‘Evolution’: TIFF Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Village of the damp.

‘Innocence’ director Lucile Hadzihalilovic unveils her first feature in 10 years.

It’s been over a decade since Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s debut feature, Innocence, became a critical and cult hit, prompting comparisons to the work of her ex-partner Gaspar Noe, on whose movies she has collaborated several times. With her sophomore effort, Evolution, the writer-director delivers another disturbing mélange of experimental genre filmmaking and adorable, tortured French kids, offering up a trippy visual feast that satisfies on an aesthetic level, if not always on a narrative one.

Equal parts David Cronenberg and Victor Erice, with a Spanish setting evocative of a seaside Village of the Damned, this minimalist body horror tale follows a young boy whose bizarre oceanic rituals soon give way to something much more troubling. Without spoiling matters, lets just say that the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Junior comes to mind – although there’s nothing funny about the world seen through Hadzihalilovic and DP Manuel Dacosse’s exquisite lens, which plunges us underwater and then beyond the abyss, revealing the evil that women sometimes do.

With Alchemy picking up for U.S. distribution prior to a premiere in Toronto’s Vanguard section, followed by a competition slot at San Sebastian, the film should build a strong reputation on the fest circuit and throughout niche art houses abroad. A bit too unconventional to be a pure video store chiller, it will nonetheless satisfy the distaff auteur’s fans.

Co-written with Lithuanian director Alante Kavaite (The Summer of Sangaile), the pared-down story focuses on Nicolas (Max Brebant), a ten10-year-old who lives with his mom (Julie-Marie Parmentier) in a remote coastal village populated only by similar mother-son pairs. When Nicolas isn’t sneaking out to explore the gorgeous coral reefs nearby – in which he claims to have seen the dead body of a boy his age – he’s obliged to consume a regular diet of homemade gruel and mysterious blue medicine.

See more The Scene at TIFF 2015 (Photos)

Deep sea imagery and hallucinatory visuals populate these early sections, where the purity of the local lifestyle – in an unspecified time period that at first looks like the 1950s – is upset by some very strange things Nicolas witnesses, including a moonlight orgy where the mommies get together and rub their bodies with what appears to be a fetus.

As weird as that seems, Hadzihalilovic has a very restrained, and extremely artful, way of presenting such aberrations, working with Dacosse (who shot the Giallo revamp, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears) to create a sensuous environment bathed in blues, greens and grays, with several sequences filmed in naturally low-lit conditions. Certain shots, such as an extreme close-up of a snail crawling over a belly button, remain ingrained in the memory. Others, like medical footage of an actual C-section, are not for the faint of heart, though they definitely help up the gore factor.

Eventually, and rather murkily, a plot begins to kick in when Nicolas wanders to a foreboding clinic down the coast, where he and several other lads undergo a series of medical procedures that reveal the reason behind their odd upbringing. It soon becomes clear that Nicolas’ mom is not who he thinks she is, while a young nurse (Roxane Duran) takes pity on a boy whose future is far from bright, and more like some sort of gelatinous nightmare out of the minds of H.P. Lovecraft and H.H. Giger.

More straightforward than Innocence in terms of narrative, especially during its second half, Evolution winds up lacking the thematic punch of that movie, even if the two tell similar stories of children removed from society and subjected to the draconian whims of adults. But with its portrayal of little girls groomed apart for a man’s world, Hadzihalilovic’s debut had a stronger underlying purpose, while this film feels more like a highly formalistic work of avant-garde science fiction.

It’s thus to the director's credit that, even with its shortcomings, Evolution remains a fairly mesmerizing experience, demanding our attention through the pure level of screencraft on display. Alongside the superb cinematography, sound design by Fabiola Ordoyo (Aloft) and music by Jesus Diaz and Zacarias M. de la Riva help immerse us in a place where land and sea, dream and reality, tend to collide and merge – a backwards aquatic universe where boys will definitely not be boys.

Production companies: Les Films du Worso, Noodles Production, Scope Pictures, Volcano Films
Cast: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier
Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Screenwriters: Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Alante Kavaite
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon, Sebastian Alvarez
Director of photography: Manuel Dacosse
Costume designer: Jackye Fauconnier
Editor: Nassim Gordji Tehrani
Composers: Jesus Diaz, Zacarias M. de la Riva
Casting directors: Antoinette Boulat, Gail Stevens
International sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 81 minutes

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