Evolution (Évolution)

France (2015) Dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic

Can arthouse and horror successfully mix? Evolution leans far more towards arthouse than horror yet contains some deeply unsettling scenes that can turn a stomach in a way many splatter fests could only dream of.

Set in an undetermined coastal location (shot in Lanzarote), the inhabitants are a small group of preteen boys and plainly dressed women. The boys have been told they are ill thus are fed daily with a meal consisting of a strange sludge like stew and medicine resembling ink diluted in water.

No questions are asked but one boy, Nicolas (Max Brebant) becomes inquisitive when he thinks he saw a dead body underwater, which his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) denies. One night Nicolas and his friend Victor (Mathieu Goldfeld) catch their mothers engaged in a bizarre ritual, and are sent to hospital as punishment, where they undergo strange operations

It is immediately apparent writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic has no intention of allowing the audience an easy entry into her world, and even those who don’t mind indulging in directors’ whims might find this a bit of a challenge. Not everything is so obtuse and impenetrable but explanations are demonstrably low on the agenda.

One thing relatively easily decipherable is the imminent arrival of puberty as a central theme but not in the way that is instantly obvious. Hadzihalilovic takes great delight in subverting this, not just for the shock factor but in a provocative manner that plays on male fears whilst not exactly painting women in a positive light either.

So, if this isn’t a feminist statement then what is it? Swiftly detectable is the complete absence of male adults in this remote coastal province; the sole adult presence is the mothers, none of whom seem to be beyond thirty. Presented as a sort of seaside Stepford Wives, they dress identically in drab clothes, hair tied back tightly, no make-up, and nary a loving smile for their sons.

When not swimming in the inviting waters the boys are kept at home, spartan buildings with peeling walls, the barest minimum of furniture and not a mod con in sight, disguising any indication of modernity. The most extravagant utensils are a pencil and notebook that provide Nicolas with an outlet, drawing what he sees in his imagination or in the world around him.

After espying his mother and the other women performing their odd nighttime activities, Nicolas is carted off to the hospital, another building bereft of hi-tech instruments or anything as garish as colour or warmth for its decor. The nurses also dress in the same austere manner as the mothers, while the sterility of the atmosphere matches the dilapidated walls.

The build up to this point has been quite – not serenely quiet but unnervingly quiet – still, foreboding and ominous. This mood is maintained but it gets colder once the revelations are drip fed into the surprisingly linear narrative. We are given a huge visual clue via the sole piece of technology in the entire hospital, which we don’t want to believe what we see to be relevant or worse, true.

Of course, this could be a red herring – spoiler: it isn’t – and this is where the horror is derived from. As we try to reconcile this idea, the feeling towards the eventual revelation is one of discomfort and disgust. Unfortunately, Hadzihalilovic decides we don’t need to know the reason behind this so we instead pity the poor boys as they disappear from the ward once they have fulfilled their usefulness.  

Not all of the women are bad however. One young nurse Stella (Roxane Duran), presumably little more than a teenager herself, takes a liking to Nicolas and secretly offers him comfort and companionship. Here Hadzihalilovic teases the natural progression of puberty of sexual awakening, but while Nicolas is too young to act on this Stella reveals her rebellious side by showing the young lad what they are both missing out on.

The mystery of the location is clouded further by the strange circular markings on the backs of the woman, reminiscent of the suction pads on an octopus tentacle. The suggestion – or inference on our part – is that perhaps this is alternate world or even another planet in which the technological developments are in between a state of regression and advancement of our own.

Who knows? At that is one of the problems with this film in that we are never sure just what we are seeing and what we are supposed to make of it. Using our imaginations is one thing, a little confirmation or a sign that we are in the right ballpark is key to our enjoyment, and naturally, we are left dangling at the end.

Hadzihalilovic hasn’t made a film to be enjoyed but one to experience and cause us to think, proving divisive for those who like to be clear on what and how they feel about a film. This extends to the performances, which are uniformly committed and young Max Brebant is clearly a future face to watch out for, but when you can’t tell what they are supposed to be it’s hard to say if they good or not.

The photography however is simply stunning especially the underwater scenes which are crying out for an HD presentation (this is a DVD only release). The vividness of the crystal clear water and the buoyancy of the marine plant life undulating at the will of the water are hypnotic to watch. The rest of the film is framed in a dispassionate and clinical manner apropos to the tone of the story.

Evolution has something about it which is both bewitching and bewildering. Its lack of visceral scares already alienates blood and gore horror fans whilst its presentation is densely oblique and makes the arthouse audience work very hard to embrace the director’s vision. Ultimately, this may prove a challenging viewing experience for many but certainly not a forgettable one.