The second film by Lucile Hadžihalilović is an odd blend of different genres, successfully serving as minimalist sci-fi, ethereal seaside folk tale and unsettling body horror (though it’s worth stressing at this early stage that Evolution beguiles and intrigues much more than it repulses). The setting is a village of cube-shaped white buildings that sits next to a rocky outcrop (it was filmed in Lanzarote, notable for its volcanic rock and black sand), and there is something strange about the society depicted: almost instantly we notice that there are seemingly no grown men and no young women, only pre-pubescent boys and their mothers. Each of these women has one son, while they all wear similar dresses and tie their hair back in an identical fashion; the boys are dressed in swimming shorts, sometimes with t-shirts, and little else. We meet one of them – Nicolas (Max Brebant) – right away, as he swims underwater; he spots the dead body of another boy of roughly the same age, who has a starfish resting on his stomach. His mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) tells him that he imagined the body, and if that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing then one glimpse of the seaweedy, green gruel that she feeds him or the squid ink-like medicine she administers ought to.
Nicolas’ curiosity matches our own, and for a period the film does provide some answers to its initial mysteries, with the main character seeking to find out more about this place, his upbringing and his purpose. At night the women leave their houses and gather on the beach to writhe around orgasmically (forming the shape of a starfish), a ritual that Nicolas views from a hiding place in the rocks. Is this taking place within our own world, or some weird equivalent? Is it the present day, recent past or near future? Some answers are provided (even as late as the film’s final shot) but the flow of information becomes more sporadic when, almost without warning, Nicolas is taken to a nearby hospital with dimly-lit rooms and corridors stained shipwreck-green. To reveal more is potentially unfair on those who haven’t seen the film, so I’ll refrain from giving any further details away, but suffice it to say what transpires next is very odd. It’s certainly easy enough to follow, but Hadžihalilović tantalisingly leaves plenty of questions unanswered.
Doubtless the ambiguity of Evolution will be problematic for some, but for me it wholly suits the film’s latter half, which is laden with images that are often veering between the pleasantly dreamy and the downright nightmarish. The film’s production design is spot on, with few bold colours evident except for the red of Nicolas’ shorts and the starfish, later echoed by the blood of different characters. That starfish form also keeps appearing, and in one scene we see lights in that shape reflected in Nicolas’ eyes; it’s a small moment, but an excellent one nonetheless. The crustacea and underwater life that features has its inherent weirdness highlighted too; much of these creatures are familiar to us but could just as easily have crawled into this film from Ridley Scott’s Alien, that titan of body horror. Additionally the photography is very good indeed; as well as the proliferation of gorgeous underwater shots, cinematographer Manuel Dacosse makes fine, inventive use of just a few locations: the rocks where the sea hits the shore and, the village with its attenant hospital. The size of the setting never feels restrictive, though, and the fact we never venture too far from a few key places serves to further enhance our questions about this place and the world it’s set in. What a fine film this is: weird, but not self-consciously so, lyrical, beautiful, unsettling and – eventually – as haunting as Zacarías M. de la Riva’s score. It offers interesting riffs on rights of passage, motherhood and bonding.
Directed by: Lucile Hadžihalilović.
Written by: Lucile Hadžihalilović.
Starring: Max Brebant, Roxanne Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier.
Cinematography: Manuel Dacosse.
Editing: Nassim Gordji-Tehrani.
Music: Zacarías M. de la Riva.
Running Time: 82 minutes.