Watching Evolution feels like being underwater. One minute you’re swimming, maybe trying to see what’s at the bottom, and at the moment you see something strange (something you have never seen before), you have to come up for air. You reach the surface and gasp. What was it you saw? How will you describe it?
A traditional review is neither possible nor fair for a film as mysterious and dreamlike as Evolution. The second feature from French director Lucile Hadzihalilović, it tells of an island of boys and the adult women who raise them. It’s a short, hallucinatory experience that combines the striking visuals of Stanley Kubrick with the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Although its cryptic imagery may exasperate viewers in search of easy answers, Evolution remains a bold and startling film whose rewards lie beneath the surface, available to anyone willing to dive in and seek.
When Evolution begins, 10-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) takes one such daring swim. The water is choppy, but he isn’t afraid. He’s a natural swimmer and explorer in the way most adolescents are. When he catches sight of a drowned boy buried under the rocks, the film reaches a turning point. The sight of the drowned boy fills Nicolas with fear and excitement — the twin sensations of coming-of-age — and he will never be the same again. He dashes out of the water in a panic, but director Hadzihalilović remains still. Throughout Evolution, she watches the drama unfold with the unwavering confidence of a director who knows what she’s doing. It’s the sort of stability viewers need in a world that only gets stranger.
Nicholas’ tiny village is sparse and surrounded by nothing but mountains and sky. Hadzihalilović was born in Morocco, and it makes sense that she would be comfortable depicting such a secluded and sandy place. When Nicholas’ mother appears, she wears a plain, burlap dress and stands in front of a stove with the closed-off body language of a born disciplinarian. When Hadzihalilovic reveals the contents of the pot she’s stirring, the sight is repulsive. It’s a stew of squid ink and worms. More than the boy’s discovery of the drowned boy — death representing a common symbol for innocence lost (Stand By Me, The Virgin Suicides) — it is the sight of these worms that comes as a shock. Why is a mother cooking worms for her son? Hadzihalilovic seems interested in exploring the maternal figure, or at least subverting viewers’ expectations regarding the character’s selfless care and devotion.
When Nicolas tells his mother about the drowned boy, she dismisses it outright. She feeds him worm stew, injects him with a goopy “medicine” and puts him to sleep. When she closes the window over his bed, the room turns pitch black. The boy’s clear-eyed curiosity becomes suppressed by an emotionless authority figure, and it could serve as a stand-in for the entire film. While Nicolas seeks knowledge, his mother shuts out the light.
Evolution turns from seaside mystery to Cronenbergian horror when it transitions into a sterile hospital ward. The boys of the village are chained to beds while emotionless women pick and probe at their stomachs. The all-female employees seem like disturbed sickos, but maybe they have their reasons. After all, every civilization finds the justifications it needs.
Elliptical and predominantly visual, Evolution will frustrate any viewer unwilling to let go of common sense. Every shot carries the implication of hidden meaning, and because the setting is so barren, even the objects in the frame seem to hold a special significance. During a press screening of Evolution, one older, male critic walked out 10 minutes before the film was over. For a moment, I wondered if he had a point. Even within the film’s limited 81-minute runtime, much of Hadzihalilović’s imagery repeats itself. As she cuts between ocean waves and evil glares, it can be easy to get lost or bored by the film’s silent refusal to actually tell viewers what’s going on.
It could be said that Evolution bears a resemblance to Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, another 2016 film that uses startling visuals to tell the story of an innocent young person corrupted by a selfish adult world. But whereas Refn relied on bracing electronic music and surface opulence to distract from a deceptively simple plot, Hadzihalilović does the opposite. She erases all extraneous objects and minimizes auditory disruptions so that only moods, atmosphere and the most fleeting of glances can clue viewers into the film’s core mysteries. Like the boy at the bottom of the ocean, the enigma of Evolution will only deepen upon reflection.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.