The odd and resonant Evolution is a beautiful and seductive slice of art-house horror. Written and directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, the French-language film circles around its central mysteries without addressing them directly. Its elusive nature is one of its greatest strengths. Evolution left me wondering what the rest of the story could be, but it was satisfying all the same.
Evolution is told through the point of view of Nicolas, one of several young boys being raised on a barren, rocky island. The island is populated solely by the boys and their respective mothers, and the nurses and single doctor of the island’s clinic. The boys all resemble each other, as do the mothers, as do the nurses. Their lives are a monotony of the mothers taking the boys to the sea, washing them, dressing them, feeding them, medicating them. At intervals the boys are brought to the clinic. While the boys are allowed to play they are not permitted to swim.
But Nicolas does swim, one day, and sees what he believes is a boy’s body tangled among the rocks far beneath the surface. His mother brushes Nicolas’s story away as imagination after she investigates. But her denial only raises Nicolas’s suspicions, and he begins to doubt what he has been told. His experiences at the clinic deepen his misgivings about what is happening to him and the other boys. A sympathetic nurse reveals some of the secrets of the island’s inhabitants, allowing Nicolas to recognize that his mother has been lying to him all along.
The cast is tiny, with the focus almost entirely on only three actors. Their restrained performances carry the film easily. Max Brebant is fascinating as the main character, Nicolas–a strange, impassive child who conveys emotion with blinks and sharp intakes of breath. Julie-Marie Parmentier plays the character known only as Mother with the kind of cool, dutiful, detached affection reserved for other people’s pets. And Roxane Duran portrays the kind nurse, Stella, who actually does love Nicolas–although we can only speculate why.
Evolution is also an incredibly subtle film, and watching it is like watching a dream unfold. The dry landscape of the island is grey and stark, while the world beneath the sea is rich with color and life. The film moves slowly, and with a finely-controlled sense of what will be left unknown. There are lingering scenes of the ocean, closeups of the characters’ pale faces, repeated, ritualized scenes of the children’s daily routines and of the women taking lanterns to visit the sea at night. The susurrus of the sea, the crunch of feet on sand and gravel, and the murmur of soft voices make up the soundtrack, with only the barest synthetic tones added to certain scenes.
But the film is also ripe with nightmare images. There are shelves full of malformed fetuses preserved in jars. The dim and decayed hospital where the boys waste away drips with water and sagging paint. Food is grey and muddy, and looks as if it is filled with worms. Even blood takes on a greenish tone when it is spilled.
And the distortion of reproductive roles creates powerful discomfort. There is the bizarre birth ritual enacted by the mothers, the rapt faces of the nurses as they watch and rewatch a film of a caesarian section being performed, the experiments on the boys that echo the way male seahorses carry their young. The intimate interactions between the boys and the women around them are not exactly sexual but are still deeply uncomfortable to watch.
Evolution haunts me as a blend of folklore, fairy tale, and exquisite body horror. At first glance it seems a superficial story, but Nicolas’s naivete underscores how much more to this film lies below the surface. This is not a case of an underdeveloped plot stretched to movie length. Evolution is instead a rich, convoluted tale which we can only glimpse through the eyes of someone who is unaware of the bigger picture. It is artful, and disturbing, and quietly horrifying. I highly recommend it.