From Innocence director Lucile Hadžihalilović, Evolution is another one word title that provokes as much as it suggests. An enigmatic stone of a film, it’s a glowing entry in the sub-genre of fabulist science fiction of Never Let Me Go and Under the Skin. We first meet young Nicolas (Max Brebant) underwater. He floats above us, an alien presence visiting a strange and magical underwater world. Nicolas lives with his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) in a small rustic village of white houses on a black sanded volcanic island. There doesn’t appear to be any technology – no cars, telephones, or televisions – and Nicolas’ bedroom is as beautifully spare as a Flemish painting of an empty room.
Hadžihalilović is equally spare in exposition and our discovery of the uncanny is played out through gaps and glimpses, peeping like Nicolas himself into a world we scarcely understand. With a growing sense of unease, we realize that there only seem to be young boys on the island, all tended by placid women dressed in identical brown slips, none of whom appear to have eyelashes. The boys swim in the sea and play in the rock pools. Nicolas draws in his pad – his only form of private entertainment – and plays with the other boys. The food his mother prepares looks like an unappealing mush and he must drink a purple medicine each day not so much to counter a specific ailment but because of his ‘fragility’, his mother explains. Something is not right, a drowned boy is spotted under the sea, and Nicolas begins to suspect that his mother is not his mother at all. Our questions may not be Nicolas’ questions and Hadžihalilović, along with fellow screenwriters Alante Kavaite and Geoff Cox, drip feed details in drops of medicine.
A red starfish seems to be a clue and the shape is also spied when the women gather for a bizarre nocturnal tryst and in the surgical lights of an operating table. In the latter half of the film we are transferred to a small hospital. Here the women appear almost to be playing at nurses and doctors, just as earlier they were playing at being mothers. There is scant institutional sympathy with the exception of one nurse, (Roxane Durane familiar from Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon), who is moved by Nicolas’ plight and the two develop a bond of something approaching affection. It is a much-needed strand of warmth and hope, in what otherwise becomes an increasingly disconcerting slice of body horror, although the word horror is perhaps too extreme for the icky discomfort the film languidly evokes. Part of the almost dreamy tone is due to the beautiful work of cinematographer Manu Dacosse.
From the swaying fronds of underwater vegetation to the crashing waves in the rock pools and the dripping walls of the prison-like hospital, Evolution is never anything other than beautiful and establishes an enclosed universe in which the alien is tinged with normality, and normality is extrapolated into the odd. The body, regeneration, pregnancy and childhood are explored from an oblique angle and we are never fully certain as to what it is we are seeing. Is this an alien civilization, a scientific experiment or is this a new species, whose Galapagos-like isolation has led to a remarkable but utterly natural evolution? Fortunately, Hadžihalilović never sullies her vision with the deadening weight of explanation and what we are left with is a film which is an island unto itself, clear, unique and utterly fascinating.