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Evolution (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"Could maybe use a bit on the origins of this species."
3 stars

"Évolution" is the sort of art-house science fiction one gets when the filmmakers have come up with a fascinating setting but seemingly don’t want to slum it in genre by attaching their concepts to a conventional story: Frequently brilliant in conception and executed with impressive precision, but potentially unsatisfying. What, after all, is the point of creating all of this if you’re not going to actually use it?

It offers up an unusual town, seemingly populated entirely by boys aged about ten or eleven and their mothers. For better or worse, the boys don’t seem that unusual, with the bigger ones often pushing Nicolas (Max Brebant) around, though he doesn’t seem to be quite as sickly as his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) would seem to have it, judging by the medicine she dispenses. Swimming in the ocean alone one day, Nicolas sees a dead body, and while the boys doubt it, it seems to cause a great deal of consternation among the women. Perhaps this is why he’s rushed off to the hospital, where nurse Stella (Roxane Duran) is learning some particularly odd medicine.

The seaside village where these folks all live is an enjoyably homey environment; the sort of place that has not exactly been passed by but has seemed to resist being swallowed up by franchises and tourism, even if some places seem kind of run-down. It suggests stability, that the situation we see has been the same for a long time, even if it seems untenable, with the maintenance left to the folks in the hospital, vital to the town but seemingly not truly part of it. It makes for an interesting contrast with the frequent scenes set underwater, which often serve to remind the audience that there’s an alien world that operates on different rules down there, as nearby and yet utterly bizarre as what goes on in the hospital.

One of the prominent images in that world is a red starfish. Seen juxtaposed to human flesh underwater, it’s the very image of tendrils of blood seeping out, but it’s also a parallel to what must be going on on the island - though most starfish reproduce in a fairly conventional way, a fair number are sequential or simultaneous hermaphrodites. This sort of unusual life cycle is a big part of what the audience sees behind the scenes at the hospital, including a number of images that are not for the squeamish. Co-writer/director Lucile Hadzihalilovic uses those images to sear the potential biohorror into the audience’s heads, even as there is something creepy and mysterious going on among the villagers.

And then it doesn’t completely fizzle out, but there isn’t much of a next step. Hadzihalilovic is so concerned about creating an eerie, mysterious environment that she squanders a great deal of the potential to examine how this society works, or how it doesn’t, perhaps questioning whether it is being strangled by adherence to no-longer-relevant traditions. Is Nicolas figuring out what the future has in store for him? Just why does Stella seem so uncomfortable? You can build a great, thrilling story based on these questions, but to do so, you’ve got to have an answer for those questions. It’s not necessary to explain everything, but a certain amount of mystery needs to be exchanged for something specific for the characters’ actions to have any meaning. Hadzihalilovic does create a story with a beginning, middle, and end, one which will allow the audience to infer a great deal, but that reliance on inference can make the film feel like a mere outline, a metaphor too ill-defined to be matched to something real and not enough for pure fantasy.

Hadzihalilovic still manages to suck the viewer in; she zeroes in on what’s profoundly creepy about everything in her setting, whether it be overtly gross or just secretive, with laser-like precision. She’ll show young boys as being cruel and then find horror in the idea of making them something else, and despite the eventual feeling that she should be doing more, there’s a certain value to the form of the horror awaiting Nicolas being murky. And for all that the characters are kept ciphers in some ways, Hadzihalilovic and the cast do nice work to get the audience involved: Max Brebant gives Nicolas a growing insistence that something is wrong, Julie-Marie Parmentier gives every look both maternal concern along with sinister presence, and Roxane Duran broadcasts gives Stella a quiet sweetness that feels natural but also potentially out of place.

It’s a potent stew of intriguing ideas good enough to pull the audience through a trim movie and be worthwhile even when the end seems more than abit anticlimactic, like Hadzihalilovic was steering things away from a conventional narrative right to the very end. It’s an approach that will frustrate some and enrapture others, and for something as determinedly strange as this, that’s a fair result.

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originally posted: 12/29/16 10:37:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/14/20 M Intriguing and great imagery. 4 stars
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