Lucile Hadzihalilovic is a filmmaker of closed systems, creating isolated, enigmatic worlds of bizarre rituals and soupy dread. Pointedly, they are microcosms without men. Her debut feature, Innocence (2004), set in an unspecified era of rotary phones and phonographs at a mysterious girls’ school in the woods, explores the prison of childhood. “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” instructs one of the institute’s two teachers, both women, to her prepubescent pupils, who are distinguished by differently hued hair ribbons that indicate their age. That declaration also serves as the credo in Evolution, Hadzihalilovic’s first feature since Innocence. Here those subjugated to the mysterious and terrifying rules of female overseers are tween boys; the ceremonies that the young must endure are more baleful, more graphic — and more wearisome.
Filmed in Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Islands, Evolution begins spectacularly — and somewhat menacingly — with the undulation of sea flora and other hypnotizing movements of the life aquatic. On the ocean’s surface floats a tiny body in red trunks: Nicolas (Max Brebant), a pretty, delicately featured 10-year-old who espies a dead boy with a red star on his belly, a grisly sea discovery he reports to his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), though, as we soon learn, her actual ties to the kid are dubious. The finding — and maman’s vehement insistence that Nicolas is mistaken about it — is the lad’s first hint of the crack in this highly ordered environment, one in which the same glutinous green glop is served at every meal and all moms are adorned in identical beige tunics. Their configuration in the widescreen frame at times suggests — and comes to fatigue as much as — one of artist Vanessa Beecroft’s stagings of regimented bodies.
The more sinisterly attired, though, are the medical staff in the blindingly white nurses’ smocks and physicians’ lab coats at the decrepit hospital, its paint peeling like dead skin, where Nicolas and many of his peers are sent for increasingly invasive procedures. Without giving too much away, I’ll say only that my notebook during these scenes was scribbled with vaguely recalled terms from junior-high science class, like parthenogenesis. Long-ago biology lessons on the remarkable powers of the starfish — Evolution’s totem creature — also came flooding back.
On the most superficial level, there’s a certain admirable audacity to the post-biology cosmos Hadzihalilovic conjures. And there’s a stark, if queasy-making, boldness in her depictions of preadolescent bodies at their most vulnerable. Yet the hermeticism of Evolution can also seem like a dead end, as Hadzihalilovic returns to the same voluptuously grotesque images and scenarios over and over again. “Shall I tell you a secret?” a nurse named Stella (Roxane Duran) conspiratorially asks Nicolas, recuperating from his most recent surgical slicing. The question is largely redundant, highlighting only more thematic puzzles and anatomical aberrations. Clinical in the extreme, Evolution aims for open-endedness, but the film, unlike its pint-size protagonists, remains impenetrable.
Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Opens November 25, IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center
Available on demand