Evolution is a difficult film to pin down. Part Lovecraftian horror, part enigmatic poem, it’s a creature of entirely its own kind. It’s writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s second film, delayed on its way to the screen by the understandable challenges of securing finances for a cryptic exploration of childhood, pregnancy, and sea monsters. Her first film, 2004’s Innocence, followed a group of young girls raised in an isolated, carefully controlled boarding school. Evolution follows a group of young boys raised in an isolated, carefully controlled island community, but when it comes to plot at least, that’s where the similarities end.
Opening on stunning, vivid underwater cinematography (the film was shot along the Lanzarote coast), 11-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) discovers a dead boy underwater. When he returns to tell his mother, she insists he must be mistaken – and by the time they return to check, there’s no sign of it at all. Evolution gets more and more overtly weird as it progresses, from the island’s lack of any adult men to the run-down hospital and mysterious sickness the boys are treated for each day.
Little is explained and much is left up to interpretation, as we see the world through Nicolas’s eyes, questioning everything and finding few answers. Hadzihalilovic masters a mounting sense of dread and suspense across the taut 80-minute running time, without ever falling back on easy scares. The horror is for the most part implicit, lurking out of frame, forever defying understanding – creating above all the sense of a world unsettled, a community undeniably off.
There’s a painterly construction to every frame, suggesting either meticulous detail or a natural eye for composition. Nicolas and the other boys drift through a monotone world, white houses contrasted with almost black volcanic rock and sand. It’s a landscape devoid of both colour and life, seemingly utterly unfit for human habitation. Watching the film, you slowly adjust to the dreary, drab setting, almost forgetting what’s missing – at least until the camera drifts back underwater, where every shot is ripe with colour. Here, life abounds, the camera catching on every vibrant piece of aquatic flora, mesmerised by these organisms hiding just below the surface – alluring, alarming, alien.
It’s hard to explain the experience of watching Evolution, and no doubt it will prove too elusive for some. Its themes lurk in the deep, and require work to tease out, while the plot is sparse and challenging. Many of its images are haunting, its implications uncomfortable. As natural a sister piece as it is to Hadzihalilovic’s own Innocence, it might also find a natural home alongside Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which shares its inky black ideas and images, exploring our sexuality and innocence through the lens of the alien. Both films take work to unravel, but reward it richly, and both linger at the back of the mind long after the credits roll.
Words by Dominic Preston