French Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic brought us an arthouse movie in 2016 with Evolution; unsurprisingly, it’s not for everyone. Lee reviews.
The indistinct nature of the visual language makes objective criticism something of an imprecise art. How do we weigh our perception of the intentions of the filmmaker with the execution of those intentions against the countless other factors that makes a film a film when the communicative nature of the movie can only speak through the viewer’s ability and willingness to perceive micro-details as narrative? Should we assume what we deciphered is the core intention, should we delve deeper and deeper to find new answers to new questions due the open nature of the narrative, or should we draw a line in the sand and make it clear that objectivity only functions when it suits subjectivity?
It’s perfectly plausible that Evolution succeeds in every ambition that Lucile Hadzihalilovic had for the story; a sci-fi folk horror detailing a boy who wants to break the system and the journey he embarks on after questioning his surroundings, his condition, his mother, his friends, etc, etc. Told through minimal dialogue, a gorgeous high-contract colour scheme and plenty of still imagery, we get arguably enough details of this dystopian society to draw our own conclusions, but nothing is made easy.
Imagery lends itself to emotional guesswork; these experiences hint at a wider story, but what? The mother isn’t real, or so Nicholas protests, he’s a shut-in coward fascinated by the halted development of starfish, the ocean plays heavily into his thoughts and dreams, his resolve to escape is continually interrupted by sexual fantasies, male impregnation and a hospital ward ran by uniform nurses. Is this Lynchian puberty? That constant distress, the aggression; spurned on not by relationship but by maternal pressures and fears, and that resolve involving a business city, are we looking at progress to adulthood? Perhaps corrupted by the path our mothers carve for us, are we seeing a filmmaker air their laundry? Is this a call for simple empathy with the choices forced upon the modern woman? While adapted and assimilated, Stella seems to carry that sense of rebellion much like Nicholas, so should we see her as her own person or as a factor of Nicholas’ development?
The readings will be plentiful and fun for those who like to read, with imagery that lends itself to many interpretations, but somehow, despite a runtime of only 70 minutes, the film feels unnecessarily bloated. Perpetuated by a soundtrack of ambient sound effects, we spend much more time dwelling on Nicholas’ expressionless face and a vast array of underwater life than could ever be necessary. While seeking to explore an undefined experience using undefined imagery, the project leans on a filmmaker’s taste for tone and pacing, and while at some points (the boat scene and the kissing scene, for example) the buoyancy allows the audience time to contemplate the severe implications of the actions on screen, at other times (the fourth or fifth time Nicholas wakes up and stares blankly into nothing, any scene with the mother telling him off and the two simply don’t respond with any urgency) it feels overlong simply to pad out the content.
And what of the experience really matters? The uniformity of the tension and dread pervading the piece works well with the cold nurses and the pale white walls of the houses, but if this is supposed to represent the trials of a certain experience in life, then perhaps it is too imprecise to really mean anything to its audience, or perhaps it is too cynical in its representation to even be fair. For some, this might be the perfect message, but for most it will hardly be seen as transcendent, and for arthouse to function it often needs a touch of the transcendent.
Ultimately, Evolution comes with a recommendation thanks to its ability to take you to a place you have never been and, for some, the possibility that it might connect with you on a deeply personal level. However, as with all arthouse, don’t expect this to work for you and, even if it does, don’t expect to be up at night thinking this one over.