Lucile Hadžihalilović has declared herself a cinematic entomologist of sorts. Discussing her process in an interview following her breakout film, Innocence (2004), Hadžihalilović suggests that her filmmaking method is akin to “pinning butterflies in a box.”1 Her self-description conveys a meticulousness of staging and composition, as well as a taxonomical ordering of chaotic onscreen subjects. It also triggers a variety of images and associations—the natural, the miniscule, fragility, stasis, metamorphosis and death—all identifiable elements of her authorial signature. While some years have passed since Hadžihalilović made her butterflies-in-a-box comment, insects and insect analogies remain common to her films. Innocence is populated with butterflies and butterfly motifs, Nectar (2014) prominently features the bodies and sounds of honeybees and flies buzz across the soundscape of De Natura (2018). Her latest feature Earwig (2021) acquires its entomological title from its source material, Brian Catling’s 2019 novella about a damaged war veteran and a young girl with teeth made of ice, again placing bugs firmly within the consciousness. 

Cultural histories of human-insect relations typically begin by asserting the significance of bugs in defiance of their supposed inconsequentiality. Eric C. Brown observes that “the insect has become a kind of Other not only for human beings but for animals and animal studies as well, best left underfoot or in footnotes.”2 For Hadžihalilović’s cinema, however, insects are central. Her butterfly-pinning remark refers to the process of dry preservation—the mounting of dead insect and plant specimens in a framed glass box. As a metaphor for the filmmaking process, the comment links Hadžihalilović to a tradition of visualizing insects in European modernity, a paradigm that Janice Neri calls “specimen logic.” For Neri, specimen logic is a way of seeing the natural world that centres insects as objects of intense visuality. This occurs through practices of close observation, as well as precise recreation via drawings or miniature paintings, practiced in both the arts and sciences.3 As an aesthetic, specimen logic is encapsulated by works such as Albrecht Dürer’s detailed watercolour Stag Beetle (1505) or Robert Hooke’s illustrated volume Micrographia (1665).4 Such images present insects in intense, detailed close-up. They “entice us with their glistening surfaces and impossibly delicate structures, inviting us to imagine them as inhabitants of a timeless space of display, and to imagine ourselves as their possessors.”5

Hadžihalilović’s butterfly-pinning statement captures a quality of her mise-en-scène, which presents human subjects to us for close observation and aesthetic appreciation. Set in a mysterious boarding school for girls hidden in the forest, Innocence shows its young protagonists going about their daily lives: practicing ballet, playing in amongst the trees and swimming in the river. De Natura, which follows two children as they wade through a stream and eat apples from the forest floor, amplifies her mise-en-scène’s invitation to look closer and perceive detail: the playful movements of the children, the rustle of leaves and water, and flies crawling across over-ripe fruit. Slow pacing and vivid cinematography heighten this intimate spectatorship.6 However, there is an important distinction between the looking relations of Hadžihalilović’s cinema and the specimen logic conceptualised by Neri. Specimen logic, Neri argues, is a visual practice that decontextualises plants and insects, “removing them from their habitats, environments, and settings,” and framing them against empty white backgrounds.7 Hadžihalilović’s own butterflies-in-a-box comment suggests a similar decontextualisation, and indeed, the child protagonists of La bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996), Innocence, Evolution and Earwig are all plucked from their traditional homes and placed in a new environment.8 Yet Hadžihalilović does not treat these child specimens in the exact way as Neri describes in fact the opposite seems true. She shows children in amongst their homes, schools, peers and natural playgrounds. Her films also replicate her subjects’ ways of seeing. Objects in Hadžihalilović’s mise-en-scène take on a prominence that mimics children’s aesthetic fascinations: a doll in a lime green dress (La bouche de Jean-Pierre), coloured ribbons (Innocence), a red starfish (Evolution) and crystal drinking glasses (Earwig). Indeed, Hadžihalilović has said that her films embody the “fetishism” of child tastes.9 Hers is thus a visual style that both mimics and complicates specimen logic, inviting close and intimate observation of onscreen subjects even as the mise-en-scène replicates their perceptions. 

Hadžihalilović’s aesthetic also supports her most salient authorial signature, which is the depiction of children, their lifeworlds, and their existential concerns about origins and metamorphosis. Returning insistently to stories centred on children between the ages of six and twelve, Hadžihalilović acknowledges her fascination: “It’s kind of against my will that I’m attracted to this time period.”10 On one hand insects offer a straightforward analogue. Small creatures are akin to small children; they share an affinity as “miniature lives.”11  Insects also stage the dramas of birth, growth and expiration, presaging the child’s own trajectories of birth, metamorphosis and death. Some insects, with their hierarchies of queens and workers, replicate the human societies that children find themselves within. Beyond this allegorical significance, however, Hadžihalilović’s insect poetics also structure in an ambiguity of perception that characterises her exploration of childhood. Rather than scientific certainty achieved via studious observation, Hadžihalilović’s closely observed films generate ambiguity about the fates of her small protagonists. From La bouche de Jean-Pierre, Innocence, Evolution and Earwig, all of Hadžihalilović’s features centre on children who may be in grave peril, although the degree of the threat against them is often unclear and varies from film to film. In Mimi there is little doubt that the eleven-year-old protagonist is under threat from her aunt’s boyfriend, whereas Innocence confirms less about the eventual fates of its child protagonists. Although her mise-en-scène invites us to observe the lives of children closely, the danger to the protagonists of Hadžihalilović’s films remains unverifiable. This once again mimics the child’s own ways of seeing, particularly their lack of understanding about the intentions of adult caretakers. As Hadžihalilović says: “as a child you are kind of isolated from the adult world. Not in the physical way, but just because you don’t really understand what they’re doing, what their purpose is, whether they’re good or bad.”12 https://candidmagazine.com/lucile-hadzihalilovic-interview/] 

There are risks involved when watching Hadžihalilović’s films, just as there are risks involved in looking at insects. To borrow Brown’s description of “insect theatres,” when watching Hadžihalilović’s work, “we observe, detached, this other world unfolding before us.” 13 The result is both captivating and compelling. It is not always untroubling, however. Insect theatres can present scenes of wonderment, but they also stage tragedies: dramas of life, death and creatures in peril. As Brown observes, every owner of a plastic ant farm has witnessed such cruelties.14  Hadžihalilović never shows anything near the brutal gore that the insect world reveals. Yet to watch Hadžihalilović’s films is to perceive both the fascination and vulnerability of miniature lives.


  1. Hadžihalilović interviewed by Daniel Graham, “Extras,” Innocence (France: Artificial Eye, 2004), DVD.
  2. Eric C. Brown, “Introduction: Reading the Insect,” in Insect Poetics, ed. Eric C. Brown (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), ix.
  3. Janice Neri, The Insect and the Image: Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xi.
  4. The full title of Hooke’s work is Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses. With Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. Such a title encapsulates specimen logic in its call to careful observation and representation.
  5. Neri, The Insect and the Image, xiii.
  6. As Hadžihalilović says, a slow pace enables closer observation and intimacy with the image onscreen: “A slow pace brings intensity. It’s also a way to encourage the audience to focus on the details through which the story is told rather than dialogue and action. To dive deeper into the mood of the scenes.” (Lucile Hadžihalilović, “‘I Know I’m Not Going to Please Everyone’: Lucile Hadžihalilović on Her Beguiling Film-Making,” interview by Mark Cousins. Guardian, June 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/jun/07/lucile-hadzihalilovic-on-her-beguiling-film-making-earwig-mark-cousins.)
  7. Ibid.
  8. While it initially appears that Nicolas of Évolution lives with his biological mother, he later discovers (or decides) that she is an impostor.
  9. Lucile Hadžihalilović, “Freedom to Obey,” interview by Jonathan Romney, Sight and Sound, 15, no. 10 (2005): 36.
  10. Lucile Hadžihalilović, “‘Evolution’ Q&A | Lucile Hadžihalilović | New Directors/New Films 2016,” filmed March 2016 at Film Society Lincoln Center, New York, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFZLot0Cj3g.
  11. Emma Wilson, “Miniature Lives, Intrusion and Innocence: Women Filming Children,” French Cultural Studies, 18, no. 2, 2007, 169-183.
  12. Lucile Hadžihalilović, “‘The Adult World Is Something Mysterious’,” interview by Dominic Preston. Candid, May 5, 2016.
  13. Brown, “Introduction,” ix-x.
  14. Ibid.

About The Author

Dr. Janice Loreck is a Lecturer in Screen and Cultural Studies at The University of Melbourne. Her background is in gender, women's filmmaking and global art cinema in twenty-first century screen culture. She is the author of the book Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema (2016), co-editor of Screening Scarlett Johansson: Gender, Genre, Stardom (2019), and has published in numerous international journals on feminist film theory and international cinema culture. She also works as a film critic for community and commercial radio in Perth and Melbourne.

Related Posts