Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s follow-up to Innocence is as poetic, disturbing and elusive as its predecessor.
Ten years after her wonderfully disquieting debut Innocence, Lucile Hadžihalilovic returns with a tale that feels intimately close to it, thematically and atmospherically, despite the differences in setting. Here again, birth and transformation are elliptically explored through the creation of an immersive, sensory world infused with slow-burning unease. Just like its predecessor, Evolution starts in water and ends with an ambivalent coming out of the water – symbolic birth? Escape? Expulsion? Abandonment? But where Innocence revolved around a little girl’s education at a peculiar boarding school, the protagonist of Evolution is a little boy who lives on an island seemingly peopled only by women and other young boys. After seeing something alarming while swimming in the sea, a boy begins to question the way in which he is brought up. Soon he finds himself in hospital, the reason for his treatment unclear.
Is what we see just a manifestation of a little boy’s anxiety at growing up, or is the reality of life on the island truly sinister? Just as in Innocence, Hadžihalilovic skilfully treads an ambiguous line, leaving us to interpret what we witness. Although at first view the film could be seen as the male pendant of Innocence, its real focus is once more on the female. Choosing to tell the tale from a young boy’s point of view allows the film to present the women as incomprehensible creatures with strange bodies and customs, and to underline the alien, disturbing nature of human reproduction. Innocence looked at the rituals that marked a young girl’s transformation into adolescence and adulthood. Here, the emphasis has switched to worrying, unexplained mutation, and to the weirdness of living matter in all its squelchy, mushy monstrousness. This comes to a head in a few moments of startlingly horrific imagery, which punctuate the fluid flow of oblique impressions, all the more powerful for their sparseness.
Imbued with a mythical quality, Evolution is constructed from simple, but unsettlingly effective motifs: water, a starfish, the colour red, the decaying white village and the decrepit hospital, the women’s red hair and odd features, their identical outfits, either austere khaki dresses, or quaint white nurses’ uniforms. These elements subtly draw on legendary and filmic creatures, suggesting aliens, sirens and monsters, giving the story a deeper resonance. A beguiling mix of art and horror, Evolution is a richly evocative, intensely physical experience, an eerie, darkly poetic meditation on the strangeness of organic existence. Hadžihalilovic makes a cinema of textures, colours and sounds, a cinema of ideas embodied in sensations, a rare, precious kind of cinema that is both sophisticated and visceral. Let’s hope it doesn’t take her another 10 years to make another film.