Director: Lucile Hadžihalilović
Writer(s): Lucile Hadžihalilović and Alante Kavaite (with Geoff Cox)
Women in the production team: Genevieve Lemal (executive producer); Sylvie Pialat and Ángeles Hernández (producers); Laia Colet (production design); Jackye Fauconnier (costume design); Julie Grumbach (first assistant director); Silvia Martínez (second assistant director); also across art, visual effects, and sound departments
This review contains **SPOILERS**
Évolution offers a fluid approach to science fiction in terms of its metaphors, images, and philosophy. It aligns with more literary definitions of SF as a mode that is less concerned with what science fiction is about and visualises, but rather how it makes its audience feel and respond. In The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay positions science fiction as a “mode of thought,” a “habit of mind,” a “kind of awareness” (2008: 2-3). He positions SF texts at an intersection between what is imaginable and what might yet come to pass alongside opportunities to discuss ethical consequences. This is a definition that considers what SF does rather than what it is. Évolution is science fiction but it feels easier to consider it in terms of the feelings and experience of the film rather than a discussion of its narrative and world building. As one reviewer explains, Hadžihalilović creates ‘unashamed art’ pictures, where ‘extreme aestheticism mixes with nightmare dread’ that generates discussion and interest but also bewilderment.
People didn’t understand what the script was about. It’s a film about sensations, emotions – not storytelling – so people had to bring their imagination to the table – Lucile Hadžihalilović
Again, we have taken a massive tonal shift from the last two #WomenMakeSF films as both confronted definitions and conceptions about the definition, style, and reception of SF. The Afrofuturist Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwurah, 1993) offers an unsubtle and necessary critique of race relations, and Tank Girl (Talalay, 1995) with its innovative yet chaotic challenge to the genre movie boy’s club. Despite saying that the narrative didn’t really matter in Tank Girl – perhaps part of my justification for my enjoyment – the lack of narrative clarity in Évolution was at first oddly frustrating.
Évolution is visually stunning, the ethereal underwater cinematography that opens the film is simultaneously calming and unnerving. An apt opening for a film that seemed entirely unconcerned with narrative logic and closure and more with its images, metaphors and epistemic musings. The liminality of the pre/pubescent experience is contrasted with the liminality and uncontrollability of the ocean. Reviews from the film’s initial release focus on the film as exploring ‘the mysteries of the deep’ and creating a ‘deliberately strange… Blue Planet Nightmare’ – which I like to think references David Attenbrough’s nature documentaries in their capacity to offer the beauty alongside the anthropogenic nightmare of our present reality. In keeping with the rest of these reviews and as a record of the film as I saw it, I will attempt to unpick some of the plotting of Évolution.
Évolution is a body horror/science fiction that follows the experiences of a young boy called Nicholas (Max Brebant). He finds a red starfish with a dead boy’s body (or has he?) in the shoreline of the island where he lives: an isolated village that is only occupied by 10 year old boys, ‘mothers’, and nurses. The adult women are grouped either as traditionally dressed white-capped nurses, or ‘mothers’ – I use the inverted commas as several boys decry that the women they are paired with are in fact not their mother. The ‘mothers’ appear to monitor and care for the boys, or are seen in naked star-shaped orgiastic sequences that are evocatively unexplained. The piscine-esque mothers also play into a play on words with the French la mer (sea) and la mère (mother) – connecting the birth of humanity to its evolutionary emergence from the sea and imagined futures of a return to the sea.
Images of nature and the craggy coastal region setting are contrasted with clinical scientific images and a dilapidated seemingly abandoned medical facility. The boys are ‘treated’ with ‘medicines’ (a mysterious opaque substance, perhaps a modified dose of octopus ink) that make them capable of incubating, birthing, and feeding newborn hybrids (baby fish mouths). The water birth often considered a natural and homely experience, becomes clinical, experiential, and distinctly horrific when the incubator is a 10 year old boy.
I just wanted to tell a story about maternity and pregnancy, and I thought those things would seem a lot more strange and unsettling if it all happened to a boy. When I was 10, I couldn’t see much difference between being a boy and a girl, anyway – Lucile Hadžihalilović
Although the cause and consequences of the boys’ ‘treatment’ is revealed, the women’s bodies also undergo changes that are not fully explained; their mutations are only glimpsed in clandestine shots of private moments and solitude. The women themselves are seemingly subjects of biohacking experiments that have given them back/spinal protrusions that look like octopus suckers (reminiscent of Vacanti’s mouse and the experimental merging and growing of animal parts). La mère is becoming one with la mer – but traditional conceptions of women’s connection to nature and the uncontrolled – pregnancy/menstruation (hysteria) – are now attached to the boys. The womanly connection with nature becomes more ritualistic and paganistic as they writhe around together naked in the moonlight.
The film raises issues of consent as the boys are treated as specimens and the women’s role and level of control is notably unclear. One of the nurses played by the nymphish Roxane Duran takes pity on or perhaps a motherly interest in Nicholas (despite her distinct nursing role). She takes him away from the facility and at first it looks like she might drown the child as she seemingly tests if he can swim and survive underwater. She revives him with the kiss of life. But her own mutations are later revealed as she swims away from the island in the closing scenes, unseen and submerged with the child almost erotically surviving on her breath.
The starfish isn’t a symbol of something, but it does have several meanings. They’re simple images, but complex ones – Lucile Hadžihalilović
One of the most striking images of Évolution is the blood red starfish. This image also links to Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Innocence (2004), about a mysterious girls’ boarding school, when the young entrants arrive in coffins marked with a symbolic star. Themes of life, death and isolation are once again central to the film and the young protagonists. Évolution also uses the star, this time a starfish, as a visual reference across the film – at first attached to what might be a body, retrieved by a ‘mother’ as proof that there was no body, mutilated by boisterous boys, and then mirrored in the medical scenes in surgical lights.
Across different breeds of echinoderms including starfish there are examples of simultaneous hermaphrodites (both genders), sequential hermaphrodites (transition between genders), as well as gonochorous (separate gender) reproduction. As an image and metaphor in Évolution, the starfish often appears as a sign of prepubescent gender fluidity or confusion. The image of the five cornered star in the surgical lights that are reflected into Nicholas’ eyes on the operating table, suggest a disruption of what humans consider ‘natural’. His body is artificially altered and inseminated. Does the film suggest that we should reconsider our socially constructed perceptions of gender? Do the references to starfish suggest that we should consider gender as a far more complex and fluid concept more inline with the creatures of the deep, rather than the limiting constructions of human society?
Although the narrative openness and mutability makes for a challenging initial watch, Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Évolution stayed with me as I thought through and imagined different extensions and ends to the story. The themes and fears of blurring sexual differentiation, the implications of asexual reproduction and of forced reproduction (a twist on Handmaid’s Tale), and the apparent freedom from gendered roles placed alongside images are women as natural carers. Are the women the boy’s future? Were they once boys who were impregnated, gave birth, and then changed sex?
Évolution raises far more questions than it answers, as science fiction at that intersection between what is imaginable and what might yet come to pass. It lures its audience into the depths to discuss gender politics and bioethics and futures whilst marvelling at the beauty of the unknown above and below the waves.
P.S. [3 November 2021] – I just realised that the main poster for Évolution visually references the poster for pregnancy horror Rosemary’s Baby. Highlighting the film’s engagement with and disruption of body horror tropes surrounding gestation and childbirth.
What to watch next from Lucile Hadžihalilović:
Jean-Pierre’s Mouth/La bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996)
HOME (2016). Director Lucile Hadžihalilović on Evolution. https://homemcr.org/article/director-lucile-hadzihalilovic-on-evolution/
Laura Kern (2016). The Miracle of Life. Film Comment. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/evolution-lucile-hadzihalilovic-interview/
Vadim Rizov (2016). “That Feeling Inside You That Never Explodes”: Lucile Hadžihalilović on Evolution. Filmmaker Magazine. https://filmmakermagazine.com/100627-that-feeling-inside-you-that-never-explodes-lucile-hadzihalilovic-on-evolution/#.XuUPD55KgWo
Lucile Hadžihalilović’s profile on the women directors of horror database: Cutthroat Women https://www.cutthroatwomen.org/hadzihalilovic