Screenwriter: Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Alante Kavaite and Geoff Cox
Cast: Max Brebant (as Nicolas); Roxane Duran (as Stella); Julie-Marie Parmentier (as La mère); Mathieu Goldfeld (as Victor); Nissim Renard (as Franck)
Synopsis: In an isolated coastal community, consisting of only adult women and young boys, one "son" Nicolas (Brebant) starts to question his environment and those of their "mothers", whether his own mother (Parmentier) is actually his mother, and witnessing strange sights around him.
Evolution is naturally going to be difficult to talk about because to discuss the plot, it will invoke spoiling a lot of the first viewing of it. I went into Evolution with only two small pieces of knowledge about it. One - it's director/co-writer Lucile Hadzihalilovic is the wife of Gaspar Noe, who worked on the production of his early films and eventually came to directing her own film in 2004 with Innocence, making the eleven year sabbatical whether intended or not to her second feature film Evolution an incredible wait. Two - that it's about a young boy in a mysterious community where there are no adult men or young girls, mother and son families which in the trailer immediately suggested a potential body horror or sci-fi plot; (thankfully) it never spoilt a single thing within its few minutes, instead leaving the enticing air to view the film you rarely find in other film's trailers. To read even further into this review, even without reading parts marked as spoilers, could be too much information for some though. This type of storytelling on display in the film, elusiveness and vague answers, has immense danger both of being mired in obscurity without a deliberate point to it and, when you know what the secret is, the rewatches being marred by a lack of rewatchability and mystery after. The real goal of such a plot structure - be it a film, a book, a comic - is to create an unsettled mood, where the lasting effect is not answering a mystery only but the metaphorical meaning, creating an alien reality and/or inducing emotions perturbed by what you witness alongside answering the mystery.
Nautical symbolism stands out as a unique trait of Evolution, the serenity of the coastal environment by the sea, populated by pure white buildings, undercut by how cold the film's tone is, beginning with Nicolas' obsession with a bright red starfish that he discovers during the first scene of the film, it's beauty as a creature alarming and as appropriately alien as many things you witness in the film, especially with how Nicolas comes to find said starfish originally. The creatures that occupy the oceans of the world are amongst some of the most alien to us, reflecting images of our greatest nightmares as much as they can be stunning to witness, their tentacles and mollusc limbs startling to see alive and move. Aspects of this filter in vague glimpses in Evolution between the tranquil underwater photography, suckers of a squid and outright body horror, when seen, offering an alarming connection.
The "normal" human interactions as well are strange to the viewer. Baring one of the younger nurses (Duran), red haired and youthful, who develops sympathy with Nicolas and starts showing concern for him in either an motherly or compassioned way, every other woman that Nicolas interacts with including his "mother" almost looks identical, brown dresses or nurses clothes, with similar shaped faced and slicked back brown-blonde hair, looking like clones of each other. The symbolic nature of the medical equipment - as the boys are subjected to unknown surgery, injections, being fed on drips - brings an immediate clinical nature, a hospital despite any attempt at being warm and friendly evoking the baseness of human bodies being medicated and opened with scalpels.
The women are revealed to be possible half aquatic, half human figures who may be using the boys as surrogate mothers to breed further children, subverting gender as the boys "birth" others instead of women. The film is very oblique to what is exactly happening, but as it becomes immediately clear in the first ten minutes that a ritual or form of experimentation is taking place - the exact green mass of watery substances fed to Nicolas at every meal, the checkups with the female doctors and nurses, the instructions of his mother stern. Instead it becomes more of a film from the perspective of a young boy who will not know exactly what is going on to the events, the result leaving the viewing having to accept this obliqueness to the structure. Everything as a result is felt through the information that is not available to the viewer, that all he can learn as we do following him is from the most visceral images that startle him and the viewer likewise, more so as like him we are in his perspective as a young boy without any context for the sights and having to accept them as they are.
Within a film that doesn't pull punches, and hints at things that would people would hesitate in depicting in a mainstream English language film, this includes issues such as sexuality, within a fifteen rated film for its UK release the unexpected sight of a ritualistic combination of an orgy and dance chorography by the mothers witnessed from afar by Nicolas on a nearby sand dune, their nude bodies in a starfish formation writhing and smearing an unknown slime on themselves which evokes incestuous trains of thought as well as the boundary between human and other species. Without context to why such an act is carried out by the women, the mystery is the underlying power of the scene as it is with every other discovery Nicolas finds. When he is freed from the island by the kind nurse, whose name is revealed to be Stella, he is freed of their alien coastal world but that doesn't mean the questions of who he is will not appear especially as he grows older and rumination on his life takes place.
[Spoiler Warning Ends]
Following a lot of current, European cinema Evolution uses static camera shots with limited movement, adding to the eerie stillness of the environments and the performances. The problem I have with this common aesthetic style, a two dimensional lifelessness, is negated here as its as much part of the cold atmosphere; within the clinical medical and bare homes, with no decoration in Nicolas' bedroom baring a fish bowl with the red starfish in it, there is intentionally disconnected visual that make the choice of cinematography logical. That the underwater and beach shots are still beautiful and colourful with the aquatic life on display also means that in limiting the camera's ability to move across screen, that doesn't mean the cardinal sin of making a film drab for the sake of realism is on display either, showing a better use of this style especially as the setting is shown in its fullest. There is an uncomfortable sensuality to the film as well, a dark sensual tone due to the use of light and the lack of it in night scenes. A golden hue of light becomes both unbelievably atmospheric but also is used for some of the most explicit material of a sombre, minimalist work, be it shocking to Nicolas or to us.
The almost complete lack of music furthers this. Baring a few strands of unconventional notes - including a Cyclobe track - the rest of the film is mostly silence and is given a suffocating air as a result. Emphasis on sound effects instead makes up the tension of the film, especially that which is implied, the gristliness of the some of the scenes because of what is only implied than rather seen.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
Evolution follows the plot structure of an innocent existing within a community that, when the veneer is peeled back by them, reveals a conspiracy or horror that they struggle to escape from. Stories like this allow for speculation - I was continually thinking of any specific biological aspects of aquatic life that could be symbolically referenced - but they are as much dependant less on a plot reveal but their pervasive mood.
Significant to Evolution is that as a film created by a woman, there is an entirely different perspective of gender that should be considered than if the film was made and co-written by a man. While the mothers and nurses are "others" to Nicolas and the viewers, the film explicitly deals with gender especially in themes of birth and pregnancy. One of the most visceral scenes is what looks like real footage of a caesarean birth, at first not revealed but eventually witnessed in graphic detail, the reality of a human belly being open and the fat layer under the skin being peeled back evoking more Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971) than a splatter horror film, leading to a new life being birthed from the incision. While the film is placed in body horror, the female figures are not stereotyped as monstrous, which could've made the film entertaining in a more open way but would've compromised this film's specific tone completely, more so as with the presence of the red haired nurse who befriends Nicolas and becomes a sympathetic figure, even one with a presence of a fairytale figure in a later scene underwater together.
The fact that the film is not necessarily a horror movie in terms of the stereotypes of the genre and yet is quantifiably part of the genre is a significant factor to its abstract tone alongside it's content, from the inherently eeriness of the aquatic imagery to the medical content. This type of story structure is greatly helped by the blurring of what exact genre it is, undermining expectations of the genre usually seen and leading to an unpredictable tone. It also means, for the sake of the film's deeper meaning and artistry, fluxuations to the genre are liable to inherently happen but also whilst still retaining plot stylistics becoming incredibly unreal in mood.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Weird
Abstract Tropes: Nautical/Aquatic Symbolism; Child Protagonist; Medical Symbology; Psychosexual References; Gender Subversion; Body Horror; Pregnancy Metaphors; Lack of Music Score; Static Cinematography;
A rewarding surprise for the year 2016. More so as someone who has yet to see Innocence, her critically acclaimed debut, the absence from directing for over eleven years is hopefully one that will be corrected if Lucile Hadzihalilovic is able to get more films made from this one on. This means a great deal as this film is the kind of horror film that I gasp for as a man thirsts for water, rather than the clichés being wrung out something that feels like stepping into an alien environment that forces you to re-examine concepts such as the human body. At nearly eighty minutes only, its elusive tone makes it an outsider to other, more conventional horror films that would get more publicity, but in this exhibits all the potential over more viewings to compensate for its short feature length with so many emotions and images it will leave in my mind.