Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s film Evolution opens in the UK today and we’re at a bit of a loss as to how to describe it. First and foremost it’s brilliant, and it’s beautifully made. It’s a body horror, a sci-fi, a fairytale, a coming of age story, it’s a bit Lovecraft, a bit Ishiguro…It’s amazing. You have to see it. Read our 5 star review here.
It’s the story of a young boy living on a rocky island somewhere in the Mediterranean (probably). The only inhabitants are other boys his age and the women looking after them. Every day he takes his medicine and swims in the sea, but when he finds the corpse of a boy in the water, it’s the start of a startling discovery…
Evolution is the first film in just over 10 years from Hadzihalilovic, who previously made the superb fairytale Innocence, and she tells us that it’s taken that long to get this film made. We sat down with her at the London Film Festival to talk about finally getting the film to screens, the inspiration for this strange story, and why she doesn’t want the viewer to have all the answers.
First of all, congratulations on the film! How does it feel to finally show it to people?
I’m really amazed by the good reactions! I still can’t believe my eyes! I think we’ve had very good reactions from people who seem to have really understood the film. It was so difficult to make it, to find the financing for this film. For years we had people saying “We don’t get it, what is this bizarre stuff, what is the meaning of it?” So it’s a very good surprise to get this reaction now!
How would you describe Evolution to people when you were trying to find financing?
I said that it was a genre film. I thought that would make it understandable. It’s a horror film, I would say, with other kinds of elements and it’s not a typical horror movie. So that was a difficulty, that was in between different kind of things.
And so it was not a commercial genre film, so we had to find money from people who give money for more auteur films. And in France and even in Belgium, it’s not in the culture I guess, this kind of metaphorical thing, so for them it was a bit…impure! Because it deals with genre, with horror specifically, and I think some people wouldn’t feel comfortable with having children involved. In other countries it’s less of a problem, in Spain they have so many films with torturing children!
In France the metaphorical aspect was something not easy to deal with and I think it didn’t help. I guess it’s a film that you have to experience, through the sounds and the images, and it’s not so much in the narrative, it’s not in the characters or the dialogue, so it was the reason why I guess it was difficult to get from the script, even if we tried to make it as expressive as possible. And the strange thing also was people didn’t ask for images. They wanted to have everything in the script.
It’s such a visual experience, those underwater sequences are amazing!
You need people that have imagination when they read it and that have confidence also in you. And we were lucky to get those images! We were aware that we had to get the audience attention very strongly from the beginning, and it was a kind of gift from this place that the underwater shots were so beautiful. It was like such a wonderful surprise that when you put your head underwater you can get that.
I had imagined things in detail, but because I’m not a diver, I wasn’t sure what we could get. And the great surprise was that it could also be a landscape, not only details. But I could get this impression of texture with the weeds, and the very beautiful thing was the movement in the water, I was not expecting that to be so interesting.
Do you remember where the first idea for the film came from?
I didn’t think so when I began to work on it, but the more I’ve been asked about it, the more obvious it seems to me that of course it comes from my own childhood and memories of that age.
When I was ten I had appendicitis and I went to the hospital for the first time of my life, and it was nothing dramatic, it was just a normal thing, but it was a very strong experience because it was the first time I had adults touching my body, and even open it. So it’s normal but also at the same time it’s very weird and very strong. And also because it was a moment of changes and I was maybe 11, it was right at the beginning of puberty so it also has a stronger resonance and a more confused one probably. It’s probably the heart of it.
Innocence was a film about young girls, and this is about young boys. Did you always picture it as such?
I didn’t really think that I was going to do a film with young boys as an opposite to Innocence, I just thought that this story was much more interesting and abnormal with a boy instead of a girl. Then the boys and the mothers, it’s this sort of social organisation that makes you think a bit of Innocence of course, so the boy was essential to the project from the very beginning. It was always a mother and a boy.
Both films are kind of coming of age fairytales, did you think of them as connected in any way?
In fact the very beginning of this project was before Innocence, and then I read Frank Wedekin’s story [Mine-Haha, Or On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls, which became Innocence] and I really jumped on that. I went back to Evolution after Innocence so I guess it influenced me a bit in terms of organisation, structure, whatever, but I wanted it to be different from Innocence.
I wanted it to be more narrative, less abstract than Innocence was, to go to other directions. But while I was preparing and shooting it I understood how much it was similar to Innocence, of course because of the children and so many other elements, so I was a bit scared by not being able to escape myself, but yeah, I can see the strong similarities. But at the beginning it was not intentional, it was a bit the opposite.
There are some science fiction elements to the film, I wanted specifically to ask about the starfish…
The starfish thing was very exciting, we did a lot of research on them. The thing is that the script has evolved a lot. At some point it was obvious that we would not get any more money so I had to cut a lot of things in the script, and one of them was that we had more things with the starfish, not an explanation but reasons why the starfish, so at the end it’s just the starfish by itself.
So it was very very exciting to do research about this and marine beings and it gives a lot of ideas about how they live, how they reproduce themselves and this idea that the human beings are not the centre. There are other directions, other possibilities, it was very exciting but it’s not so much in the narrative, it’s more in the background.
The part regarding the boys, there is no scientific basis for this at all so that was totally not realistic, but we thought about “What happened if this creature does not have a possibility [to reproduce], are they hermaphrodites…?” and all these answers would be different kinds of stories. So we had backstory, we thought it was not important to explain to the audience who exactly these women were, even if we have an idea.
And also what I said about reproducing, starfish or other creatures, they have ways to reproduce which is to put their semen into the water or in other creatures so it was like giving you ideas about how this could work. So all these mechanical things, but it’s not very important or interesting to explain. Maybe we could have done more if we had more money or time to shoot but it’s not a very important thing. And also, with starfish, there is a reason why beyond just visually it’s such a strange animal…
It feels like there’s a Lovecraft element as well, but I don’t know if that’s just because it’s strange and by the sea!
It’s funny because when Evolution was first being shown there were some who talked about Lovecraft, and I said “Yeah,” but it’s obvious because I read Lovecraft when I was a teenager and it had a big impact on me. So yeah, it also has elements from that and also maybe something, it’s not at all an adaptation of that, but The Island Of Dr Moreau. And it’s kind of a fairytale.
It’s a film that leaves a lot unexplained. Did that make it difficult to find the right cast?
Yeah, well the children didn’t ask about that! They didn’t care. I think they didn’t care about the story! They just want the experience of making a film. Even though the main character was 13 years old, for [actor Max Brebant] the main thing was “Who is the girl that I’m going to kiss?” As for the adults, yeah, I didn’t want to explain too much.
For instance, Julie-Marie Parmentier, who plays the mother, asked more about her character, and it was interesting because she took a more normal and realistic approach, like “OK it’s a mother who has to deal with a child which is kind of rebelling and questioning and having fears and she’s not really able to deal with that.” I like that she was trying to bring this very human and normal thing to the character.
Do you think it’s important to leave a lot of questions open for the viewer?
Well yeah, I hope that it’s talking about very simple and human things. It’s not difficult to understand that, even if you don’t understand every part of the story itself. The story is more of a superficial thing that helps me to have these images and feeling and emotion. It’s a bit like Eraserhead, where you don’t understand everything but you understand what it’s about. I hope it could be the same with this film, it’s not that strong.
When I watch a film I like to participate, I like to have a little bit of freedom. It doesn’t mean that a film has to be empty, quite the opposite, but I have to make my own path in it and I think it stays more in my mind when I do that, and also when I don’t get everything. More than if you receive a message, ok, it can be a very interesting message but it’s less cinematic to me.
It’s a bit like a piece of music, when you feel it and it doesn’t bring a message and you have to make it your own in a way.