While bobbing around on the festival circuit last year, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’ Evolution earned praising comparisons to both Under The Skin and Upstream Color, placing it fairly high on my must-see list for whenever it eventually made its way to UK shores. I can see where such remarks were coming from, but am disappointed to report that the gap between those pictures and this one is remarkably vast.
Evolution is, first and foremost, a quasi-sci-fi mood piece that sustains with virtually no exposition, instead relying almost completely on oppressive ambience and some admittedly sumptuous visuals. It is here, more or less, that such favourable comparisons end, however. For despite an evident mastery of technique (the sound design is impeccable etc), Hadzihalilovic’s film steadfastly refuses to capture the imagination in the ways Glazer and Carruth’s films managed to so vividly.
The film takes place on a small, rocky island and in its surrounding waters. We meet a boy, Nicolas (Max Brebant), who enjoys diving in the rock pools. One day whilst doing so he sees the dead body of a boy of similar age to him. Startled, he races to the nearby township to alert his ‘mother’ Stella (Roxane Duran), but when she dives to investigate all she returns with is a red starfish.
During this introduction we come to sense that this is no normal island community. It appears populated solely by young boys and their mothers-come-nursemaids, and the township is, ostensibly, some kind of hospital or medical facility. There are no other inhabitants. Whether the children are being protected and cured of some unknown illness or being experimented on is left for the viewer to guess. Nevertheless, as the film ebbs onward, we are given the impression that Nicolas is in danger, though the exact specifics of this threat are rarely made tangible.
Instead we are ‘treated’ to a circling series of images; boys diving in brilliant crystalline waters, the ‘mothers’ preparing a pregnant woman for birth, the children lying in their barren rooms, half concealed in the relentless murk of Manuel Dascosse’s painterly but profoundly monotone photography. The corners of these rooms disappear into the blackness as much as the depths beneath the rolling waves. Minor moments distinguish themselves for their assumed narrative import. Nicolas cuts himself on the craggy ocean floor, for instance. But more often Hadzihalilovic is content to leave us pondering the import of this over images of waving coral or myriad particles awash in the ocean waters like innumerable floating stars.
There is virtually no dialogue and little in the way of score. The aforementioned sound design is cavernous and foreboding despite its relative minimalism. Evolution is a womb-like experience; a sealed space away of the world. In its own way it is very successful at defining its otherness. But this is far from saying that what it amounts to is any way satisfying or engaging.
Being so belligerently coy with specifics is one thing. I usually relish cinema that asks me to ask questions. But there is precious little incentive here to engage in the film’s mysteries. The characters are as murky as the depressing hospital wards they totter around in. As enigmatic as it all is, Evolution so successfully removes the usual handholds from the audience that latching onto it at all feels oddly moot. It is so filled with its own vague importance that it assumes it’s got you hooked. In my case, it most certainly had not. This misplaced confidence becomes almost irksome. Pretty quickly Evolution simple feels pretentious because there are so few reasons offered to believe it knows what it’s trying to say.
As things progress, notions of body horror begin to assert themselves. Both the children and the mothers possess physiology that sets them apart from ‘conventional humans’, and the insinuation is made quite heavily that this is through a combination of selective breeding and scientific experimentation. But to what end? If, as the title suggests, this is meant to represent some evolutionary step engineered by man (or, more pointedly, woman), what of it? The film’s conclusion points heavily toward fleeing from such endeavours. …Is that all?
Granted, the 82 minutes presented here fly by, but that is not to say that the film feels particularly pacy. The entire experience is more like being left permanently adrift. There’s no urgency to proceedings, and, thanks to the defiant rejection of narrative conventions (again, usually something I find refreshing) no real way of telling where you are in the film nor who or what is worth investing in. Quite often I had to consciously pull myself back into the moment because I was running the risk of detaching completely.
This sonorous tone poem craves for the viewer to get swept up in its own self-importance, but it’s just as likely to leave you feeling like an outsider looking in should you even care to see. Technically, yes, very impressive. But so confoundingly vague that it all too easily sinks into its own murky depths.