More than a decade after her haunting debut Innocence (2004) Lucile Hadžihalilović returns with another powerful story based around childhood. In a small village by the sea young Nicolas (Max Brebant) sneaks out in the morning to swim. While diving underwater he sees the dead body of a boy his own age. There’s a red starfish on the corpse’s belly. Nobody believes him. His mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) scolds Nicolas, his friends tease him. These early scenes recall the opening sequence in Luc Besson’s The Big Blue (1988) as the boys play and fight on the island, but there’s something not quite right here. There are no grown-up men or girls present, only mothers and their little boys. All of them are attending the local hospital for treatment for what seems to be exactly the same symptoms.
Evolution is a dreamlike fable about the uncertainties of approaching adolescence and works in tandem with Hadžihalilović’s Innocence which also is set in its own hermetic world and contrasted childhood and death. Though the plot when cut down to a generic synopsis seems slight even for an eighty minute horror film there is much in Evolution that fascinates. Nicolas likes to draw. The seemingly everyday objects (footballs, cats, ferris wheels) he puts in his notebook seem extraordinary to the women and other children. They praise Nicolas for his vivid imagination but he knows what these things are called. The film’s inspiration seems to be two simple French words, La Mer and La Mere, the sea and motherhood. Both givers of life presented as being beautiful and menacing forces of nature.
With its unsettling horror sequences and art-house sensibility Evolution put me in mind of another great French film, Trouble Every Day (2002, Claire Denis). That was simultaneously too gory for most ‘serious’ film fans and too arty for gore-hounds leaving it with only a small devoted following. Certainly at the screening I attended there was an interesting reaction with one rather strident plummy-voiced gentleman tearing into Hadžihalilović for filming “obscenities” and asking the visibly rattled director what her film meant. Bizarrely the chap giving Hadžihalilović a bollocking turned out to be Peter Bowles, star of the 80s’ sitcom To The Manor Born. That little interaction at the end felt even more surreal than the film.