FilmWatch Weekly: “Evolution” director Lucile Hadžihalilović, interviewed

This eerie fable about adolescence and isolation returns months after its screening at PIFF

One of strangest and most memorable films from this year’s Portland International Film Festival makes a belated return to town for a regular engagement this week at Cinema 21. “Evolution,” the second feature from the French director Lucile Hadžihalilović, is set on a rocky, isolated island populated entirely by women and young boys, including Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his…mother?. It’s sort of a fable, sort of a horror film, and plays like a strange admixture of Jean Cocteau and David Cronenberg.

There are mysterious medical facilities, bizarre treatments and injections, and a raft of visual and narrative metaphors circling around notions of reproduction, birth and water. Mostly, “Evolution” is a sensory, sensual experience, moody cinematography and all-encompassing sound design transporting the viewer to a place that is both familiar on some limbic level and utterly alien at the same time.

A scene from “Evolution.”

I first saw “Evolution” as part of the Rendezvous with French Cinema event I attended in Paris in January of this year. At that time, I was able to interview Hadžihalilović (whose surname isn’t as hard to pronounce as you’d guess) in a hotel suite, where she proved to be a graceful, almost reticent presence. Nearly a year later, I’m very pleased that Portland audiences will have a chance to experience the film on the big screen. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

MM: The film has been described as a horror movie, which to me seems reductive. How do you feel about having that label applied?

LH: I think there are many kinds of horror movies. I really wanted the horror to be attractive, appealing. I wanted to be more elliptic, more allusive. I think it’s more playful to do it like that. It’s ok if people say that [it’s a horror movie], but I can see how that makes it a bit more narrow somehow. If people ask what genre of film it is, I don’t know what to say. In French we say “film fantastique,” which is more appropriate perhaps.

MM: Your first film was called “Innocence,” and now, eleven years later, we have “Evolution.” I feel like these are the first two parts of a trilogy somehow. What would the next one be?

LH: Well, I try to avoid children, but maybe they will come back. Grown into adults, perhaps.

MM: There does seem to be something about adolescence and the transformation of children into adults that fascinates you in some way. Where does that come from?

LH: It comes from my own childhood!

MM: And yet you’ve crafted that experience into something that’s poetic and, like you said, allusive. Does that make it frustrating to have to try to explain the film in interviews like this?

LH: It is quite a shame to have to explain it. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but maybe it’s a kind of poem, in the sense that you can make interpretations, and that images echo other images. It has a logic but it’s not the logic of reality. But it’s not hard to understand. It’s about things that are universal. So I’m surprised when people say, “I really don’t understand it.” I think maybe they are trying to answer the wrong kind of questions.

MM: Do you think audiences and critics are so conditioned to look for narrative clues and solutions that they have a hard time with a film like this?

LH: Yes, and I’ve been surprised at that.

MM: In the eleven years since “Innocence,” have you been working towards this film the whole time?

LH: I was really surprised that it took so much time [to make this film]. I couldn’t believe it. It was very difficult to find the money, even with a low budget. Because it’s not normal enough, not narrative enough from a commercial perspective. And for a film d’auteur, in France, horror, fantasy, and sci-fi are seen as really impure, as too commercial. I’ve been very happy with the reception of the film by critics in America and England, because I think they have a culture that accepts it more naturally, this playing with the genres and mixing them. Metaphorical literature or films are not very French.

MM: How did you handle the young performers in some of the more difficult, even disturbing scenes?

LH: The main actor, who plays Nicolas, was thirteen years old. He read the script–well, first his parents did–and then I had a meeting with Max and his father. He had two questions: Am I going to get real injections? And who is going to be the girl I’m going to kiss? And I thought that was perfect because it captured how he was right between childhood and being a teenager.

MM: “Evolution” has the feel at times of something drawn from the Brothers Grimm or some other classic fairy tale source. Were there mythologies or archetypes that you drew on?

LH: Maybe some tales from [Hans Christian] Andersen, like “The Little Mermaid,” obviously. And thinking about it afterwards, there’s some horror or sci-fi literature, like Lovecraft or Theodore Sturgeon. Those were books I read as a teenager and young adult that impressed me a lot. When I was writing the script, I never thought about Lovecraft, but at some point during the editing I thought “Wow.”

Another scene from “Evolution.”

MM: The location, which you found in the Canary Islands, is key. How difficult was it to find something that matched your vision?

LH: It was actually quite a gift. When I wrote the script, I had never been there. One of my producers, who had been there, suggested that the landscapes were interesting, and that you could find money there. So it was the perfect combination. I went there and did some scouting and it was exactly what we needed, this volcanic island with the black sand and black rocks. And these little villages, so isolated and out of time.

MM: Is it okay if I ask you about your working relationship with your husband, the provocative filmmaker Gaspar Noe?

LH: Well, Gaspar has nothing to do with “Evolution,” so…

MM: You both make films that are completely uncompromising and, at times, confrontational. Does it seem to you that his films are that way is a masculine manner, and that yours are that way in a feminine manner?

LH: For sure, we have very different kinds of approach. His is more direct, more forward. Mine is more allusive, less narrative. Maybe what we have in common is that we want to make a physical and emotional effect, more than an intellectual one. 

(“Evolution” opens on Friday, Dec. 16, at Cinema 21.)

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