'Evolution' Is An Eerie Synthesis Of Folklore And Science Fiction [Fantastic Fest 2015 Review]

(This review is based upon a viewing of the film at Fantastic Fest 2015.)Evolution is a deep swim in mysterious seas. This tale blends folklore and science fiction into a powerful hallucination of life where land and sea blur together, in which bodies are induced to behave in ways that are new and, in a Lovecraftian sense, possibly even obscene.

Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, who previously directed Innocence and is a creative partner to spouse Gaspar Noe, keeps the final details of this story shrouded in shadow. She draws on the mysteries of the sea and the pains of growing up to synthesize her own powerful new fable.   

A boy, Nicholas (Max Brebant), lives on an island with many other boys. Each is paired with an older woman who acts as mother and/or caretaker. The boys seem normal enough at first glance — they play and swim and fight — and despite the fact that they're fed a grey-green slop cooked up by the caretakers, their lives might not be so different from an existence at an austere boarding school.

Their existence, I can assure you, is very different.

Nicholas finds a dead boy at the bottom of a tidepool, a red starfish nestled atop the corpse's stomach, and the sight is like a snap of smelling salts. It creates in Nicholas the same curiosity that it does in us: just what is going on here? This is no boarding school. These women are probably not the boys' mothers, and they clearly have a purpose beyond simple child-rearing. Soon Nicholas is being tended by a nurse (Roxane Duran), isolated with a small number of boys in a medical ward, fearing that he may never again have a real life.

Hadzihalilovic and her cinematographer Manuel Dacosse photograph the caretakers in such a way that they appear to be just slightly off from any woman we know. Their eyebrows are nearly invisible; their eyes are like black pools; their skin is waxy, as if designed to create a stronger barrier against water than the stuff we're used to. Reading this, maybe you think you're starting to guess what's going on by now, but I'm certain that's not quite the case.

When we see what the caretakers do when they travel to the beach at night, any sense of connection to a "real" world is instantly severed. Good! Evolution lures us in with a semblance of normality, but once the need for that ruse is gone it discards the approach like a crab sloughs off its old shell. That's when it really gets interesting.

This is a confident film, and despite the fact that it is not only unwilling to reveal all its mysteries, but perhaps not even entirely certain of the "answers," it lured me deep into its innards. After one viewing I'd be reluctant to claim that I know exactly what it all means, but even if I come around to thinking that Evolution is in fact one grand illusion I'll consider it time well spent.

There are metaphors here for the awakening of adult consciousness, and for the development of anxieties that go along with realizing that everyone else in the world has their own purpose. This could also be described as "just" a tale of the weird and unusual, albeit one rendered in such artful fashion that you might want to see Hadzihalilovic tackle the most cryptic and lurid stories from old pulp magazines.

This film is defined by an unusually patient serenity that created in me a deep but not unpleasant sense of unease. Stunning underwater cinematography complements dry-land images that would not be out of place in Under the Skin, and a sonorous score bridges land and sea with a dim but irrepressible throb.

Evolution reminds me of other films I've seen, whether in the grey shadows that recall Jonathan Glazer or the shades of body horror that call up early David Cronenberg, but I've never seen a film quite like this one. This is a superb new cinematic folklore, the sort of stuff that can inspire dreams just as readily as nightmare./Film rating: 8.5 out of 10