It’s not been uncommon over the last couple of decades for French films to mine a disturbing terrain of imagery and emotion, but the problem I’ve had with directors like Gaspar Noé and Bruno Dumont is quite often that their cinema of transgression tends to rely on nasty, bloody, vicious things like rape, torture and murder. But perhaps, the slender œuvre of Lucile Hadzihalilovic suggests, nothing is quite so transgressive as life. After a wait of over ten years since her last film Innocence comes Evolution (already a fondness for titles which work in both English and French), which has something of a similar trajectory in dealing with that liminal stage in which children move into being teenagers. Hadzihalilovic has a way of converting societal expectations around protecting children from the adult world into something more tangibly oppressive: where in Innocence it was the girls’ boarding school, where new students entered in a coffin, here it’s an isolated island town with only boys (of whom Max Brebant is the protagonist) being looked after by mother figures, who seem to be participants in some kind of communal procreative rite backed up by a medicalised procedure to ensure their sons never become men. It’s this medical aspect which is most disturbing, suggesting eugenics and involving some kind of invasive surgical experimentation. At the same time, there’s a blurred boundary around gender identity and procreation: we never see any men, the women on the island don’t appear to have sexual organs, and the surgical procedures call into question exactly who is gestating the foetuses and how they are being brought to term. Of course none of this is intended to make literal sense — throughout the film, there’s an eeriness to the lighting and colours that imparts a distinctly oneiric quality, especially combined with the non-expressive acting, its female leads apparently chosen for the blank mask-like faces (particularly that of Roxane Duran as Stella, a nurse with a strange connection to Max’s character). And so the story has more of a timeless, mythical quality, much like the director’s first film. I can only hope there won’t be another 11 year wait for the next one.
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović and Alanté Kavaïté; Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse; Starring Max Brebant, Roxane Duran; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 13 October 2015.