EVOLUTION, horror/mystery, not rated, in French with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
Evolution begins under water, and it maintains an underwater pace throughout. Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic (Innocence) moves hypnotically to tell a story of subdued horror, a sci-fi-inflected nightmare that unfolds on an island of lost boys.
Nicolas (Max Brebant), a skinny ten-year-old, is swimming beneath the blue-green waters off his island home when he finds the drowned body of a boy about his age with a red starfish draped on his belly. Nicolas hurries home and tells his mother (JulieMarie Parmentier), an impassive loaf-faced woman, who listens, as she often does, without responding. But later, she dives in the area and comes up with the red starfish. “There was no body,” she declares. “There never was.”
The island is a mysterious village of rigid white structures that calls to mind the haunting formal landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico’s visions of Italian town squares. It gradually becomes apparent that this island is populated entirely by boys of Nicolas’ age and build and by women who match the general description of his mother: thirtyish, identically dressed in beige smocks, with expressionless faces and pale eyebrows. There are no girls. There are no men.
The only institution we see is a hospital, where nurses and doctors — all female, all clad in white, all similar in appearance — sit stone-faced, watching videos of Caesarean-section deliveries, and give medication to and perform surgical procedures on the captive patient population, among whom Nicolas eventually finds himself.
Nicolas looks well and feels well, but his mother wants him to believe he’s sick. She feeds him a noxiouslooking gruel of something green that’s flecked with wormlike strands of what could be noodles, and she gives him an inky-looking medicine to swallow. “Am I going to die?” he asks her. A stare. No response.
The women of the village go out at night, moving wordlessly through the darkened village with lanterns, converging on the shore. One night Nicolas sneaks out and follows them, and from a cliff he spies them lying naked on the rocks below, writhing in a formation that could be considered starfish-shaped. It’s not exactly sexual, but it could have something to do with making babies.
When Nicolas cuts his hand on a rock while swimming, his mother takes him to the hospital, where a sloe-eyed nurse named Stella (as in star, played by Roxane Duran) stitches up the wound and tells him he’s a good boy. She’s ominous like the others, but she’s different — there seems to be something vaguely sympathetic about her.
Two things set Nicolas apart from the other boys of the island. One is a rebellious streak, or at least a skeptical one. “They’re lying to us,” he tells his friend Victor (Mathieu Goldfeld); and later, when ordered to “obey your mother,” he shouts, “You’re not my mother!” — an accusation that would seem to have more than a kernel of truth to it.
The other clue to Nicolas’ separateness on this island of lost (stolen?) boys is his penchant for drawing. He fills his secret sketchbook with animals, Ferris wheels, and other things that don’t exist on the island. Where do these memories come from? Where does he come from? He conceals the book; Stella finds it and is intrigued and touched by what she sees.
Hadzihalilovic is not at pains to have you understand what’s going on. The film is rife with symbolism. A lot of time is spent beneath the waves, where flora undulates to the rhythms of ocean currents. It helps to know that the starfish is a creature that reproduces asexually. Though the movie is in color, it’s easy to remember much of it in monochrome, with a few spots of color — green gruel, a red bathing suit, a red starfish.
Brebant’s solemn, searching performance anchors the film and keeps us involved as Evolution unfolds at a mesmeric pace, leaving us plenty of time to try to figure things out. This story of an evolved femalecentric world — where men are not only irrelevant but completely absent and propagation of the species no longer requires the messy old-fashioned paradigm — may, in the end, be just a cautionary tale, like the scenes foreshadowed by Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come:
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? ... Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”
There is a greater world out there, Hadzihalilovic suggests, and good sense may prevail after all.
— Jonathan Richards
Going deep: Max Brebant