“Evolution” (2015): Mesmerizing French Chiller Is as Beautiful as It Is Enigmatic

I’m a big proponent of the current wave of “But is it horror?” films – movies that don’t neatly play by the numbers regarding what some fans feel horror cinema “should be,” whatever that is – and writer/director Lucile Hadžihalilović’s French offering Evolution (2015) is a mesmerizing entry into that category. Totally bereft of big scares and far removed from being mass-market friendly, this disquieting vision of  an alien world – not in the outer space sense, but on an island here on Earth –  and the physical terrors it holds is a unique vision that offers great rewards for fright-film fans.

Ten-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) lives on a small island populated only by other boys around his age and women who appear to be their mothers. The women all share similar pale, odd features. Though the island residents’ lives revolve around the sea, Nicolas is warned by his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) not to swim in those waters after he goes on a solo dive and sees what he thinks is the body of a boy with a red sea star on its belly. To reassure him that he was mistaken, his mother dives where he did while the boys wait on the shore, and tells him that no corpse is down there.

Evolution beach
The women and children of Evolution are dependent on the sea for many things, but it holds disquieting revelations, as well.

Nicolas is unconvinced, however, and he tries to persuade some of the other boys to help him uncover what the women are hiding. His hunch proves to hold some merit, as the boys make some discoveries including a sexual ritual on the beach at night and disturbing incidents in an unsettling, run-down hospital. Things get ever more bizarre from here, and clear explanations are in extremely short supply. During his time in the hospital, one of the nurses (Roxane Duran) befriends Nicolas. The two begin a nearly silent disconcerting relationship that also adds tender elements to the tale.

The less first-time viewers know about Evolution going in, the better, but I think it’s not giving too much away to say that the enigmatic film blends a Lovercraftian feel with body horror. Certain psychological fears regarding reproduction and isolation are played on, as well. A good deal of the film’s material is left open for interpretation, with which those so inclined can have a field day.

Evolution nurse
A nurse (Roxanne Duran) from the island’s creepy hospital befriends Nicolas (Max Brebant), whose search for answers to mysteries leads to disturbing  discoveries.

Lucile Hadžihalilović constructs an ethereal, secluded world with Evolution that manages to fully immerse viewers in its gorgeous, lushly shot imagery – courtesy of cinematographer Manuel Dacosse  (who also lensed the surrealistic neo-giallo films Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears) – but that also keeps us at an emotional distance at the same time. These magnificent shots are counterbalanced by scenes that will make some audience members turn their heads in fear of what they might see.

Evolution has a languid, tone-poem feel to it yet it manages to continually rise in tension and dread. Its plot is furthered by atmosphere, mood, and incidents that usually create more mystery rather than clearing up what has come before. Exposition is not part of Hadžihalilović‘s vision and answers don’t come easily if they come at all. This is the type of cinematic effort that will have admirers reflecting on it long after the ending credits finish rolling.

Manuel Dacosse’s breathtaking cinematography adds to the otherworldliness of Evolution.

Horror cinema, what defines it, and its techniques and approaches are transmogrifying now like never before, making this an exciting time for some fans of the genre and a frustrating one for others. For viewers open to  exploring the surreal marvels that this genre has to offer rather than the lurid pandering to which it sometimes falls prey (not that both styles – and everything inbetween – can’t exist together, because certainly the range of tastes with horror cinema is wide), the new wave of fright fare seems headed in bold new directions, and Evolution is a gripping, chilling exemplar of this movement.

Evolution: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Evolution screened at the 17th Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea in May 2016.

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.