To call Evolution a movie would be a disservice. This is a film if there has ever been one. What director Lucile Hadžihalilović delivers is not a narrative, but a feeling. It tells its story through what is seen, not what is said, and it asks its audience to connect the dots hidden in the coils and crevasses of our deepest fears and imagination.
Hadžihalilović takes a page from the books of Davids Cronenberg and Lynch, and gives us gorgeous frame after gorgeous frame, combined with haunting images of both physical and psychological horror. It is, as many other reviewers have said, a visual feast, and certainly one of the best-looking films I’ve ever seen.
Simply put, mainstream audiences will not like this film. So, if you don’t like being forced to interpret, if you don’t like unsettling body-horror, or even if you don’t like subtitles, then steer clear. In fact, stop reading right now. This film is about as art house as they get.
But if you like a challenge, check it out.
Evolution begins with a series of breathtaking shots of underwater life. So well-shot, in fact, that you half expect Planet Earth’s David Attenborough to chime in and marvel with you. But instead of British naturalists, we see Nicolas, a young boy, swimming in the colorful, yet turbulent, sea.
The beauty of the opening series quickly turns sinister as Nicolas (Max Brebant) discovers the corpse of a young boy, about his age, at the bottom of the reef. After running home to his stone, medieval-looking house, he tells his androgynous mother what he’s seen. She quickly writes it off as his imagination and the two sit down to a meal of, what appears to be, worms.
Later that night, despite looking healthy, Nicolas is administered “medicine” from a mostly-empty vile of inky-black liquid, which, after an odd discussion about molting and starfish, sends him into a quick and feverish sleep.
It’s clear from this point on that something is very, very wrong.
The film is set on a volcanic island with a sharp, rugged coast and barren inland. The setting itself is as much a character as any of the film’s terrific actors and tells its own story of a stark and intentional contrast between the lush, beautiful underwater scenery, and the cold and desolate land. No aspect of modern life or reality (other than the one Hadžihalilović has created) creeps into the film, giving it a setting that is placed both out of time and out of convention.
We quickly learn that this island is populated entirely by young boys on the cusp of puberty, and pale, tunic-wearing, eyebrowless women. We assume that these women are the boys’ mothers, but even Nicolas has his doubts about that.
I’m not sure I could spoil the film if I tried, but of the story itself, I’ll say this: If the absence of adult men, unnervingly long cuts, malefic, poisonous-looking medicine, and creepy fish-eyed mothers, sounds unsettling to you, just wait ‘till you see what happens after the boys fall asleep.
The film is as dazzling as it is provocative as it is horrifying. It touches on feminism, human origin, dehumanization, and biology. But at its heart, Evolution is a film about the simple and relatable question, “what will happen to me when I grow up?”
And whether it’s asked in plain English or teased out by a puzzling yet beautiful film, of that question, there are few answers to be found.