Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Runtime: 78 minutes
Brevity is the soul of wit. Turns out that it also lies at the heart of head-spinning psychological thrillers. At just 78 minutes, Evolution, the second film from French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, accomplishes what similarly themed films struggle to over vastly longer durations. Favoring a steady drip of ambiguous clues over dense plotting and explanation, Hadzihalilovic's first film in over a decade is the cinematic equivalent of a near-perfectly delivered short story that lingers due to the questions left unanswered.
It's not long after we first meet young Nicolas (Max Brebant) that we stumble upon the first of several puzzling, gently unsettling sights. On a morning swim, Nicolas comes across the corpse of a boy his age, with a red starfish fixed around his stomach. Understandably alarmed, he rushes home to his village, a cluster of white buildings isolated along the coastline of black rocks and sand. He informs his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), eventually goes under the water to see for herself. When she resurfaces, she comes holding the red starfish, and tells Nicolas and the other boys in town that there never was a dead body. In the meantime, other families, composed of male children and female adults, mill about by the water.
Hadzihalilovic, from the outset, displays an extraordinary sense of cinematic time, and proportions her film accordingly. Though Evolution would qualify as slow, its pacing is taut, never dawdling for too long before nudging its story into (and then deep down) the rabbit hole. The routines of the village dwellers, which include the adults feeding an inky black mush to the boys as part of a treatment, are shown enough for us to understand their place in the characters' lives, but not so much that the film leaves us thinking "oh come on, not this again."
Evolution may be light on plot and character development, but it counters beautifully through its stoic performances, beautiful lighting, and masterful command of mood. Much of what takes place defies easy explanation, but the questions that Hadzihalilovic leaves unanswered come from a place of assured filmmaking. The director has the answers and knows all of the rules, and uses ambiguity to push the viewer, rather than as a cop out. And the actors, though often blank in expression, all commit to the material with chilling directness. Though young Nicolas is the film's lead, the most nuanced turn comes from Stella (The White Ribbon's Roxane Duran), a nurse (or someone dressed as a nurse) at the island's medical facility. Initially just another face overseeing the "cure" of the local boys, Stella's facade cracks in an unexpectedly tender way, throwing a wrench into our perception of what the hell is going on.
There's a razor thin line between compelling ambiguity and head-scratching emptiness, and Hadzihalilovic never falters. Her story has literal and symbolic implications, with issues of gender dynamics, societal manipulation, and bodily autonomy all intersecting over the course of Nicolas' journey (not unlike 2014's Under the Skin). It's a muted mix of abstract sci-fi thrills and low-key body horror with a less-is-more approach only amplifies its deeply unnerving psychological impact the longer it swims around in your head.