French writer and director Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more fascinating, if elusive figures of contemporary French cinema. Perhaps best known for her collaborations with her partner, Gaspar Noé — including producing, writing, and editing credits on his films Carne (1991), I Stand Alone (1998), and Enter the Void (2009) — her own directorial output has been limited, but mesmerizing. She’s roughly put out one feature in each decade of her career: titles like La bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996 — technically this is a short, but at more than fifty minutes in length, it feels like a feature to me — Innocence (2004), and her latest, Evolution (2015). Though it was completed last year, it made the festival rounds earlier this year and is now finally getting a theatrical release in New York (and other select cities) thanks to IFC Films. Hadžihalilović has spoken repeatedly in interviews that this delay in directing has more to do with the difficulties acquiring financing than anything else, which is unfortunate, but not hard to understand: her films are slippery, at least where genre and conventional narrative is concerned, but they are also filled with wonder and beauty.
Evolution is no exception to this rule and may just be her most beautiful film to date. Set on a remote island — Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands — the film follows Nicolas (Max Brebant), who lives with his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), or at least a young woman acting as his caretaker, in a sparsely-populated village made up of only adolescent boys and their mothers, all pale women with strange eyes and reddish hair. His world is turned upside down when he’s convinced he has found the body of a dead boy floating in the ocean, though his mother dismisses this claim as fantasy or nightmare; all she finds in the water is a red starfish, which transfixes him. He begins to question their entire way of life: whether or not she really is his mother, where she and the other women disappear to at night, why he has to take special medicine that she prepares for him every day, why so many boys go off to a delipidated hospital for invasive surgeries, and why some of them disappear.
Not an easy film to classify, Evolution straddles the lines between body horror, Lovecraftian science fiction, and somber coming-of-age drama. Overall, the film belongs far more in the loose category of the French fantastique than it does in outright horror. This murky sense of genre bending and resistance to immediate classification also fits many of my other recent favorites: releases from this year like Cosmos (2015) and Elle (2016), but also Under the Skin (2013), Maps to the Stars (2014), and Duke of Burgundy (2014). Like Under the Skin, Evolution follows its protagonist closely while revealing almost no personal details about the character, no back story, and very little context to the eerie and often horrific events being portrayed on screen. And even more so than Hadžihalilović’s Innocence, Evolution is stubbornly, though refreshingly elusive. The film relies on almost vignette-like snippets of events that befall Nicolas, and while all his emotions are clearly expressed, his motivations — and often his actions in general — remain somewhat of a mystery.
Perhaps this is easiest to accept because he is a child on the verge of adolescence and his own body remains a mystery to him. Like the alien in Under the Skin, he is an outsider to the obscure world of adults and much of the film is shaped by his attempts to become part of, or at least observe or understand, their world. There is no established norm, no realism, at least as we know it, and in this way, if they can be compared to the work of another filmmaker, Evolution — and also Innocence — are reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009) and The Lobster (2015). All four films share an obsession with rigid rules and exacting measurements, social strictures that must always be carefully observed or the protagonists risk offending some secret, but seemingly omnipotent cabal.
This obsession with rules, schedules, and numbering can even be described as Sadeian in nature; it’s was a preoccupation of the great writer’s work, but also his personal life. His time in prison was defined — both by himself and his jailors — by rigid routines. In the seminal study, Sade, Fourier, Loyola, Roland Barthes wrote, “The mania for numbers can be read at various levels; first, neurotic defense: in his fiction, Sade is constantly bookkeeping: classes of subjects, orgasms, victims, and, above all… in a purely obsessive twist, he he accounts for his own oversights, his errors in numbering; further, number, when it deranges a rational system (we may rather say may purposely to derange it), has the power to produce a surrealistic shock” (179). This all-consuming, even totalitarian fixation on numbers and systems that results in a disruptive, anarchistic kind of logic was what so endeared Sade to the Surrealists, and is also a major feature of Lanthimos’s work, but equally — though it is arguably expressed more subtly and with less black humor — Hadžihalilović’s.
In Evolution, the film is defined up by these arcane rituals: daily “medicine” distributed in Nicolas’s food, which looks like worms mixed into in a green, paste-like stew; what could only be described as group bathing, where the boys are brought to a shallow pool at the seaside to be washed by their caretakers; the nightly meetings of the village’s women; and, especially, in the hospital visits. Innocence is even more reliant on this type of ordering. Based on the German playwright Frank Wedekind’s novella Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (1903), the film follows a series of girl children who arrive at a secluded boarding school via coffin, with no knowledge of how they got there or why. They are forced to observe strict rules of conduct — for years — until they gradually move up through the classes and graduate. Rule-breaking, or worse, escape, is punished harshly, but the repetitive, mundane nature of their daily lives in a source of overwhelming existential dread, driving some of the girls to acts of desperation and even violence.
In a sense, Evolution functions as the inverse to Innocence; both films are concerned with adolescents (though the former is a solely female world) imprisoned in a lushly beautiful natural habitat. While Evolution takes place on an island, the mysterious school of Innocence is in the middle of the woods. Both films borrow from a rich tradition of genre films about insular, even isolated communities, largely made up of girls and women: titles like Don’t Deliver Us From Evil (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and Alucarda (1977). And like these films, both Innocence and Evolution focus on themes of social — and sexual — conditioning and the often deep-seated anxieties about both.
Evolution, in particular, is concerned with the exploration of bodies. Puberty and adolescence is not treated as a natural, inevitable course, but as something alien, even monstrous. And while Innocence uses butterflies to symbolize emerging female sexuality — a trope found everywhere in cult cinema from The Collector (1965) and Daisies (1966) to The Duke of Burgundy (2014) — Evolution relies on the use of a vivid red starfish. Set against a backdrop of churning waves or black volcanic sand, it often resembles a wound, a theme found in Innocence (when one girl beats another with a switch, for no apparent reason, and then tastes her blood), but especially in Evolution. Nicolas cuts his hand on a rock, is fixated with his belly button — the focal point of his surgeries — and begins to notice the sucker-shaped scars on the backs of his mother and all the other women of the island. His pubescent body, and the experience of puberty itself, is related to an illness in the film. He asks his mother why he has to take medicine and she responds, “Because at your age, your body’s changing and weakening.” He says, “Like lizards?” She says, “In a way. Like lizards or crabs,” and later explains that starfish are difference. “They only change once, at birth. A new cycle begins.”
And speaking of birth and cycles, if Innocence depicts puberty and sexual maturation as a source of dread, Evolution reaches back further still, at least in biological terms: here, pregnancy itself is fundamentally monstrous. Acts of genesis, breeding, and procreation are tangible sources of mystery and terror. In an interview with Film Comment, Hadžihalilović said, “A film that informs me a lot is The Brood,” and she spoke of Spanish director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador as being another key influence. His ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child, 1976) can be seen as a direct precursor to Evolution in some ways. A vacationing couple — who are going on one last trip before the impending birth of their first child — visit an abandoned island off the coast of Spain, where they discover that all the adult inhabitants are dead, seemingly at the hands of the island’s children.
Similarly, in some ways Innocence can be viewed as a response to Serrador’s earlier La residencia (1970), about an all-girls school for troubled teens that erupts in violence. While this is something of a spin on the giallo film, as it follows a trail of disappearances that are ultimately revealed to be murders at the hands of the headmistress’s troubled teen son, this mania results from his sexual awakening and his mother’s deliberate repression of it. Nicolas and his mother have a similar relationship and she — and the other women on the island — seem determined to keep the boys frozen in time. Sexuality is not repressed, but merely denied, cut off. In an interview, Hadžihalilović said that the origin point of the story that became Evolution began with a series of impressions and feelings, one of which was the relationship between the mother and child, specifically the theme of “her not wanting him to go away, and hoping to keep him a child.”
The latent sexual themes of Innocence are represented by disturbing scenes where select girls are chosen to perform in a midnight ballet. They dress as butterflies and dance in front of unseen strangers — the implication being that this cabal has some unspoken control over the school itself — who they are never allowed to look at or interact with. But in Evolution, this becomes both more overt with its fixation on boys’ bodies and Nicolas’s sudden interest in the bodies of his mother and a strangely sympathetic nurse (Roxane Duran of Haneke’s The White Ribbon). Themes of budding sexuality become indistinguishable from themes of violation and trauma. Like the unseen spectators in Innocence, the nurses are repeatedly shown to sit in a small theater where they watch doctors performing surgeries on children. But it is the sympathetic nurse, called Stella — meaning “star” in Latin, thus connecting her both to the wound-like starfish and to Stella Maris, an incarnation of the Catholic Virgin Mary, meaning “Our Lady of the Sea” — that serves as the connecting point between the unbridled, natural forces of sexuality and those of social control. There is no figure truly like her in Innocence and she is a fascinating cipher, one who leaves the film with an unexpectedly hopeful note.
And it is understandable, perhaps, that gushing water and the roaring sea stand as symbols for chaos in Hadžihalilović’s films. In both Innocence and Evolution, it represents the uncontrollable forces of biology, including sexuality, maturation, even procreation. Water remains an elemental resistance to the themes of rigid control that the youthful protagonists of Innocence and Evolution strain against, but are often bent and broken by. Evolution’s more Lovecraftian flavor is represented by the women’s nighttime rituals at the shore — a scene so chilling and unnerving that it can only be compared to something like Possession (1981) — which seem to be an attempt to impose order over this chaos, to take Hadžihalilović’s Sadein themes of systems and numbering to their ultimate, totalitarian conclusions and bind nature itself to their social order. After all, it was Barthes’ who wrote that “Sade had a phobia: the sea.”