Both of the two feature-length movies completed to date by French surrealist director Lucile Hadžihalilović – 2004’s “Innocence” and now, coming over a decade later, its recent follow-up “Evolution” – centre on the experiences of isolated and self-contained communities of prepubescent children who’re required to partake in impenetrably hermetic, adult-supervised rituals of inculcation, apparently designed with the aim of facilitating their transformation or ascent into some new and enigmatic state of existence. Both films then, in some sense, adopt the guise of the coming-of-age drama – re-contextualising enough recognisable resonances from that narrative form in order to be able to ground their varied idiosyncrasies within some kind of readymade interpretative framework. “Innocence”, which was based on a 1903 novella by “Pandora’s Box” playwright Frank Wedekind, was a fable-like abstract drama about strange little girls living in a secluded boarding school in a wooded glade; “Evolution” meanwhile, is rooted in an original idea devised in outline by Hadžihalilović and narratively fleshed out by writer-director Alanté Kavaïté, that focuses on a group of similarly aged young boys, while this time adopting the tonal register of Sci-Fi or of a fantastical, natal themed style of body horror. Rather in the manner of David Lynch’s feature debut “Eraserhead”, Hadžihalilović builds a world by multiplying familiar everyday visual details that are then combined in unusual or incongruous ways to communicate, without stating it outright, the idea that here is a story whose events are taking place in an uncanny alien environment (Hadžihalilović’s visual sense is greatly influenced by the unsettlingly mysterious, pre-surrealist landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico) built on unfamiliar mores and uninterpretable gestures that come freighted with their own unpredictable sets of requirements.
The film combines its Lynchian weirdness with an hypnotic Tarkovsky-like poeticism founded in aquatic images of organic creation and ritualistic representations of birth and death that alternate between nature-based primal abstraction and images which are related to the impenetrable medical ‘birthing’ procedures we later see being carried out in a mouldering hilltop clinic overseen by a blank-faced collective of identically clad, eyebrow-less female nurses. The film opens with static underwater images displaying tidal movements and sunlight; the graceful rhythmic swaying of sea fronds and semi-purposeful movements of unfamiliar microbial forms of sea-based life. A primordial island beach of volcanic rock and black sand (the film was shot in that ‘dawn of life’ movie stand-in of Lanzarote -- part of the Canary Islands) is also home to a group of young boys who dress only in swimming trunks and are overseen by pale, androgynous women we assume to be their mothers (later, the children come to doubt this as a fact, and there are no adult males ever to be seen), all of whom dress simply and identically in flimsy beige slips. Attended to and individually supervised by these women by day, near a rocky pool where they play, the boys live and sleep in a near-empty village of Spartanly furnished white cuboid houses, where they are fed by their female adult carers on a diet of gloopy green paste containing what appear to be nematode worms! Standing out amongst this group on account of his bright red swimming trunks, is Nicolas (Max Brebant) -- who gets shipped off to the dank institute-cum-medical facility on the hill after he discovers what appears to be the body of another child marked with a large, bright red starfish (a reoccurring motif) placed on the abdomen, which he spots whilst out swimming in the coastal depths. While staying in the hospital, Nicolas is also introduced to other boys his age, also living in the dark, peeling dormitories on the premises – and is subject to the same experiments by the impassive nurses who run the facility, involving a programme of injections and invasive medical procedures carried out under anaesthetic …
Lucile Hadžihalilović, a former film editor who has in the past been closely involved in the career of controversialist director Gaspar Noé, is first and foremost a visual stylist: the environment of the film’s opening segments looks prehistoric and almost untouched in its pre-civilised appearance, and suggests the newness of life in a recently spawned organic environment; yet this landscape is skirted by the incongruous artifice of those white square houses, seen poking over the horizon of the beach. The soft, gentle, rhythmic rocking movements of the mother figures as they tend to their boys, despite echoing the similarly repetitive movement of the underwater flora itself, could also be seen as robotic -- creating an uncanny tension between the way we interpret the maternal character of these women’s actions towards the children in their care, and the anonymously rote way it is shown being carried out en masse. Belgian cinematographer Manuel Dacosse (“Amer”; “The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears”) creates a polished, muted lighting ambience that, when used in the context of Hadžihalilović’s meticulously composed frames, gives the film the otherworldly look of a Dali painting; yet it is also an aesthetic which is inhabited by refined, strangely blank female figures who gaze out as if they’ve been made the taciturn subjects of a Vermeer portrait. The androgynous look of these adult females -- mother figures and nurses alike -- with their severely scraped-back hair and plucked eyebrows, conveys an regal, alien inscrutability with regard to their ultimate intentions, a feeling which is amplified when we are introduced to the shabby clinic at which the boys are to be subjected to a series of bizarre operations. For how are we to think of these interventions, coming in such sterile surroundings, yet apparently so bound up with the natural processes of development and birth? At one point we see a roomful of these nurses, seated and immobile, staring at a video feed of a baby being extracted from the womb via a caesarean; in a later instance, the ‘mothers are seen by Nicolas secretly gathering at the beach during the night to writhe horizontally in an orgiastic ritualised form of behaviour, seemingly clutching foetus-like creatures to their boyish breasts. Throughout the film the organic workings of the body, especially with regard to their parallel in the nearby underwater environment, are made the object of an unusual gender inversion with regard to the idea of maternal care, and the role of medical institutions in augmenting natural processes: for here the female-run hospital becomes the site of clandestine, water tank facilitated birthing pool sessions involving the boys -- post-surgery -- who appear to be required to play the role of artificial ‘nurture vehicles’ of some kind for the next generation.
Most of the film is devoted to a meticulous relaying and exploration of these elliptical codes and procedures, defining a confluence of nature and culture that is shown in Hadžihalilović’s fictional world filtered through the prism of Nicolas’s experiences. But the final act is also allowed to acquire more of the character of a traditional coming-of-age outline, although the specifics of interpretation are always left up for grabs. Throughout the film Nicolas has been shown making crude drawings in his ripped notepad, which later come to the attention of one of the nurses and seem to pique her interest enough for her to be willing to entertain the imaginative possibilities that might be opened up by them for a life that takes both child and carer outside of their narrowly defined biological parameters. While to us, the viewers, these drawings seem like unprepossessing depictions of prosaic objects such as cats, handballs or Ferris Wheels (simple objects that, nevertheless, do not appear to be a recognisable part of this world), for Nicolas and the nurse -- unnamed until the final moments of the film, she is played by Roxane Duran of “The White Ribbon” -- they are the key to escaping the prison of received custom through rearing: a bold step beyond the confines of expectation, belief and biological destiny, finally given a literal geographical expression in the couple’s attempt to steal away from the island fortress by boat in the sober yet provocative conclusion of the film.
“Evolution” has a certain affinity with Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” in its cold, abstract approach to the examination of the conceptual underpinnings of otherness, with the young performer Max Brebant proving himself an adept icon of frailty who exemplifies a strange, brittle innocence under medicalised assault from impersonal, professional elites. Motives and outcomes are naturally made ambiguous and open to subjective interpretation, but this is a worthy entry in the arthouse horror category that stimulates and provokes with quietly measured artistry rather than overt shock tactics.
The film is available in the UK as a standard edition DVD on the Metrodome label, or as a HD digital download from the usual outlets.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night.