Lucile Hadzihalilovic isn’t exactly a household name – and not just because most of us wouldn’t be quite sure how to pronounce it. The French director (the name’s Bosnian though, in case that had you confused) has only made two feature films: 2004’s Innocence, a cryptic tale of an isolated girls’ boarding school; and now Evolution, an equally cryptic exploration of a community of young boys raised solely by women in a coastal village, as something rather unsettling lurks beneath the surface.
Both films are challenging, visionary, and utterly unique. We found some time to sit down with her and discuss genre boundaries, HP Lovecraft, and why her two films’ similarities are entirely by accident.
If you had to shoehorn Evolution into a genre, what would it be?
That’s the problem – well, maybe it’s not a problem, it’s a difficulty. It’s a kind of horror film to me, even though there are not explicit horror images. It’s not so much about the images themselves, it’s more about the climate, the idea of it. But it’s also very much about the emotion, and I really wanted this horror to be very attractive and very seductive, and have both aspects and be balanced. So, it’s more an oneiric film maybe, than a genre film.
Sticking with the horror element, I guess HP Lovecraft is one influence on the film?
You know, it’s funny because at the very first screening of Evolution, I think it was in Toronto, someone talked about Lovecraft, and I never thought, consciously, that I was doing any adaptation of what Lovecraft had written. But when this person said Lovecraft, I realised it was obvious, because I’d read so much Lovecraft as a teenager and a young adult, and it had a huge impact on me. Maybe unconsciously, Lovecraft was an influence. I can see a lot of motifs – this kind of strange woman, the ocean of course, maybe even the idea of birth.
How did the idea of the film evolve?
It was the boy and his mother, and the mother bringing her son to the hospital because he was feeling pain in his stomach. That was the very beginning. So then I thought, ‘What is it outside of the hospital?’ And I thought it should be by the sea, and then it was totally evident that the resonated a lot, with the mother of course, and with birth.
It begins with a very intimate story, the mother and the boy, but around them were other characters, which are maybe echoes of themselves, other mothers with other boys. And so at the end it’s a little community. It didn’t come from the community to the boy, but the opposite.
I’m curious about the fact that you said it came from the boy to the community, given that there are a lot of structural similarities between Evolution and Innocence. So you didn’t start out with that in mind?
No, in fact I tried to go far away from Innocence – even though in the end it’s like a diptych. But it wasn’t my idea to do the boys after doing the girls [in Innocence]. Also, I began to write Evolution before Innocence – the very original part with the boy and the hospital – and then I stopped work on that to make Innocence. I guess it contaminated me – especially with the organisation, the isolated place, mysterious adults etc. So I obviously see the similarities, but they were in spite of my will.
What do you think is so interesting about that idea of a community raising kids in total isolation that brought you back to it against your will?
It’s not that I was raised in such a community, but just in a family, with normal people around – but I have the feeling that maybe as a child you are kind of isolated from the adult world. Not in the physical way, but just because you don’t really understand what they’re doing, what their purpose is, whether they’re good or bad. The adult world is something mysterious, and the film is about that, and I guess Innocence is also a bit about that.
Both films also have the sense that the environment separates them from the outside world.
Yeah, that’s my feeling about being a child. It’s like being in a cocoon, and you are isolated, but it can be very pleasant also. You have a kind of freedom, and space to play, though in fact there is a limit. And so again, in a film you can visually show it. In Innocence it was the wall, and also the woods – a wonderful place to be as a child, but at some point it’s a prison, because there are these walls you can’t go beyond. On this island it’s the sea that is the limit. There are limits that you reach at some point, and you have to grow.
Speaking of the sea, I love that almost the only colour in the film is found in the underwater sequences.
Yeah, and that was the great thing about Lanzarote, because it’s a volcanic island. So under the water you have vegetation and colours, and on the surface it’s very dry, almost black and white, because the sand there is black, and we have a white village, but we have no vegetation at all. Even if we don’t say that in the film, and even if it’s not so much about that, there’s a kind of feeling of a post-apocalyptic world, because it’s so dry and there’s no vegetation. And it makes a contrast with underwater, which is a kind of paradise, but there is a scary element in it.
It’s both appealing and alarming.
Yeah, it’s both, and I like to have this ambiguity, this element that it’s both beautiful and repulsive, frightening and attractive. That’s also the neurosis that I have.
Both of your films leave a lot for interpretation and make little clear. Why does that sort of filmmaking appeal to you?
I think as an audience member I like that very much – when there is a kind of mystery inside the film, maybe because then I feel like I’m more engaged, that it stays with me for longer. And also these two films talk about the feeling of mystery that you have when you are a child that age, that you really feel the kind of mystery of the world. Since the films are seen from the point of view of children, I would really like the audience to have the same gaps that the characters do, to not understand everything – why this character is doing that, why is my mother doing that, who is she really, who am I, etc.
In fact, with Alante [Kavaite], my co-writer, we had many of the answers, but we thought that it was more interesting, and more exciting, and more rich to leave it more elliptic, so people can put their own imagination into it, as the character is doing. I really wanted the audience to be like the child in the film, imagining the world around him.
Words by Dominic Preston