Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s haunting yet fussy Évolution opens under an ocean, allowing us to regard the sky through a prism of majestically clear water. A boy, Nicolas (Max Brebant), swims into frame, gazing at plant life as it elegantly sways with the current. The camera lingers for so long on the plants and the movement of the water as to hypnotically emphasize a spectral calm within the habitat, which is disrupted when Nicolas glimpses what he believes is the corpse of a child with a starfish roosting on its stomach. With this discovery, Nicolas brings a process of revelation into motion, as this corpse only intensifies his long-gestating suspicion that something’s wrong with his community, which is revealed to exist along a coast of volcanic rock, composed only of women and boys. These scenes offer a promising mixture of pristinely ambiguous nature footage and horror-movie gimmickry, suggesting an expressionist National Geographic special about a Lovecraftian cult.
The plot pivots on an odyssey undertaken by a hero who gradually realizes that his world is built on a series of unimaginable perversions, and is set against a seaside atmosphere that brings to mind films like Dagon and Spring. But Hadzihalilovic is occupied less with narrative than with mounting an atmosphere of sensual, free-floating dread revolving around alienation, isolation, pedophilia, the perversion of gender roles, and the bitterness that can poison relationships between offspring and their parents.
A strong, dense brew, in other words—and one that’s complemented by visual motifs that reveal more than they initially appear to, such as the red color shared by the starfish Nicolas spots and the swimming trunks he wears out on the beach. Or the repeated close-ups of various sea creatures that emphasize the latter’s ability to regenerate limbs and reproduce asexually, which is echoed by a shot of an orgiastic group of women as they moan into the sky while writhing in a collected shape that resembles, yes, a starfish.
Other images emphasize violation and insertion. Particularly shots of the women, who often linger malevolently over the boys’ belly buttons, after strapping the children into gurneys located in a mad-scientist laboratory that’s painted in dark, swampy greens that suggest that the characters are still underwater. The truth awaiting Nicolas’s uncovering is easily discerned in generality, but we’re never quite given enough to add everything up in our minds, inspiring one to scour the frames with escalating avidity.
With its simultaneously dreamy, nightmarish, beautiful, ugly, and sexually neurotic interpretation of the horror genre, Évolution unavoidably recalls Under the Skin. But the latter’s formality was more varied and virtuosic. Jonathan Glazer’s film was enriched by the performance of Scarlett Johansson, who conveyed, with striking minimalism, the wealth of existential pain that’s triggered by life as a non-human in a human realm, which metaphorically parallels the isolation and displacement that we feel naturally among our own species—a simple yet potent conceit that unified the incredibly erotic imagery. Évolution doesn’t have that sort of human touch. The women of Hadzihalilovic’s film are mostly dull monsters of an unrelentingly Stepford-esque stripe, while Nicolas is a wide-eyed audience surrogate.
And the symbolism is so portentous and repetitive that it ironically leeches Évolution of a point. The film interprets itself, offering an essay on rape and gender fluidity that locks us out of the cognitive process of digesting it. There’s only so many prolonged scenes of women torturing children that someone can watch before yearning for a reprieve of spontaneity or variation. The images are accomplished, occasionally startling, but lugubrious and reductive, underlined by a droning score, suggestive of water moving and whales cooing, that’s eerie yet narcotizing. Like many experiments in “extreme” French horror, the film is a polemic with just a patina of true chaos.