Lucile Hadzihalilovic made a sizable arthouse splash with Innocence, her first feature film. That was 13 years ago though and a second film failed to materialize. Hadzihalilovic drifted back into anonymity, so much in fact that I almost overlooked the 2015 release of her second feature film. That would've been a real shame, because Evolution [Évolution] turns out to be a worthy successor. It's a film that references Innocence quite often, but still manages to be a different experience altogether.
What made Innocence so unique was the combination of a tangible but cloaked unease combined with a setting that was never truly explained. Evolution takes a very similar route, but does away with the fake fantasy world coating and brings its grim, often disturbing essence much closer to surface. There is absolutely no doubt that something is seriously off this time around, though Hadzihalilovic still only hints at what might be going on. If you were turned off by Innocence's lack of explanation, you'll still feel at a loss here.
Evolution is set on a remote island, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. There's only one small commune on the island, a little society where all the adults are women and all the kids are young boys. There is a sect-like feel surrounding this little commune, but it's clearly not a religion-inspired setup. Apart from the little village (where each family owns a modest house), the island also houses a mysterious hospital where the boys are taken to once they reach a certain age.
The story follows Nicholas, one of the young boys on the island. One day Nicholas stumbles upon a dead body lodged between the coral, freaking him out. He races back home to warn his mom, but she seems rather unfazed by his story. Slowly Nicholas starts to suspect there's something his mom isn't telling him and he ventures off on his own in order to find out what secret the island is hiding. It doesn't take too long before he's found out, soon afterwards Nicholas ends up at the hospital for a checkup.
Benoît Debie wasn't on board for Evolution, luckily Hadzihalilovic found an excellent replacement in Manuel Dacosse. The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island that proved itself the perfect location. Lanzarote's grim, relentless but pristine beauty gives the island a remote and alien-like quality and it gave me the impression of having been transported to another world. Dacosse's dark and brooding cinematography then adds an extra layer of primordial beauty, further distancing Evolution from Innocence's more idyllic setting. The overall effect may be a little too dark for some, but the image is always clear and contrasting enough, making sure there's no need to squint and second-guess what is going on.
The soundtrack is somewhat expected, featuring lots of moody soundscapes (mostly built from low hums) in order to create a disturbing and foreboding atmosphere. It's a formula that horror films have been exploiting for the larger part of the new millennium, and while Evolution doesn't take it beyond the familiar it does commit to it with commendable conviction. In combination with the brooding visuals it makes for an unsettling, eerie and slightly disturbing overall impression. While I felt that the soundtrack could've been just a little more explicit, it's still much better than the half-arsed execution most horror films end up with.
Remembering the somewhat stilted performances in Innocence, I went in prepared this time. Not too surprisingly Hadzihalilovic strived to achieve a very similar effect. There isn't much spontaneity and most characters appear extremely closed off, with dialogues often stripped down to the bare minimum. This might be a hurdle to some people, but in the end it only increased the otherworldly vibe of the film for me. There is just very little room for emotion here and the stoic, icy attitude of the characters only added to the overall mystery of the film.
I've seen people refer to Evolution as a horror film, but that kind of pigeon-holing isn't going to do this film many favors. It's true that it bears plenty of the trademark elements of horror cinema, but everything here appears in function of the mystery. There are some moments of dark, gloomy and even gory beauty, but the film never seems to aim for dread, fear or grossing out its audience. I'm pretty certain the average horror fan isn't going to find much to his liking here, instead these elements are merely there to further develop Evolution's mysterious, nightmarish atmosphere.
Hadzihalilovic delivered what I consider to be an almost perfect second feature. It's different enough to avoid a direct comparison to Innocence, at the same time there are many distinct elements that bind these two films together. Evolution gives direction to Hadzihalilovic's artistic persona and establishes her as a director with a strong sense of style and a knack for mystery. It's a film with a pretty tough exterior, but if you loved Innocence I'm quite confident that Evolution is an easy recommend and might even surpass the appreciation for Hadzihalilovic's first. If you haven't seen anything by Hadzihalilovic yet though, Innocence might be the easier film to start with.