Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović
Opens November 25
A fairy tale that doubles as body-horror sci-fi, Lucile Hadžihalilović’s suggestive second feature, Evolution, unfolds in a craggy seaside enclave populated entirely by adult women and prepubescent boys—though in this matriarchy it’s the latter group that’s forced to bear the burden of childbirth. Ten-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) lives with a maternal figure (Julie-Marie Parmentier) who routinely bathes him in a tide pool, feeds him the same squid-ink slop at every meal, and doses him with “medicine” that in consistency and coloring resembles nothing so much as black bile. Not many words pass between the two. But having recently come across the corpse of another boy fused with a starfish, Nicolas begins to wonder what exactly his body’s being groomed for.
It’s been almost a dozen years since Hadžihalilović made her feature debut with Innocence, a scarcely narrative Frank Wedekind adaptation set in a boarding school for girls, but evidently the director still hasn’t outgrown her interest in puberty, that weird period during which bodies bend themselves out of shape and the sense of self-awareness that also emerges can prove quite crippling. A layered allegory of adolescence and the industry of women’s health, Evolution (co-written by Hadžihalilović and the Lithuanian filmmaker Alante Kavaite) can’t be said to succeed as a story—for one thing, its characters are far too flat—but as it relocates from the spartan town to a dingy clinic, the film does become more grippingly nightmarish. Has Nicolas been abducted solely for the purposes of a diabolical experiment in childbearing? At the hospital, he must explain what a Ferris wheel is to the nurse he manages to befriend (Roxane Duran)—a sign that he’s come from somewhere far away indeed.
Never lapsing into the kind of proudly vulgar spectacle peddled by her frequent collaborator, the irrepressible Gaspar Noé (with whom she co-wrote Enter the Void), Hadžihalilović manages to incorporate rather outré material without really disturbing her film’s lucid-dream flow. Many of the film’s immaculate images, as shot by Manuel Dacosse on the Canary Island of Lanzarote, suggest a strong correspondence between creatures aboveground and those underwater: Embryo-like cockles stud the pasta served by Nicolas’s would-be mother; a surgical-theater light fixture resembles the formation of a starfish. It’s eventually revealed that all the womenfolk have some sort of cephalopod suckers along their spines, indicating that these disparate lifeforms have even long since started to synthesize their characteristics. Evolution finally shows that, from the perspective of both the individual and the species, the body changes far more than it stays the same.