“You’re not my mother.”
Erie doesn’t even begin to describe Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution, a film full of pale skin, damp interiors and Lovecraft by way of Cronenberg body mutations. Maddeningly obtuse and hauntingly beautiful, Evolution dares you to categorize it. You can’t, so maybe don’t even try.
Set in a coastal town that they forgot to close down, there are no men in sight in Evolution (sounds great, right?) — only boys and their barely-human-looking “mothers.” By day, the boys play by the sea and bully each other. By night, their mothers venture down to the rocky shores and engage in secret acts. The women, skin the color of cold marble, eyebrows so fine they barely register, all work together in the town’s seemingly only functioning institution, a run-down hospital with chipping walls and wet, dark hallways. Nicolas (Max Brebant), the most alert and astute of the boys, knows something is amiss here. While swimming one day he spots a dead body in the sea — a body that vanishes in the blink of an eye.
Nicholas tells his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) about the dead body, but she’s not interested. Instead, she insists on knowing where he is at all times, and is content to feed him a disgusting-looking gruel loaded with seaweed. Nicolas’ inquisitiveness spreads to the other boys he pals around with, but perhaps ignorance was bliss. Before long, Nicholas and the other boys find themselves patients in the decrepit hospital, undergoing surgeries and medical experiments that will make even those with the strongest of constitutions feel a tad queasy.
Hadžihalilović composes her film of elegant, gorgeous imagery, co-mingling horror and beauty in equal measure. Evolution throws off the vibe of a horror film, but it’s not particularly interested in adhering to any of the typical cinematic language that surrounds the genre. Instead, the narrative effectively gets inside the confused mind of Nicolas, so utterly perplexed at what’s happening to him. At times, the vagueness surrounding Evolution can dip into frustrating territory, but Hadžihalilović’s controlled, calm direction always manages to pull you back in. There may not be enough here from a narrative perspective to entice, but a remarkable visual style coupled with a genuine mix of emotion not often glimpsed in the genre are enough to make Evolution worth studying.