If the goal of “Evolution” is to deeply unsettle and disorient its viewers, then mission accomplished. The slight French horror film is a difficult one, eschewing plot for nightmare-like atmospherics; it doesn’t so much tell a story as impart a feeling. For that, “Evolution” is a work daring in its singular vision and refusal to compromise with viewers. But daring does not equal unqualified success; the characteristics that make “Evolution” an intriguing piece of cinema also make it a not entirely successful one.
The opening unfolds slowly, lingering underwater with a boy floating in silhouette, backlit by shimmering sunlight over a placid ocean surface. But that calm hides something deadly underneath: a boy’s fish-pecked corpse lodged in the reef.
The young swimmer, Nicolas (Max Brebant), runs home to his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), wide-eyed and dripping, to relay his foul discovery. He finds no succor there, no belief – just calm disregard. Nicolas falls quickly back into routine: eating bowls of colorless and revolting gruel; drinking glasses of dark liquid, “medicine” regularly administered by his watchful mother; sitting down to sketch crudely in a small pad. He draws the corpse he saw, a starfish affixed to its rotting belly, and takes pains to hide the sketch.
Nicolas is young, pre-pubescent, as are seemingly the other children – all boys – in this mysterious seaside village. They are mothered by slender and severe women in dun- and flesh-hued garments who speak little, save to offer instruction. It’s a sterile, insular world suffused with marine chill, entirely without warmth save for Nicolas’ notebook. It’s filled with fanciful drawings that stand in colorful contrast to the cold word around him: a giraffe, a Ferris Wheel, a smiling woman with orange curls. These are not the sort of things a boy should know about in this stark village bereft of books, television, movie theaters and joy.
Something here is deeply wrong, as Nicolas begins to realize with horror as he and his friends are suddenly hospitalized, subjected to forced injections and suffer mysterious nosebleeds.
Nicolas sets about finding answers, but don’t expect them. The essential questions – who, what, when, where, why, the building blocks of storytelling – go unanswered. “Evolution” displays a poetic disregard for traditional narrative; you must accept simply to exist in the film, which is largely silent, with little dialogue and rare strains of atmospheric music.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s second feature film is hypnotic as a sensory experience, enigmatic and unforgiving in its narrative experimentation. But at only 81 minutes, the film still feels longer than it is as it lingers unnecessarily, doubling back repeatedly on visual motifs to impart a feeling. It’s stunning yet strangely inert.
“Evolution” is a chilling work of bio-horror, but also the sort of art-house endeavor that’s fated to be appreciated more than liked.
Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY Network
IFC Midnight presents a film directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic and written by Hadzihalilovic and Alante Kavaite. No MPAA rating. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 81 minutes. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.