“One day, they’ll be no more masters and servants.”
Set in nineteenth century France, A Song of Innocence (La Ravisseuse) begins with the arrival of a wet nurse to a large country mansion. The wet nurse, a young girl named Angele-Marie (Isild Le Besco) has left her baby boy behind in order to take the job as a wet nurse for the baby of a wealthy young couple, Charlotte (Emilie Dequenne) and her austere architect husband, Julien (Gregoire Colin). Angele-Marie has been selected from dozens of similarly lactating women, and she’s been chosen by Julien.
Angele-Marie is a good wet nurse, and she gets right to the task considered too “lowly” for her young mistress. While Angele-Marie nurses the baby and takes care of her morning, noon and night, Julien hopes that this will free up his wife for the bedroom once again. But with Julien distracted by work and refurbishing a new, splendid apartment in Paris, Charlotte forms a tentative relationship with Angele-Marie. At first the relationship forms as a sort of “sisterhood.” The convent-raised Charlotte is shocked to discover that her wet nurse has a baby of her own who’s been farmed out somewhere else in the country while her mother earns a living by selling her breast milk. A less sexually naive woman wouldn’t need to have all this spelled out for her, but Charlotte is so innocent, she doesn’t seem to grasp that breast milk means that there was a baby somewhere….
The two young women do have a great deal in common, but while Angele-Marie considers her relationship with Charlotte to be friendship, Charlotte treats Angele-Marie like a pet, and dressing her up as a nursemaid, she becomes a sort of fashion accessory. Angele-Marie loves to make up stories and she and Charlotte even engage in the occasional daydream, but Angele-Marie, as a peasant, can’t afford imagination.
Meanwhile Angele-Marie and Charlotte find some pleasure in each other’s company, but everyone else in the household is either threatened or annoyed about it. Leonce (Anemone), the housekeeper is jealous of the wet nurse’s relationship with the young mistress. After all, by becoming Charlotte’s pet, Angele-Marie is elevated over the other servants. Julien, sexually unsatisfied by his wife, begins sneaking around the house for glimpses of Angele-Marie’s breasts, but like a typically-repressed person, he begins to loathe the object of his lust. Even Julien and Charlotte’s bourgeois relatives are appalled by the wet nurse’s elevated position.
Flashbacks reveal exactly how Julien and the family doctor selected Angele-Marie for the wet nurse job. One scene depicts women baring their breasts to their potential employer and both the sexual aspects and the objectification of women is clear as the would-be wet nurses ply their wares like women on display in a brothel.
Set in 1877, A Song of Innocence contains shades of class discontent, mainly voiced by the servants who after all must still remember the debacle of the 1871 Paris Commune. During the late 18th century in France, it was the ‘done’ thing for a bourgeois family to employ a wet nurse for the exclusive use of their baby while the wet nurse’s baby was fostered out to face certain death in the country. Peasant wet nurses were known to nurse up to five babies at a time for a pittance, and the morality rate was not good. Scenes with Julien and the doctor acknowledge the attitude that it’s a very reasonable thing for them to ‘rent’ Angele-Marie while condemning her baby to certain death. Of course, this attitude simply reinforces the societal hierarchy of one bourgeois baby being equal to an infinite number of peasant babies.
Angele-Marie and Charlotte’s friendship at first seems to be based in sisterhood and the commonalities they share as women viewed by society as the chattels of men, but any notion of sisterhood is eventually overridden by the powerful pull of class loyalties. The film includes some clever camera shots that emphasize Julien’s growing sexual obsession with Angele-Marie, and an aura of mystery and impending dread runs through the film. From director Antoine Santana.