Lucile Hadžihalilović’s debut feature, Innocence, depicted young girls cloistered within the confines of a strict boarding school. Evolution, the French director’s follow-up – which comes eleven years later – treads similar thematic lines in its exploration of childhood entrapment and restriction before wading neck-deep into darker waters with a sinister, unsettling take on reproduction and the circle of life.
Narrative stepping stones are oceans apart, questions abound and the see-saw of filmic ambiguity tips back and forth in a film whose murky aloofness eventually gives way to slight irritation and a sense of unfulfilled potential.
In a coastal setting out of time and place, pre-teen boys and young women living an austere lifestyle are the only demographic groups to inhabit an isolated, arcane community. Buildings are near-derelict, the only food is slop resembling bottle green flubber and Nicolas (Max Brebant) is given a nightly dose of medicine from his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), despite appearing to be completely healthy. Swimming near to shore in the opening moments, he sees the lifeless body of another boy of his age caught among rocks on the bed, a red starfish on his stomach. His mother – whose porcelain skin, flame red hair and black eyes are shared by many of the women – tells him that he is imagining things. Where are all the men? Why are there no daughters? Why these strange goings on? All will be made perfectly unclear as we venture deeper into the heart of an unknown beast.
Other than burying crayfish carcasses and swimming with his mates, a sketchbook is Nicolas’ only past-time or personal escape. The Ferris wheel, games and animals he draws are nowhere to be seen in his hometown and a suspicion that the boys are there against their will or knowledge begins to slither through the volcanic black sand (of Lanzarote, where the film was shot). The director’s use of the colour red – the starfish, clothing, unexplained nosebleeds – is striking and sublime underwater photography from Manuel Dacosse is one of Evolution‘s strongest elements but as Hadžihalilović, the partner of fellow French shock-smith Gaspar Noé, twists the tale toward mild horror in the community’s sparse hospital from psychological slow boiler the minimalist script and slow pacing plateau to an anti-climactic finish. Nicolas’ tentative friendship with a nurse (Roxanne Duran) is as close as we come to genuine human interaction but even when the boys are subjected to awful procedures a viewer is kept at such a distance that emotional engagement is impossible.
Hadžihalilović is undoubtedly an intelligent and visionary filmmaker but the execution of an initially foreboding intrigue turns to tedium amid sporadic shocks in the second half of a slender 80 minute runtime. We share Nicolas’ point of view throughout and in forcefully suppressing his inquisitive nature the film steers us down the same path, left to take a stab in the dark with uneducated guesses.