It is difficult to discuss Evolution without giving away a lot of its surprises. Needless-to-say, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s masterful film (only her second in a decade) is disturbing, beautiful and restrained. Mysterious from beginning to end, the film challenges and intrigues, reaching down inside to grab hold of something within us all that is ancient and primordial, engaging on a level that exists within not only a collective imagination but our collective biology. As the tide of revelation comes in, new details are revealed, yet when it recedes it takes something else with it. So the audience is left to keep afloat in a cloudy brine of opaque truths making for a claustrophobic experience with no easy way out.
On a strange island, Nicolas (Max Brebant) lives with a group of other young boys overseen by a watchful group of androgynous women. They spend their days playing in the black sand and swimming in the crystal clear ocean, dutifully returning home to take their medicine as prescribed. After spying the corpse of another boy under the waves, Nicolas begins to wonder what their guardians are really up to and one night decides to investigate. What he discovers is an ancient, mysterious secret that is as disturbing as it is unclassifiable. Nicolas realises he needs to escape, luckily for him, one of the women, Stella (Roxane Duran), is willing to help.
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Evolution is a film of glimpsed details and nightmarish imagery. Seen primarily from Nicolas’s point of view, we only ever see what he sees, compounding the mystery which only seems to deepen the more he discovers. The boys and the women appear to be the only inhabitants of the island and while Nicolas’s discoveries reveal that the women belong to a strange, aquatic off-shoot of humanity conducting bizarre experiments, the reasons and the origins of this are left to the viewers’ own darkest imaginings. Hadzihalilovic wisely holds back for the majority of the film, only revealing things in increments with the occasional outburst of strangeness. It is a perfect strategy that frustrates and unnerves.
There have and will be a lot of comparisons between Evolution and the works of HP Lovecraft which is perfectly fitting. There is a tinge of apocalyptic sci-fi to the proceedings that hints at a larger mythology which informs the characters’ motivations but is only ever hinted at. While Hadzihalilovic has mentioned an inspiration from science fictions authors, there is a hint to another possible inspiration in the title itself and its relationship to the film’s setting. By placing the action on an island and focusing on the sea around it, it calls to mind the Galapagos Islands, which informed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. There is a feeling that the women of the island have lived there for many generations and with no natural predators, like the creatures of the Galapagos, have evolved for a life of isolation, linked to the surrounding ocean. The location has altered their biology to the point where they have become the fittest, changing their methods of procreation and adapting to a semi-aquatic existence.
There is much to admire about Evolution. The acting from the children is wonderful, predominantly by Max Brebart as Nicolas, and the women are beautiful and dangerous in equal measure, Julie-Marie Parmentier, in particular, bring a quiet menace to her mysterious androgyny. However, the real star of the show is Manuel Dacosse and is stunning cinematography. Dacosse is known for his superb work on the abstract horror films Amer and The Strange Color of your Body’s Tears and this film continues his impressive filmography. Every scene explodes with colour, from the opening shot of a coral reef beneath blue waves to the final shot of an industrial coastline he has the uncanny ability to draw out every inch of colour from the surroundings, whether he is using natural or artificial lighting. In fact, his ability to catch the sun’s rays through the surface of the ocean alone is heart-stopping in its splendour.
Evolution keeps its cards very close to its chest, revealing details only sporadically and even then not to the full satisfaction of some. But this is one of the film’s many strengths and is very effective to keep the audience guessing and leave us wondering about its darker, more enigmatic moments. Again, it is difficult to discuss without ruining too many of the more horrific surprises but at the very least, if the story is leaving one feeling a little adrift, the striking photography should be enough to keep one afloat. For fans of Lovecraft, or those who love stories of the unknown and unknowable then this film is a must see. There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy, and there is more in Evolution than at first meets the eye. Its intrigues are as deep as the ocean, and anyone who dares to dive in will be greatly rewarded.