On innocence and adolescence, the fluids of birth, and the mysteries of the physical self
Evolution IFC Midnight
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilović
Screenplay: Lucile Hadžihalilović and Alante Kavaite
Starring: Julie-Marie Parmentier, Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Nissim Renard and Mathieu Goldfeld
Not rated / 1 hour, 21 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
There are the observers and the observed, the experimenters and the experimented upon, and the human body is a mystery to them all.
The island of Lucile Hadžihalilović's sublime Evolution is - or has just started to become - a sinister one for the young boys, all roughly the same age, who populate it, and who find themselves kept under watch, operated upon, and, yes, impregnated.
And yet the mothers on this island, all roughly the same appearance, are not exactly perverse, malevolent sadists - despite their surgical experiments, their harsh secrecy, their unsettling calm.
Well, not entirely malevolent, anyway; given that we're coming at it from a place of innocence, primarily through the eyes of 12-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant), we can't help but find these sudden changes - to his body, his innocence, his overall awareness - more than a little ominous, to put it lightly. And yet even at their most threatening, there's something similarly innocent about these women, who trade their plain beige dresses for nurses' outfits within the confines of the dank, cavernous makeshift hospital in which the boys have been placed. Something primitive. There's a curiosity in their eyes, without malice. A pleased fascination with ... well, with whatever it is they've discovered about, or through, the bodies of their so-called sons. It's as if they're learning - as if they're somehow every bit as adolescent as their young subjects.
Where exactly this is meant to be taking place - what or where this strangely austere, sparsely populated island is - remains an open question. For the entirety of the movie we get only a single glimpse of any other setting - only from afar, and it has the appearance, at least by comparison, to science fiction. In its evocatively murky tone and surreal sense of quiet, Evolution shares certain resemblances to Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin - which, coincidentally or not, also largely revolves around investigation of the human body.
Other similarities are more subliminal. Whether the women of this island - most importantly Nicolas' mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) - are human, exactly, is a question for which the film has no easy answer. Parmentier's face is used to such remarkable effect it's almost an outright provocation. With her pale eyebrows and eyes blazingly dark against her skin - lit in jaundiced hues or overcast greys that make those brows practically disappear - she gives off an impression that, true to the film's ambiguity of both place and species, is practically alien. One way or another - whether human, alien, or something in between - the women seem to be somewhat amphibious in nature. Their bodies, as Nicolas discovers, suggest something more molluscan; they all appear to have suckers running down their backs (which, in addition to the aquatic implications, has a corresponding visual in The Matrix, a film similarly mired in the guts and fluids of birth and transformation).
It only makes sense that water would be their natural habitat; it's seemingly the only source of life anywhere in sight. The island is covered in rocks, mostly - Hadžihalilović's static camera makes sure to capture the expansiveness of it, and in scattered moments she focuses on the sound of it, those mighty low cracks of footsteps on rocks. The roads in town are all black sand and gravel. There is no grass, there are no weeds, there are no bushes. There are no animals. On land, anyway. I suppose the only other place where life could grow is ... well, those boys are coming of age, after all.
"Are we all sick?" one of the boys asks the others one night at the hospital. They've been effectively quarantined together, but they're beginning to have their doubts. With these boys, Evolution carefully applies imagery generally used on women - the rubbing of the ultrasound gel on their bellies, lying vulnerable on the cold metal of an operating table, surrounded by the powerful and silent; or Nicolas' sudden nosebleed, distinctly menstrual, after a sudden emotional episode. The scene in question involves him angrily smashing the arm off a starfish - a starfish presented by his mother as proof that the story he's been telling, of seeing the dead body of a young boy underwater, was simply his mind playing tricks on him.
The recurring motif conjoining starfish and Nicolas - all of the boys on the island, as a matter of fact - is not necessarily subtle, but it's potent nonetheless. It's literally reflected in his eyes - the overhead lamp in the operating room matching its star-like shape, a fluorescent pentagon shining in the center of both pupils - in one of the film's most memorable shots. The starfish's muscular red - which boldly stands out against the charcoal complexion of the rocky beach - repeats itself in Nicolas' appearance. The red of his trunks when he's swimming, the red of his T-shirt when he's not. The island could use the color. Elsewhere, we're inundated with dark, moody blues and greens - rich but queasy, beautiful but cold.
Hadžihalilović's narrative conceit is not simply a role reversal - the boys getting pregnant, the women in control of those pregnant bodies - but a way to enhance the alien quality, the menacing unease. With boys in that role, the film becomes a surreal biological mystery. The only hint we get of sex is not of any sort we would find recognizable - or at least not practical: a group of "mothers" in a sort of orgiastic circle on the shore in the middle of the night, writhing around in the mud with a substance - or object - obscured by shadows and body parts. To say any procreation on this island would likely come from non-traditional means would be an understatement.
It's mentioned often that Hadžihalilović is Gaspar Noé's wife (not to mention his former editor and occasional co-writer), but if there were any justice, it would be the other way around; he is merely the husband of the director of Evolution, one of the most vivid, primally upsetting horror films in recent memory.