Overview: The only residents of an isolated coastal town are women and young boys. After Nicholas sees a dead body on the seabed one day, he begins to question his surroundings and the legitimacy of the women looking after them. Alchemy; 2016; Not Rated; 81 minutes.
Growing Pains: A rural island where single women raise boys, with no adult men even alluded to. The women are recognisable as individuals just about, yet look uncannily similar. All are pale with their hair tightly tied back, wearing dull beige dresses, their faces looking like variations on Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. They take the children to swim in the day, and at night give them squid ink that they refer to as “medicine.” When inquisitive boy Nicholas (Max Brebant) swims further from the shore than he is supposed to, he sees a decaying corpse with a red starfish on its belly, but this is dismissed by his mother as imaginary. These are mysteries laid out before us, but the puzzle is never lined up perfectly nor is it purposefully addressed. For we are watching these events through the perspective of a young boy, one who is at an age where he is becoming curious and critical of his surroundings, but still a child. We see a world both familiar and strange, just as a child may see the complex social and sexual systems of the adult world, as they begin to look outside of their private lives to the rest of the world. And this growth isn’t always met with geniality and acceptance – Nicholas must stay close to the shore, and eat the same disgusting food every day. His drawing is encouraged, but only to a point. Some art he hides, some art is forcibly removed from his notebook in what seems to Nicholas and to us as a completely arbitrary exercise in shaming and inhibition.
Siren Song: There are parallels to be drawn to childhood frustration, but writer-director Lucile Hadžihalilović takes this threadto a far darker place. Nicholas finds himself undergoing treatment in a nearby hospital, where the film reaches Cronenbergian body horror territory. Male bodies are stripped of their autonomy, the women in charge born from classic male anxieties. In a lot of ways the violence feels thematically synonymous with that of Ridley Scott’s Alien, while the setting immediately bringsto mind the Silent Hill video game series.
Nicholas meets an unnamed nurse (Roxane Duran), whose maternal tendencies bring relief and comfort to us and the protagonist – but even her role is complex and obfuscated. It’s a difficult film to describe, as the shock of the strange narrative turns are part of its value, but I also feel as if I could textually describe every plot element and wouldn’t really be spoiling anything at all. Evolution is a film that works due to the astounding editing, sound design, and Hadžihalilović’s masterful control over the camera. Some of the best underwater scenes I have ever seen are in this movie – you can hear the distant crashes of waves above, the pressure in Nicholas’ ears, the claustrophobia of holding your breath alongside the wonder of discovering a strange new world.
Uncharted Territory: Evolution is often reminiscent of the novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go, yet it feels reductive to think of it as a new take on old ideas. It’s unclear whether this is a distant future, an extended metaphor, a folk tale brought to life, or a dream. When I first described this film to someone, I said it was the best horror film in years, and should sit alongside The Witch in that regard – but even saying that is setting up an expectation that Evolution gracefully evades. It is definitely one of those films that drifts in uncharted territory where genre categorizing becomes less useful. It’s a naturalistic take on mother-son relationships, an abstract exploration of male puberty, and a dream-like horror movie all at once. The horror comes from the way Hadžihalilović taps into the primal fear of the unknown – the sense of danger in the dead of night, the seemingly infinite depths of an ocean that aggressively throws waves at the shore and whose coral cuts at the touch. Yet this fear is juxtaposed with the beauty of the images, and settles into the liminal space in between the two.
Overall: Evolution is deeply unsettling, beautifully-shot, and fascinating. Its place as abstract horror film of the year shouldn’t detract from the nuanced performances and the depth of feeling Hadžihalilović carefully draws from them.
Featured Image: Alchemy