Film of the week: Evolution

Mysteries of the deep: Lucile Hadzihalilovic essays bodily sea changes and natural horror in her coolly estranging fantasia of a coastal conclave of mothers and sons.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2016.

Richard Combs
Updated:

from our June 2016 issue

Evolution (2015)

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

Should we begin with the starfish? It seems inevitable, since it appears at the start of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s two feature films to date. In Innocence (2004), it was a decorative emblem on the coffin that transported the new girl to a secluded boarding school. In Evolution, the starfish is where it should be, in a marine pool, and is first seen by ten-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) as he swims near his island home and glimpses the bright red echinoderm perched on what looks like the drowned body of another boy.

The symbolism of the starfish is potentially wide-ranging, including its representation of the Virgin Mary – the Stella Maris, ‘Star of the Sea’ – as a guarantor of safe conduct over troubled waters. For the purposes of Evolution, a peculiar aspect of starfish biology might be more to the point: its ability to reproduce both sexually and asexually. Nicolas and the other boys living in their isolated home (there are no girls, just as there were no boys in Innocence until its final scenes) seem to have been corralled for a scientific experiment in which they are implanted with embryos that are then delivered either through caesarean or in some kind of birthing tank. The medical staff are all female, and the boys live with female carers whom they accept as their mothers.

This is a place of strange, threatening rituals – such as the night-time sessions on the beach where the ‘mothers’ writhe orgasmically on the sand in a (star-shaped) circle. Most threatening are the peeling, dilapidated precincts of the hospital where Nicolas is eventually injected with the substance that will result in him giving birth. To prepare for this parturition, he is fed every day with a greenish, worm-like gruel and given a dose of medicine. This, he is told, is “because at your age your body is changing and weakening… like lizards or crabs”. Starfish, though, have a more special destiny: “They only change once, at birth. Afterwards a new cycle begins, a new life.”

Evolution (2015)

Where do the boys fit in this scheme of creation? Or is the scheme itself just a heightened version, a surrealistic exaggeration, of what they can expect as they approach puberty? The world here – the dark volcanic sand, a tight little village of white houses – is as strangely but as satisfyingly organised as the dank tunnels and lush forest of Innocence. For Hadzihalilovic, the sense of control is essential to the creation of a complete, self-enclosed world, and to a visual aesthetic with its own stilled, enigmatic quality, like the de Chirico paintings she admires.

A shot in the opening title sequence – looking up from beneath the surface of the water as Nicolas swims above, like a lonely spermatozoon – suggests that the air of menace hanging over these worlds is not an external threat so much as the anxieties of growth and change, the struggle of life. The women – who the boys begin to suspect are not really their mothers – also look as if they might be in transition, their skin pallid and uniformly smooth, their large dark eyes vaguely cetacean. If Evolution is defined by its fantastical exaggerations, they seem tilted towards science fiction, as Innocence was to suggestions of horror. The scientific apparatus of cross-gender pregnancy and birth has a Cronenberg look, while the two humanoid creatures to which Nicolas gives birth might owe their p/maternity to David Lynch.

Evolution (2015)

Elsewhere, there’s a glowing, detailed naturalism in Manuel Dacosse and Rafael Herrero’s underwater photography in the reefs around Lanzarote. This could be the world of Jacques Cousteau, but the naturalism has its own surrealistic shock, and the languorous movement of the multicoloured flora fits in Hadzihalilovic’s stated aesthetic: “We wanted to capture a kind of abstraction through organic matter and movement.” The ’Scope images are alternately immersed in the big blue or fragmented by dark, sulphurous spaces in the hospital.

Eventually, Nicolas is led into the depths when he is befriended by a nurse (Roxane Duran) at the hospital, and they set off on an underwater odyssey that is also a kind of mating. Or is it “the dream of a friend… somewhere on our very own planet”, as Mike Nichols described the relationship between the human protagonist and a cetacean companion in his non-surrealist fantasy The Day of the Dolphin (1973)? The nurse eventually abandons Nicolas and he finds himself on the shore of a brightly lit city that looks like our world. Only after she disappears do we learn that her name is Stella.

 

In the June 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

The lost boys

Set in a remote village by the sea, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s surreal horror fantasy ‘Evolution’ is an enigmatic coming-of-age tale about a boy who tries to find out the truth behind the mysterious treatments taking place in the local hospital. By Nick Bradshaw.

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Also recommended this week

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers

Director Ben Rivers  |  UK 2015  |  On limited release

theskytrembles.com  |  ► Trailer

A “visually sumptuous” exploration of colonialism, the act of travel and authenticity which begins as a documentary portrait of the filming of Oliver Laxe’s Las Mimosas in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and turns halfway through into an adaptation of Paul Bowles’s 1947 short story A Distant Episode as the filmmaker abandons his shoot. Reviewed by Violet Lucca in our June 2016 issue:

“This sense of doubt and unease runs up against the film’s views of Morocco, which never fail to be undeniably beautiful… Rivers preserves an intense intimacy with all his subjects in every shot, showing the bandits falling asleep, waking up, eating and laughing. Effortlessly establishing the daily rhythm of their lives on the road, such moments give this fantastical, barbarous tale a sense of humanity and realism.”

☞ See also On location with Ben Rivers’ The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers

☞ See also Willing spirits: Ben Rivers versus Albert Serra

 

Arabian Nights  Volume Three  The Enchanted One

Director Miguel Gomes  |  Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland  |  On regional release

artangel.org.uk/project/the-sky-trembles  |  ► Trailer

The final part of Gomes’s sweeping Arabian Nights trilogy, which aims to combine an account of Portugal’s hardships under austerity with elements of escapist fantasy inspired by the stories of The 1001 Nights. Reviewed by Hannah McGill in our June 2016 issue:

“Does the film ultimately argue that imagination is a decadent distraction from the real work of revolution? It would be hard to draw such a conclusion about a film that dwells so long on the artistry of chaffinches, or summons its mythical heroine to a meeting with her father via a banner tacked to an aeroplane that reads ‘ZEHERAZADE, SERIOUS FAMILY TALKS, NOW!’”

  • Sight & Sound: the June 2016 issue

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    Whit Stillman on his acid-tongued Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship. Plus Richard Linklater’s college daze, Lucile Hadzihalilovic&...

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