Too often, mainstream American horror movies strain to explain circumstances to get to the bottom of a mystery, which often saps an important element of fear of the unknown from a picture. Sometimes the genre is better served by defying logic and rationale to play with fear on a more primal level. With her new film Evolution, French writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic builds horror on atmosphere, absurdity and the dread of the unknown.
The first shot of Evolution is a portal, a play with audience perception, as the opening credits roll. It’s a long take from the ocean floor up toward the sun. The dark of the sea and the sun’s rays create a clash of bright whites and black shadows on the bottom of the sea’s thin surface. All the audience can hear is the muffled undulation of the ocean, as the waves of light and dark ripple and shift.
After the audience is lulled into a sense of awareness of the ocean, a boy swims into the image, Nicolas (Max Brebant). Swimming the wild ocean in a pair of bright red swim trunks with the curiosity and ambition of a young, reckless child, he fights gravity to dive through the water. Shot from underneath the actor, Manuel Dacosse’s camera captures the effort for Nicolas to penetrate the resistance of the ocean’s density to explore the seascape of rich coral below.
The brilliance of his red swim trunks stands out in contrast with the refraction of sunlight, which creates illusions of grays, blues, and washed out yellow by the undulating waves of ocean. The colors are rich, and the lighting, from the sun’s rays that slice through the water, reveal depth as well as beauty, not to mention the “mass” of the ocean. It’s no wonder Dacosse has won several awards on the festival circuit for his work on the film. As unreal as it sometimes appears, there is substance to this environment.
Though the pace of the opening scene seems leisurely, standing in great contrast to the long, opening scene, is a glimpse of a shadow below Nicolas. It has a face; its mouth wide and distorted and eyes like black saucers. Were it not for the bright red starfish on its torso, you might miss this glimpse of a corpse that sends Nicolas racing across a lunar beachscape of black sand jagged rocks.
Nicolas runs home inside a network of white, square houses situated near the beach. He tells his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) of a boy’s body he saw at the bottom of the sea. The mother, tells him he has an active imagination. She has white bleached eyebrows and skin so moist it looks slimy. She feeds him dinner, which looks like a black mud pie with squid ink and worms. He isn’t enthused by the meal but eats it regardless. If the world seems slightly off-kilter and dream-like, it is by design.
That these characters give a slight pause and continue through their actions reveals a strange wilfulness in the world of Evolution. Though there are odd noises at night, Nicolas still ventures out his window to be confronted with a scene out of Cronenberg’s The Brood. Instead of a baby coming from the side of a woman, however, the baby emerges in the arms of pallid sirens writhing and hissing on a black beach in a ceremonial orgy of sorts. There are repercussions he must face for bearing witness, so he’s off to an unsanitary hospital run by only women who study videos of caesarean sections conducted by men, as if they are studying an artifact from another world or time. But we never know for sure.
Evolution is pastiche to subconscious effect. It’s waking dream, unsettling because of its opacity of why things happen to Nicolas and why he seems so icy in submitting to them. For the most part, Evolution so flies in the face of logic that when the film gets a bit too metaphorical by naming one heroic character Stella (Roxane Duran), it feels leaden in the face of the film’s flowing, atmospheric quality. Still, the film withstands such missteps with the resilience of a haunting nightmare from your childhood.
Earlier programming details:
Evolution runs 81 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (Trigger warnings: body horror, including cesarean sections). It will have its Florida premiere on Sunday, Aug. 14, during the Popcorn Frights Film Festival at O Cinema Wynwood. The film is preceded by the short “FUCKKKYOUUU.” For tickets, visit this link. All images provided by Potemkine Films. The film is slated to make the rounds in U.S. theaters later in the year via IFC Films.
You can also read an interview with the director that I wrote for the Miami New Times, by jumping through the logo for its Arts and Culture blog: