‘Evolution’ Director Lucile Hadžihalilović Discusses Her Alienating Vision of Boyhood, Starfish, and Women with Blonde Eyebrows

The director of 'Evolution' speaks to us about a film that's been, ahem, evolving for a decade.

Alert: Light spoilers for Evolution are discussed in this interview. 

Fans of Lucile Hadžihalilović’s all girls’ boarding-school nightmare, Innocence, have likely wondered why it’s taken the director since 2004 to make a follow-up to what was her first feature-length film. As it transpires, Evolution — her newly released all boys’ nightmare — was delayed because it almost became a more traditional sci-fi movie… but then it evolved again by returning to something simpler and more natural.

The director explained to Screen Anarchy that getting funding for the film proved challenging due to the elliptical quality of the original script. She explained that she and her co-writer Alanté Kavaïté rewrote the script at the behest of a producer who wanted them to make the story “more explicit” and “digestible” — which she says was a “dangerous way to go,” because of the way over-explanation can undo the power of sci-fi. When a second producer arrived, however, Hadžihalilović and Kavaïté came to terms with a limited budget, cut the script back down, and generally embraced its minimalism. The result was something far more specifically alien than most sci-fi films, with all their explanatory world-building, are able to achieve. With its barebones, fable-like narrative, an austere seaside landscape of volcanic rocks and monochromatic houses, selective shots of marine life, blonde-eyebrowed actresses, and a herd of young boys in red swimming trunks, Hadžihalilović’s film is indelibly troubling and aesthetically singular.

The film follows a young boy — Nicolas, played by Max Brebant — through his everyday experiences in a place that is anything but everyday. On an island inhabited only by doppelgänger-ish boys his age and women with the aforementioned eyebrow tint, he spends his time playing by the sea — when he’s not being fed wormy gruel or a mysterious blue medicine, or being taken to the hospital for increasingly invasive treatments by his “mother,” (Julie-Marie Parmentier), that is. These are treatments for a vague illness that may have something to do with starfish, which begins to overwhelm his existence — and the existences of the other boys on the island. As the film progresses, Nicolas falls into the care of a nurse (Roxane Duran), who helps carry out the “evolution” process around which life on this island is predicated. Because it’s hard to discuss the themes of this film without the following piece of information, herein lies that above-mentioned spoiler: it has to do with male pregnancy.

While most sci-fi films these days set their sights on digital technology as an evolutionary norm, Evolution can’t be bothered with The Singularity. Instead it depicts a false utopia where “evolution” is something of a return to nature; in this vision, nature is just as beautiful, beguiling, and horrifying as the sleek machinery of most sci-fi. It’s a wonder and a shame directors don’t use its nature’s alienness — and inexpensiveness — like this more often. Over a Skype call to France, Flavorwire spoke with Hadžihalilović about how she brought a fantasy/sci-fi world to life using nature’s readymade oddities.

Flavorwire: The ocean and marine life in Evolution are actually among the film’s most central characters — so I’m wondering how you cast, say, the seaweed and the starfish, and how you found the right marine life to create the mood and movement of the film.

Hadžihalilović: When we knew we were going to shoot the film in the Canary Islands, in Lanzarote, we tried to find someone who could help with the underwater shots. We found the website of a diver, who’s been doing it since he was a kid. He focused a lot on the underwater parts of these islands, and his imagery was a good basis because we could see the kinds of things we could find around the island.

But the difficulty was trying to find elements that wouldn’t look like National Geographic — more abstract elements. The most interesting aspects were the movement of the weeds, and the currents, the lights in the water. We talked to this guy about that, how much we wanted to have texture, to see the dust in the water and not fish, or whatever. As for the starfish, the idea of using it as a phantasmagoric element came very early. The starfish is something that’s so familiar when you think about children playing on the seaside. It’s a kind of imagery that’s familiar and nice, but when you look it, it’s really an alien creature. So I began to learn a lot about starfish — not to be naturalistic, but just to add specificity to my nightmares.

The title Evolution is fraught with meaning, and contributes a certain reading to the opaque storytelling. I know this project had existed in different drafts for over a decade — how deep into the process did the title Evolution come along? 

The title wasn’t there at the beginning of the process. First I mostly had just a story about a hospital; it was mainly clinical, and then this idea of a weird way of reproducing, came along, so at some point when the film was developing into a more sci-fi mode, we picked this title. I thought it was interesting because it’s suggesting the evolution of a species but it’s also in a more simple way, it’s the evolution of a boy, a coming of age story. When I later cut many elements in the script for budget reasons, the film became more dreamlike, rather than traditionally sci-fi. I had some photos and documents about evolution, how when you’re a fetus, how much you look like an animal fetus. I thought it was interesting nevertheless to keep this title, because it gives the idea that the human being is not the only being on Earth.

How did you, Roxane Duran, and Julie-Marie Parmentier come to an agreement on how the women on the island would be played, in terms of mannerisms and diction, given that they’re kind of a new species that’s being introduced to us?

The characters are very much part of a landscape. They’re also a visual element — the costumes, the hair, those very much make the characters. But between Julie-Marie and Roxane it was very different. Julie-Marie had a more theater-based, classical background, and she was asking about the psychologic elements of the character. And we found it was important that she plays her like a real mother, like a real human being, because I knew she’d look very strange, so I wanted to normalize and humanize the performance, to make her a “nice mother.” For Roxane, when I was casting, she was so sweet, and there was something very intimate there. And I thought it should be the opposite: I thought that we really had to make her scarier, colder. So it was a lot about the hair, the costumes, but I also wanted them both to play in a very minimalist way, to be very passive, to take the time when they talk. They don’t have much dialogue, so it was so much about expression.

One of the fundamental aspects of this film is a gender-swapped notion of pregnancy. In Hollywood right now — through the likes of Ghostbusters and the upcoming Splash films — there’s a trend toward gender-swapping, but it’s less conceptually concerned than in your film. Do you see an overarching value in gendered role-switching in storytelling? What made you want to examine pregnancy through male characters? 

I haven’t seen these films, but I guess it’s in the air these days — it’s probably a way to try change up classical stories. But for Evolution it was very much because I thought it’d be a cliché to have a girl being afraid of pregnancy, and being the victim again. And I thought it was more striking and nightmarish with a boy. I thought it’d be more interesting to have a boy because it was more general. It was also about this idea of an invasion inside your own body, and the fact that to have something alive in your body is a universal fear that belongs to boys and girls, and if it’s a girl, then it might become too specific. With a boy that fear feels more primitive.

I recall you having spoken about the importance of leaving things unanswered in your story, both for the audience and for yourself. You’ve also said that you feel driven by enigmas. But I imagine that over the course of 10 years, it must have been hard not to answer everything about this story for yourself. How did you maintain enough of a sense of mystery and freshness to stick with this story for a decade?

With difficulty. Both for myself and to my co-writer. Over the long writing process, we added a lot of elements, and we had a lot of fun developing the story, inventing many things about these women — the who, where, why. There was still a mystery in the story of it happening to young boys — that was irrational, more like a thing that belongs to a purely mental universe, to a nightmare rather than a sci-fi film. That aspect was so different that it generated mystery by itself. It’s illogical and very much linked to the unconscious. And because this part still had this unconscious dimension, it helped us keep our interest. But we kept developing and adding details, making it more and more precise, until the moment it happened to be too expensive to be made, and then I cut a lot. So [some of the things I’d added over the years] were maybe to maintain my own interest in the story, and then it came back to what it was originally.

What specifically was cut?

There were some images that were very important to me that’re no longer in the film — people wearing protective suits, having people with protective suits walking on the island while you have children with no protection, in a post-apocalyptic landscape. And then maybe those people wanted to do some experiments with these women and new creatures, and so we could have had a more classic sci-fi post-apocalyptic quality, maybe with some kind of military structure.

This is the second film you’ve made that creates a sort of pre-pubescence-focused microcosm, following Innocence. Will your next project examine a different phase of life?

I have a project in which the main character is an adult man, which is a big change for me! It doesn’t mean there aren’t any children around, but the main focus is an adult man, so I guess it’s a very different approach for once. It’s very hard to escape from your own obsessions.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.