French director Lucile Hadžihalilović’s two feature films, Innocence (2004) and the newly released Evolution, possess simple, almost generic titles, yet their content is about as strange, unsettling, and unique as movies offer. Set at a disciplinary and ritualistic girl’s school in the heart of the woods, Innocence is part fairy tale and part waking nightmare: indeed, Hadžihalilović fashioned a singularly memorable debut by using lush cinematography, naturalistic sound design, and minimal dialogue to express the real dread of social indoctrination and exploitation as well as an even greater dread beyond the immediately seeable, or explainable.
Twelve years and only a single short film (Nectar) later, Evolution continues many of the themes and motifs Hadžihalilović explored in Innocence while also venturing into more cryptic and disturbing territory. The new film takes place on a sparsely colonized island populated only by pre-adolescent boys, their porcelain-skinned and aquatic-featured “mothers,” and an army of unscrupulous female doctors who force the boys to undergo a strange medical procedure that makes them pregnant. Nicolas (Max Brebant), Evolution’s protagonist, knows something is amiss when he spots a drowned boy, and a starfish that clings to it, during one of his swimming excursions; he also views his “mother” (Julie-Marie Parmentier) engaging with her brethren in a nighttime ritual that appears to be both sexual and infanticidal. While incarcerated in the island’s dank hospital he befriends a redheaded nurse (Roxane Duran) who encourages his creativity (he draws pictures of the world around him as well as pictures of a world he may have once known) and helps him escape. But even the nurse’s designs seem questionable, and the film ends on an ominous note instead of a liberatory one.
I spoke with Ms. Hadžihalilović via Skype last week, just a few days before Evolution’s US release and asked her about the film’s elusive meanings, palpable atmosphere, and indelible imagery.
Brooklyn Magazine: Your films seem to exist outside of historical time and inside a mythic one, and yet Evolution also seems to speak to current developments in science and technology that are moving civilization toward what many have called a “post-human” world. Do you believe that a technological evolution toward something like the reversal of gender or reproductive roles will also involve a sort of fascist power hierarchy, as Evolution implies?
Lucile Hadžihalilović: I think it’s not so much about today—it’s not only today that we can imagine a post-human era, I think it’s something very, very old, the idea that humans can metamorphose into other kinds of beings, and it’s also something from mythology and folklore. So I guess my approach was a bit more connected to these folklore stories or mythologies, but also we [Hadžihalilović and co-screenwriter Alante Kavaite] tried to work into the script and tried to imagine if it might somehow be possible that boys could bear children. It seems that in real life maybe yes, but certainly not in the way it happens in the film, and there is always something very, very irrational in the film. It was young boys with their bellies which in no way can be a scientific idea even if we wanted to try to make men pregnant—it would not be happening like that. The story was more things from the unconscious and mythology, in a way. I can see that those ideas very much in the air, though, because there are a lot of scientific advances now that are linked to these questions.
That makes sense because I found Evolution more difficult to parse as an allegory than Innocence. There seem to be aspects of the film’s narrative and motifs that resist rational or logical analysis. Is the film intended to be more of a dream than Innocence, that is, less of a straightforward story and more like a multilayered one with conflated, combined, and substituted images?
Yes, absolutely. As you said, Innocence can be seen as an allegory or as a comment on society. But Evolution is about the inner world of this boy, his fears, his expectations. This is a child who will become a teenager, and he has fears about his body and sexuality. It’s much more dealing with the unconscious. It’s a more intimate story than Innocence. Because of that it’s not a comment on society even if there are some elements you can take like that. There’s a small community, but it’s not about a dystopia, it’s more like there’s a boy and his mother, and the other characters are echoes of them. It’s not a real society or proposition. As you said, it’s something more irrational and coming from the unconscious. It had to stay mysterious and irrational at some point.
Well, you’ll have to pardon me, because the next few questions deal with the film’s relationship with social reality. Critics have seized upon the allegorical elements of both of your films that address the universal rituals that attend both male and female puberty, but I’m struck by how both films entangle those rituals with authoritarian involvement from adults, who are almost always female. Do you see such involvement from adults in the maturation of children as inherently invasive, exploitative, or abusive, and if so, why? Where do adult males fit into this scenario?
Well, first of all, the reason there are no men in Evolution is because I thought that if the film is seen from the point of view of the boy who is going to change, to grow up, to evolve, if there are no adult men then it is a very frightening situation for the boy because he does not know what he is going to become. That’s what the film is about: what am I going to be when I grow up? It’s a way, a very exaggerated way of expressing this feeling. And maybe it’s because the story begins with a boy and not a group, so it’s very interesting to have the link with the mother because the film is about birth and giving birth. So that’s an interesting couple, the boy and his mother, and all of these feminine characters are echoes of the mother. Or a girl who can make him escape from his mother into this other world. I don’t know, maybe it’s my personal experience as a child dealing with women around me as opposed to men. I liked it to be a boy and not a girl when I started writing the script because I thought it was a bit less of a cliché and also more striking yet also more universal, this kind of fear of change, even this fear of having something inside you, something alive—maybe what is alive in him is a new self. It’s a way of opening the story up to something that’s about more than the fear of pregnancy.
I can see that in my films the adults are enigmatic figures, not real characters but phantasmagoria, and that they are somehow oppressive. Mainly, there’s not much of a link between children and adults in my films—it’s as if they are living in separate worlds. I don’t know really why it is like that. But I can see how that’s true, and how because there are not so much links or a real understanding, the adults become the ones who instill the rules—as you said, they are the authorities. That’s a very common thing to experience as a child—that it’s for no reason, that the authority has no meaning somehow, that you have to submit to it, to society, and that it’s for your own good, and then you understand later there are other reasons behind it.
It seems to me that Innocence contains a critique of the manipulation of female adolescent rites of passage for the gaze of adult males, but Evolution‘s critique of the adult female exploitation of pre-adolescent boys remains elusive since the women may be mutants, or an evolved species, or not of this world. Was this intended in order to imagine a social order beyond that of our world, or is there a connection in the film to an existing social order that takes more effort on the part of the viewer to figure out?
It begins with this idea that sometimes when you’re a child and you don’t understand why adults are behaving in a way that is not fair, you begin to believe they aren’t your parents, or that they’re not even human. It’s as simple as that, somehow. In Evolution, I didn’t want the film to have this image of female children being oppressed by male adults. For me, Innocence isn’t really about that because there are also women in the theater—but okay, I can understand why people would imagine it’s most likely to be men. So in Evolution I didn’t want it to have this, and I wanted to avoid that by having a boy and not a girl as the main character. So then the relation to the adult is a boy to his mother. To have female rather then male adults was a way to say it’s not so much a question of man and woman in my films, than a question of children and adults. Then it can be about the fear of castration, if you want, but it’s something more general than that.
In Innocence the girls leave the school in different ways—escape, death in attempting to escape, becoming part of the system as a teacher, or legitimate “graduation.” But in Evolution there are fewer possibilities for the boys—only subjugation or rescue. Is this because there is a different system at work in molding—and biologically remaking—the boys?
I haven’t thought about that in terms of boys having less possibilities of escaping the system—maybe it’s against my will that it happened like that in the film. I just had the feeling with Evolution that I was doing a smaller story somehow—a boy and his mother. Innocence, which is based on a Frank Wedekind story, had much larger, problematic issues it was dealing with. Evolution is a more modest, intimate story, and so there are fewer possibilities for the individual in this story. Quite unconsciously I think that the boy could transform himself into another creature somehow.
Rushing, engulfing water, appears in both of your feature films. I was struck by the underwater, or under-fluid, photography in Evolution. The water scenes allow the viewer to see through the liquid toward submerged objects or the surface of the water itself, while the scenes or shots that take place within fluid evoke a viscosity that creates the tangible sensation of being immersed embryonically. How did you achieve this?
We were very lucky to work with a guy [Manuel Dacosse] who is a diver and cameraman and who knows very well the underwater around [the Spanish island of] Lanzarote. And at the same time these images are well known, it’s very easy to find these images on the internet, it belongs to the unconscious. He understood very well at some point what we were looking for—something very abstract, not too descriptive. We wanted to play with lights and movement and not show flora or fauna, to give a feeling that this world is attractive, weird, and scary, and that there is a very thin separation between under and outside of the water. This was the mood we were discussing, and he understood how to get these kind of shots at the location.
Your films are evocative and palpable in their sensorial details, yet enigmatic and oblique in meaning. How do you achieve that sort of dichotomy from a visual and narrative angle?
Yeah, there’s a kind of opposition. I was always looking for small textures for details rather than precise motifs or elements that could be recognizable. The film is about mood and archaic feelings, so it’s a lot about details, about textures—that’s the word we were using all the time, trying to get textures on location and in the sets, textures and colors rather than identifiable elements. I was very afraid to make the film, for instance, in digital because we couldn’t have this blurring quality. We needed to get these textures because the film is supposed to be very mental yet at the same time very simple. Both realistic and totally oneiric, that thin line where we wanted to stay, trying to get that mood. It was always very important to me to have real locations and not to shoot in a studio, because even if it’s an imaginary world I thought that we needed to have real walls and real stains on the walls where the boy can imagine a whole world.
In that regard, what are your cinematic and other artistic influences? I see a lot of Buñuel in your work, but anyone else… ?
I like Buñuel very, very much, but I never thought what I’m doing is linked to him. I would more say as a reference… Tarkovsky because he’s very organic, mental, and spiritual. I think a film like Stalker left a very strong impression on me because it’s about both the visible real world and the real strong elements of nature, but also about the invisible. And now Apichatpong Weerasethakul—he’s a very inspiring example to me because he’s talking about memory, dreams, mythology, and at the same time the concrete, tangible aspects of the world.
Maybe to bring it all together in terms of the tangible and the mysterious—the significance of the starfish, and the recurrence of star-shaped imagery, in Evolution seems clear given the centrality in the story of asexual reproduction. But the star-shape appears also in Innocence—what is the significance of this shape in that film, and how does it connect to that in Evolution? Do you see yourself continuing to follow this thread and its related themes in your upcoming projects?
Someone told me a few months ago that there is a star in Innocence. I was very surprised—I didn’t realize there were the same motifs at the beginning of both films. I don’t know what the meaning of the star or starfish is. I guess the star motif has very deep and multiple meanings in our subconscious, so maybe I am attracted to this motif because it has different meanings and I don’t know what they are. Maybe that’s why I’m making these films. Maybe in the next one there will be a star so I can figure it out.