Filmmaker Lucile Hadžihalilović, partner of controversial helmer Gaspar Noé, brings her long-awaited second feature to cinema screens this Friday. Evolution is an intriguing, at times unfathomable but constantly mysterious and moody piece which morphs into an unsettling and sinister take on mother-son dynamics and the circle of life. CineVue’s Matt Anderson sat down with the director to discuss the restrictions of childhood, growing up by the ocean, directing a child cast and shooting underwater.
Matt Anderson: Previously in your career you collaborated closely with Gaspar; how does that creative dynamic function today?
Lucile Hadžihalilović: It isn’t the same as when we made La Bouche de Jean-Pierre because at that time we worked on the same film; Gaspar the camerawork and I the editing. We produced the film ourselves. Now, we each want to make our own films but we continue to work quite closely, we show each what we’re writing and creating and we advise each other.
MA: Innocence took place in a school where the girls were restricted from leaving. There’s a similar sense of restriction or imprisonment in Evolution. What is it about that idea that intrigues you?
LH: I think it’s really the feeling that I had during my own childhood. I was brought up in a very normal environment but it’s the idea that we place children in a cocoon to raise and protect them. I have tended to portray this visually in such settings in an exaggerated, reinforced manner. The children in both films do have a certain freedom to roam – the forest in Innocence and being able to swim in the sea in Evolution – but you notice there are definite limits. It’s a form of prison because they can only go so far, they see another world that they want to go to. Some can get there, but others can’t.
MA: The ocean is very important in Evolution. Did you grow up near to the sea?
LH: I lived in Morocco, first in the south and then Casablanca on the ocean. It’s something that is very familiar to me and I had always told myself that this film would be set in a sunny environment. I thought that it would be very interesting for a film which has elements of horror to take place under sunshine – even if half is in the hospital. Combining nature, the sea, the sun and light was very important.
MA: Why was the choice made to film Evolution on a volcanic island?
LH: I was not in my mind when writing the script. One of the producers thought of the Canaries; it was a place we could obtain funding and the setting worked very well. I visited several islands and liked the black sand of Lanzarote because it possessed a dramatic quality, an otherness. Instead of being a normal beach there is immediately something that is unsettling, as well as cliffs and the force of the sea; all of this combined superbly for the atmosphere we wanted. We are all of a sudden in another world, isolated. Not too far from reality but a little off kilter.
MA: From a school for girls in Innocence we move to an island with just boys and their mothers: why only these two groups of characters?
LH: My departure point was essentially of a young boy and his mother. There are then doubles around them – most prominently a nurse. The absence of an adult masculine figure evidently weighs very heavily. There are no men because in asking himself what he will be when he grows up, and in living that transformation, Nicolas (Max Brebant) will experience many anxieties. It’s an exaggerated form of reality. We could have imagined a village where the men were fishermen, leaving for the day, the boys left with their mothers. But symbolically, metaphorically the idea was that there could not be any men in the universe of the film.
LH: Exactly, like in a fairytale it’s a bit out of time and place. They speak French but are not in France. It is Somewhere. Even French is a little too insular; it would have been ideal to make the film in a very neutral English to further add to this idea of a nowhere setting. In reality it isn’t completely out of time because there are elements of the 1970s: there is a computer in the film and Alante Kavaite (Hadžihalilović’s co-screenwriter) and I knew we were dating the film’s period setting there. I was a child in the 70s and I grew up at the seaside. It’s funny that the Canaries are so close to Morocco, it’s not something I did consciously but I have asked myself whether it was really by chance or not that we filmed there. Although Morocco is not volcanic this type of landscape is a part of me.
MA: There are clear links between your two films – do you see them as the beginning of a kind of series?
LH: I haven’t thought of them in that way. Firstly, I started writing Evolution before Innocence with the idea of a mother taking her son to the hospital with stomach pains. But after reading the news story which gave rise to Innocence I moved on to that. I never said to myself “now I’m going to do a story about boys.” However, having done Innocence there are admittedly things which I have repeated: a small, closed community for one.
MA: Evolution has some quite shocking elements. What was the biggest challenge in directing the young cast given the subject matter?
LH: I think children are far less affected by it. Max was 13 during the shoot so he read the script, knew more or less the full story and didn’t care at all! For him it was about being able to swim in the sea and just make a film. He asked me two questions, which I found very interesting: will they be real injections and who will the girl be? What was real for him in this story was meeting the girl. All the rest is just exciting. For the others, I gave a rough idea of the overall story but didn’t want to complicate things too much. Some wanted to read the script and I answered their questions, but they didn’t understand it all on a metaphorical level. And the more “horrible” scenes were the ones that amused them the most. Being in the aquarium was a priviledge for Nicolas. The operating theatre was really fun for them. They obviously didn’t have an adult awareness of what the film is saying. Parents thought it was good for their boys to see the film but they watched it as a holiday film more than anything. Keeping their attention and concentration during the shoot was the most complicated thing.
MA: How did you come to work with cinematographer Manuel Dacosse?
LH: I saw the Belgian film Amer and met him because I found it magnificent visually. With Evolution we had a clear sense of direction and had just a few rules – Cinemascope, a static camera. We didn’t have much money or time so travelling shots just weren’t possible. Manuel doesn’t dive so for the underwater shots we worked with another cameraman who does and also knew the Canaries very well. He knew where to go to get the right shots at the right time. It was like having a second team for the scenes without actors. We explained to him what we wanted, the texture of algae and movement of the current and that the images needed to be quite dirty. Over time he really got it and having someone like him was precious.
MA: There are is uncertainty and ambiguity throughout the film, elements are left unresolved.
LH: When watching a film I like to be left in the dark to a certain extent. It stays with me and engages more than when all is understood too easily. I wanted that for a viewer of Evolution, that they be put in Nicolas’ shoes and share his strong sense of mystery and face the same things that he does. That means telling a story which revolves around him without giving too many clues. We wanted to make the world of the film coherent but thought it was dangerous to explain too much as that risked breaking its fundamentally elliptical, mysterious core. It works much like a dream, that’s the nature of Evolution.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens