Évolution. 2015. Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović. Screenplay by Hadžihalilović & Alante Kavaite in collaboration with Geoff Cox.
Starring Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Mathieu Goldfeld, Nissim Renard, & Nathalie Legosles.
Les Films du Worso/Noodles Production/Volcano Films.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.
DISCLAIMER: This review is a spoiler-filled discussion on the thematic aspects of the film. Usually I opt to discuss technical elements alongside theme, but because of the cryptic nature of Evolution, I’ve decided to solely look at the film’s meaning. Or at least what I feel it means.
Lucile Hadžihalilović is a gem of a director and writer. Her work may not be accessible to every single viewer. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the time to explore. Her first full-length feature Innocence came to us over a decade ago, the story of a relatively ambiguous yet dangerous process, the grooming of girls at a boarding school for adult life.
Now, we swap genders and genres to take a look at a world where young boys are groomed, although for an entirely other purpose than the girls of Innocence. This time there are doses of horror, mystery, and a heavy dab of science fiction. The boys in this film are like a parallel to the girls of Hadžihalilović’s 2004 feature. Or rather, they may be a statement in line with them. This is something of which I’m still not totally sure.
For a pretty gruesome story, at certain (many) points, Evolution is equally as interesting. There area number of questions left at the end. Some will likely walk away confused and feeling slighted, as if Hadžihalilović didn’t give us enough answers. Others, like myself, might find them just enough, and good enough, to keep your brain mulling certain events, images, dialogue over and over.
And whatever the film is definitively about, one thing is for sure: you won’t forget some of what you see.
The story is set in a seaside village populated solely with women, maybe in their mid-30s, and young, prepubescent boys. At first, there’s a quiet, idyllic quality about the place. You almost feel a tranquillity wash over everything. Without all that machismo and testosterone of a world filled with men, machines, noise, so on. But we get to a point where the nasty underbelly of the village is exposed, and discover the women aren’t the mothers of these boys, though they say so. They’re actually experimenting on the young boys. During the night, the women write naked, moaning together in the sand. By day, they watch videos of C-sections and implant the boys with medicine, force feed them nasty gruel, all in order to get them pregnant.
Oh yes. You heard me. So, is this a proactive smashing of patriarchy by redefining biology, literally? Science fiction has these women actually configuring the body of young boys to have children. And at this juncture, there are many divergent paths a thematic reading of the film can go.
One of my best guesses is based on the fact the women have suction cupped backs, like the underside of a tentacle running up their spine. First of all, they don’t look slimy or weird. It looks like they’ve either evolved from another form, or they’ve been transformed into something other than normal women. Secondly, a woman named Stella shows the main boy Nicolas pictures of doctors – which look like men, though you can’t actually tell (they have male hands, it appears) – with young girls, suction cups along the spinal cord. This seems to suggest the women were experimented on, as the boys are now. Aside from Stella, the women are cold and emotionless, to a robotic extent. She’s the only one to show anyone – Nicolas – any actual emotion. Therefore, it leads me to believe that perhaps these women escaped their own doctor captors, or a situation similar, and can’t reproduce. They then experiment callously on the boys like men once did to their bodies. I believe the women can’t reproduce because of the writhing sand scene: the women produce what looks like a bloody, dead fetus after moaning awhile together; assuming I’m right, this is a stillbirth and it suggests the women are infertile. Why else experiment on the young boys? Because if not then it seems their fertility work is born of pure revenge, a way to get back at the male gender for having treated them with such disdain.
Ultimately, Hadžihalilović plays on the male fear of someday being treated exactly how women, particularly girls, have been treated since time immemorial. So many scenes take us to the limit, as we’re forced to watch these young boys, Nicolas especially, experience unnatural reconfiguration of their bodies. At the end we find out the women have abducted these boys from an industrial, modern-looking world, starkly in contrast to their simplistic and primitive village. The movie works as a futuristic fairy tale, an allegory about the male anxieties surrounding many men’s worst nightmare: what if we had to go through everything a girl goes through in order to, by society, be considered a man like they must do for us to see them as a woman? For women, beginning at a much too young age as girls, one thing is for sure: your body is not your own. Boys, men, this is a given; we own our bodies. However, the girls haven’t had it that simple. Evolution sees a sci-fi twist on gender roles to make those male anxieties come alive in a terrifying way.
Though hazy at the best of times the film is chock-full of symbolism. One of the most prominent and first to come about is that of the starfish. Sure, they can regenerate. They also represent the Virgin Mary in Christianity. It’s the fact they can reproduce both asexually and sexually which interests me. Much like the boys, who after the experiments would be able to both have a child and also impregnate a woman with child. Along with the starfish is the colour red. We see the colour repeatedly referenced throughout: a red shirt, Nicolas’ red swim trunks, and later the bright red hair of Stella. There are several symbolic meanings for the colour red, such as fire, blood, seduction. Which interests me most? Love, or passion, whichever you prefer. Why does it interest me? Because Nicolas is the only boy whose passion/love still exists. He’s the one in the red shirt, the red trunks, and likewise Stella, with her red hair, is the only woman to show any emotion (also notice that in terms of colour her eyes are not black like the other women; they’re blue). The other boys lack his thirst for knowledge. This ties into the other images, of the drawings. We see Nicolas draw a giraffe, a ferris wheel, all these images that are nowhere to be found in the village. In the finale we see Nicolas returned to the shores of that old industrial world of his, so it’s evident then that these are things he remembers, from back home, from where he was taken. But the red, his passion, it’s exemplified in how he refuses to become emotionless like the other boys or the women. Rather, Nicolas is unrelenting in wanting to discover the truth, to understand, to know, and his passion for knowledge, the love he feels in connection with Stella, these are ways for him to retain humanity.
I’m not sure what the true, overall message of Hadžihalilović’s film is, and after seeing the film a couple times I don’t know if I ever will, not positively. Evolution absolutely explores gender roles, though I can’t tell to what end exactly. Male anxiety is one thing, but there are many elements at play in this cryptic screenplay.
You can look at a lot of images, the symbolic use of red and the focus on the starfish among others, and draw your own conclusions. Please! Let me know what you think if you’ve seen the film.
We can almost relate Hadžihalilović’s story to a modernised fairy tale about what happens when we, the adults, interfere with the gender roles, or lack thereof, in the children of our society. The damage can be done on both sides, whether forcing them into certain roles, or even insisting constantly that they ought to be fluid and embrace both sides of their nature, whatever. Maybe Hadžihalilović is pointing out that kids ought to be left as kids. If we interfere too much the consequences are endless. But the consequences aren’t always good ones.