How to lose your innocence

8 April 2010

“Father, father, where are you going?
Oh do not walk so fast!
Speak, father, speak to you little boy,
Or else I shall be lost.”

The night was dark, no father was there,
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, and the child did weep,
And away the vapour flew.
William Blake, “Little Boy Lost,” Songs of Innocence

Men and women learn different lessons from the movies about the loss of innocence.  For women, loss of innocence always seems to be sexual; for men it’s something far more interesting, political, profound — and is often contrasted to sex.  William Blake’s 18th-century poems weren’t the first to characterize those gender differences, and we keep reiterating them now.

I got onto this subject due to a conversation about my list of best films, which led me to watch “Au Revoir, Les Enfants” again — about privileged, popular Julien (Gaspard Manesse), whose Catholic boys’ school hides three Jewish boys during the darkest days of 1944.  He competes most with Jean (an angelic-looking Raphaël Fejtö), who’s just as smart and well-read as Julien, and plays the piano so beautifully that he impresses the lovely piano teacher they all have crushes on.

This scene is the perfect exemplar of the mood of much of the film:  Julien is still a child, such that you cringe with the fear he’ll torment Jean for all the petty reasons boys bully each other.  Yet he’s also beginning to be tempted by girls. One of its sweetest scenes takes place late at night, as the two boys read the sexiest bits from The Arabian Nights and wonder what they mean.  The film keeps reminding you that they’re neither boys nor men:  one night, as the boys sleep, Julien wakes himself up from what you initially think is a wet dream.  Actually he’s wet the bed.

Their innocence makes the many small betrayals of the Nazi era all the more horrific, betrayals that begin to creep into the edges of their world.  At first, the boys only notice the sexual crimes.  Julien’s older brother accuses their mother of having affairs and flirting with men — even Nazi soldiers — because her vanity makes her weak.  The hobbled, working-class boy who works at the school and sells stamps and marbles to schoolboys on the sly cries out in anguish, in front of everyone, when his love abruptly leaves him.  But then the “real” crimes begin — and the film makes sure we see them as such.  Vichy collaborator police demand that a Jewish diner leave a restaurant; the schoolboys engage in antisemitic banter, not knowing their classmates are Jews.

But the worst betrayal is Julien’s, shortly after he learns the truth about Jean’s real identity.  When the Nazis arrive at the school and demand that the priests turn over the Jewish boys, it is Julien’s frantic glance at his friend that leads them straight to Jean.  As the soldiers march the three boys out of the grounds, Julien and Jean wave goodbye to each other — one of those beautifully awful moments that acknowledges and forgives Julien’s betrayal, and perches the viewer in between the false hope that Jean will survive the camps and the knowledge that he won’t.  Innocence lost.

There are other films, too, that explicitly show that a boy’s sexual awakening has nothing to do with his “real” loss of innocence.  Think of Shane Meadows’ “This Is England,” a semi-autobiographical tale of a lonely boy in the early 80s drawn to the skinheads who give him a sense of belonging — and even a girlfriend — but the real story comes when he must make a decision about his friends’ racism.

Or “The Year of Living Dangerously,” set in Indonesia in the early 60s.  Even though Linda Hunt was categorized as a supporting actor (and won the Academy Award), her male character, Billy Kwan, is truly the film’s protagonist.  Kwan dreams of a revitalized nation under a righteous leader and believes that Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson), an Australian foreign correspondant, can help realize and publicize the newly-installed Sukarno as that good man; to urge Hamilton to become more invested in the country, Kwan introduces him to the elegant and seemingly unattainable Jill (Sigourney Weaver).  But as beautiful as Gibson and Weaver are — their love scenes were the hottest things I’d ever seen when I first saw the film as a kid — they are merely bit characters in a larger drama about lost innocence. (And how ironic that Mel Gibson has betrayed us since, just as his ambitious character is so disappointing to Kwan in the film.)  When Hamilton realizes how much he failed Kwan, he recalls Kwan’s voice telling him that “all is clouded by desire” — a lesson to men everywhere that women and sex are mere illusions that cloud their understanding.

Or my favorite film of all time, Carroll Reed’s magnificent “The Third Man” (1949),  in which the cheerful American (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna looking for his old buddy, Orson Welles — but finds instead that postwar Europe has no place for love, hope, or an easy good guy/bad guy dichotomy, as shown in the classic scene in the ferris wheel.  Cotten wants Welles’ old girlfriend, but his crush is merely another example of his deluded optimism.  Reed even goes so far as to take the film away from Cotten in the end, turning Welles into the anti-hero protagonist as he races through Vienna’s sewers to escape the police — such that the viewer becomes just as disoriented as poor Joseph Cotten.  Every time I see the film it hits me powerfully as a reminder of the contrast between Americans’ postwar optimism and European malaise, a malaise it would take decades for us to realize and wrestle with.

In each film, sex gets portrayed as a mere sideline issue for male protagonists.  These films teach us that for men, love and sex aren’t the most profound aspects of a man’s life; but they’re crucial to films about the loss of female innocence.  One need only think of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) descending from sexual respectability in “The House of Mirth” and the film/book’s long literary tradition of similar cautionary tales, right up to the beautiful “An Education” of last year.  If Bart becomes tragic in “House of Mirth,” “An Education” is a bildungsroman — Carey Mulligan’s relationship with Peter Sarsgaard sours, but it’s nevertheless love and sex that serve as the transformative educational juncture in her life.

It’s a great film but a small triumph for female characters.  Maybe I’m missing something and there’s a film in which a female protagonist’s love turns out to be a mere side issue in her coming-of-age or loss-of-innocence tale, while she is awakened to broader matters of the political or adult world.  But after racking my brain for an example of this, I’m still struck by the contrast of Blake’s “Little Boy Lost” and “Little Girl Lost” poems — for girls, it’s always about sex, and for boys it’s decidedly not.

These narratives matter.  They affect how men and women see their own life stories.

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.

In the age of gold,
Free from winter’s cold,
Youth and maiden bright,
To the holy light,
Naked in the sunny beams delight.

William Blake, “Little Girl Lost,” Songs of Experience

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2 Responses to “How to lose your innocence”

  1. CY Says:

    How about “Whip It”? I admit I can’t think of a more quiet and serious or political coming of age tale that fits that criterion. But there’s definitely some growing up, making mistakes and finding your strengths theme for the protagonist of that film and the (first) relationship (and physical closeness) part is there but not key.

    • Didion Says:

      You’re right — and I hadn’t seen it before writing this piece. And that film makes me think of Michelle Rodriguez in the fabulous film Girl Fight (was that her first film? she was soooo good) — but I wonder if both of them actually fit into a different (feminist) category: something like, “achieving mastery (and the psychological ramifications thereof).” That is, in neither one is the protagonist truly an innocent beforehand, and both of them get involved with men but not as total innocents, and both of them use a certain kind of athleticism as their avenue through adversity.

      This makes me want to have a film festival on the topic. I always wanted to have a chance to talk about the feminist possibilities of Blue Crush (and its feminist failures) too.

      Thanks for this — I’m still really interested in figuring out whether a loss-of-innocence story for women/ girls can set sex aside.


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