Beyond the Sea
by Greg Cwik

Dir. Lucille Hadzihalilovic, France, IFC Films

Evolution, Lucille Hadzihalilovic’s first film in eleven years, is the thematic sibling of her only other full-length feature, Innocence (2004). It would be difficult to ignore or refute the similarities between the films, which could be fraternal twins separated at birth. Innocence, one of the decade's most fascinating debuts, is a beguiling mystery about a coterie of young girls living in a bucolic French boarding house, where the children perform increasingly eerie nocturnal activities, and where the adults are not to be trusted. The girls long to leave their pastoral confines, but attempts to flee are met with punishment. With Evolution, Hadzihalilovic again explores the way children’s boundless imaginations interpret their limited life experience, but this time she focuses on little boys. Each is a fantastical rendering of childhood anxieties, eschewing conventional notions of plot and character almost entirely, steeping viewers in allegorical realms ruled by duplicitous adults. But whereas Innocence slowly succumbs to the horror of adolescence, Evolution is a more grotesque child, whose nightmares have long since seeped into its every waking moment.

Innocence opens with a medley of pastoral imagery, streams slipping through the forest, trees dancing in the breeze. With Evolution, Hadzihalilovic again submerges us in an oneiric aura from the first shot, this time a view from the bottom of an unidentified sea. It’s a perspective suggestive of embryonic life. The sunlight gleams over the undulating waves in an azure haze while flora waver tranquilly. It could be a shot from Planet Earth, pristine and patient. A flotilla of fish drifts by, as does a boy in a red bathing suit, all alone, as if separated from his shoal. It’s almost four minutes before we surface.

This boy, Nicholas (Max Brebant), acts as our guide, and we rarely leave his side. Hadzihalilovic creates an intimate bond between the viewer and the boy. Like childhood best friends, we remainin separable—for a while, at least; as childhood wanes, so does friendship, as well as innocence. Nicholas sees, or thinks he sees, the dead body of a young boy with a starfish for a belly button at the bottom of the sea. He scurries home, his red shorts burning against the ashen landscape. He speaks of the dead boy to his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), who, like all the women on this island, appears almost alien with her tow-colored eyebrows and black-sea eyes, her pallid flesh and flaxen wisps of hair pulled back from her smooth forehead; her every word is intoned with the strained articulation of someone for whom spoken language is unnatural, and her high protruding cheekbones are glazed with something too viscous to be sweat. She takes Nicholas to the sea, into which she delves with sylphlike grace; she returns with a bright red starfish, assuring her son, “There was never any boy.”

The island, we come to realize (this is a film of gradual realizations, not overt statements or revelations), is populated exclusively by little boys and adult women, yet despite the absence of girls, there’s nothing traditionally masculine or boyish about the movie—no boys-will-be-boys brouhahas, no fistfights or pissing contests or vulgar displays of aggression or Beatles mixtapes or any of those other reliable episodes that often represent boyhood in fiction. This isn’t a coming-of-age story: these boys don’t grow, but are grown by the women; don’t develop, but are developed into something that isn’t quite boy. Normal human boys fear puberty, the swaths of acne that mottle their face, the tufts of hair that sprout in unexpected places, the acrid smell of sweat-stained shirts and the aches and pains of growing bones and broken hearts. Hadzihalilovic’s boys have distinctly different fears, namely transmogrifying into starfish monsters. Evolution is immersed in the surreal experience of adolescence and the anxieties of the pubescent body, which manifest in Cronenbergian horrors. The movie exists in the suspended animation of childhood, in which every second feels eternal, while the adulthood, in all its secrecy and opaque conspiracy, taunts from the sulfurous dusk.

Evolution makes its location—an undisclosed French isle that seems to have been abandoned by time—as integral as any humanoid character. At the film’s New Directors/New Films premiere earlier this year, Hadzihalilovic said they spent years scouting to find the right place, one that looked at once familiar yet foreign. It feels like a dead thing floating in the sea, a forlorn vacation vista with curvaceous shores, blackened sand, obsidian shards, lines of beige buildings like scar tissue etched into the island’s carcass. Photographed and decorated in predominantly blue and green hues, the sparsely populated island recalls the Barbizon school impressionism of Gustave Courbet, or the tenebrous sublimity of German painter Caspar David Friedrich, artists who, like Hadzihalilovic, used the sea as an allegorical element.

One night Nicholas sneaks out, traversing the empty village and its arroyo-like alleys to the shore, where he sees the women of the village entangled in a starfish-shaped tapestry, writhing, swaying, fornicating. Nicholas subsequently falls ill and is taken to the hospital, a dilapidated structure whose bright lights and sharp metallic instruments do little to assuage his angst. In the sordid nooks of the derelict hospital Nicholas and the other boys await unknown futures. The walls are the color of infection, of the curdled squid ink the boys are daily fed. This sanctuary, which should be antiseptic and pure, instead appears soiled with sallow degradation and decay. The nurses watch an antiquated film of a cesarean section, which leaves them visibly dismayed. The human body is a source of unease, so frail and cumbersome, and the sight of slimy creatures torn from a mother’s womb is portrayed here as a horror conjured from a bygone era. A starfish, on the other hand, heals quickly, without the aid of others.

Evolution is a serene film, one that exists in a state of twilight sedation, but beneath the surface something stirs, like the percolating uncertainty of a boy stricken with fever and confined to his bed. As with Bernard Rose’s beautiful Paperhouse (1988), in which a young girl's deep-seated perturbations become corporeal monsters in her fever dreams, Hadzihalilovic uses the logic of a child’s imagination to make surreal the singular anxiety of childhood illness: a sick child has no choice but to rely on the care of adults; in Nicholas's case, those adults may not mean him well.

Hadzihalilovic’s romantic partner is Gaspar Noé, bad-boy provocateur of French cinema (she also co-edited his 1998 film I Stand Alone). Noé is a name brand, a mustachioed maestro of cacophonous, life-is-so-bad cinema, and each of his films is a new, has-to-be-seen cause célèbre. Watching Evolution, which premiered at last year’s TIFF, just four months after Noé’s doleful 3D porn-thing Love played Cannes, you can't help but compare Noé to Hadzihalilovic, and almost wish that she were the more prolific of the pair. Their styles of filmmaking are comically different: Noé, an unapologetic maximalist, slathers his films in neon-soaked, nihilistic imagery, and his lack of self-control often betrays his immaculate formal command of sight and sound. He’s a filmmaker of tics and gimmicks, some of which work, most of which are just irksome. Hadzihalilovic is a more ripely symbolic filmmaker. The 82-minute Evolution, which is almost 40 minutes shorter than Innocence, gestated for so long it’s been flensed of all flab and extraneous details, an organism whose every appendage and aspect has a purpose, even if that purpose isn’t always easy to discern. Unlike Innocence, which emulates the graceful motions of its tiny ballerinas with smooth, assured motion, the constant flowing of water carrying our gaze in its current, Evolution is an often motionless film whose camera settles and watches its character traipse through this strange realm.

It’s a slippery film, but Hadzihalilovic directs it with surgical precision. The mood is taciturn and pensive, its imagery lucid, and some might talk of its beauty, but to call Evolution beautiful belies the disquieting feeling that suffuses its every articulate frame, its every measured beat sustained past the point of comfort. Details—rust mottling tiled walls, sweat stains on nurses’ garments, juvenile doodles that represent a childhood grown in a lab and not intended to last—coalesce to create an atmosphere that matters more than the impermeable plot. It’s all ids and egos, shrouded in darkness and inky black ambiguity.

In its emotional serenity, Evolution finds profound loneliness, yet also hope. Nicholas’s kindly nurse (Roxane Duran, last seen in Melanie Laurent’s Respire, an astute and unsettling look at toxic female friendships) becomes a sort of surrogate mother, providing solace for the frightened young boy. Nicholas has that epiphany some of us must eventually have: that his parentis bad for him and he must leave and go out on his own. In its final shot, another moment sustained beyond the point in which most films would cut away, Nicholas sees civilization; as with Innocence, this hermetic realm exists on the fringes of our reality after all. The shot bleeds into the credits without explanation or interruption, suggesting not an end but an ellipsis. Childhood innocence drifts away. It brings to mind a Herman Melville quote: “Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”