham, “Extras,” Innocence (France: Artificial Eye, 2004), DVD.
  2. Ibid

About The Author

Beatrice Loayza is the associate web editor at the Criterion Collection. She is a regular film critic for the New York Times and a contributor to Film Comment, Cinema Scope, the Baffler, and other publications.

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