The quiet tranquillity of the underwater opening of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution is indicative of the dreamlike qualities of the story that follows, but doesn’t begin to hint at the entrancing horrors of this strange and captivating science-fiction tale.
The tranquility of that opening is shattered when young boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) catches a glimpse of a body nestling in the clutches of the sea floor. He rushes home and tells his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), who sternly insists that he is mistaken.
That could be the synopsis for any number of detective stories but there’s plenty that isn’t apparent from that description to suggest otherwise, from the blackened sand and rocks of the beach to the wholly unappetizing green tentacle sludge that the mother is preparing for dinner. The atmosphere that Hadzihalilovic creates with the production design, costumes and make-up (bleaching of eyebrows will always be creepy) is eerie enough to put you on edge before anything creepy actually happens. Hadzihalilovic allows the story to flow at its own steady pace, correctly realising that the gradual immersion into this strange world is the key to the audience staying with the film through its many unexpected turns.
Those unexpected turns may leave some baffled about just what Evolution is about, but its refusal to present just one interpretation for your consideration is part of its appeal. It’s confounding without being unnecessarily ambiguous; it touches on many ideas without succumbing to a need to settle on just one of them. This complexity extends to the nature of the performances, particularly the one from Roxane Duran as a nurse who doesn’t quite fit in and finds herself drawn to Nicolas’ childhood innocence.
As the story moves from the subdued brightness coastal village to the more intense darkness of a hospital, the images that Hadzihalilovic creates become more grotesque and icky. One image in particular is at first shocking but gradually becomes more beautiful as the initial shock fades away; what’s more is that it’s a reaction that organically plays into the film’s exploration of gender roles. Hadzihalilovic has worked on the film for many years, drawing on fears and anxieties from her childhood and the film never feels like it ever escaped from her guiding hand. I had the great fortune of knowing very little about the film beforehand other than its broad genre and title, and rarely have I been so richly rewarded for doing so.
Evolution was released in UK cinemas on 6th May 2016.