Eleven years ago, French filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic shocked the film festival circuit with “Innocence.” At once familiar, even easy to understand, and yet mysterious and enigmatic, it was set at a strange school, buried deep in the woods, where young girls were taught what was really important: how to look pretty, how to dance, how to know their place in society. They were, in short, being educated in how to conform to restrictive gender norms. But it was filled with such bizarre imagery, told with such a strong sense of mood, that it still managed to perplex, even if its meaning was clear as day.
Hadzihalilovic finally returns with “Evolution,” which sounds similar. We drop into another remote microcosm: a seaside village, populated exclusively by young boys, each lorded over by a mom whose ties might not be biological. When one of them, Nicolas (Max Brebant) starts misbehaving, he’s sent to a grimy hospital, which is when things get really weird. But it’s not “‘Innocence’ for boys.” Just as slow and even more menacing, it’s harder to crack — not that figuring it out is vital to enjoying it.
Hadzihalilovic — who has also collaborated with Gaspar Noe on his films "Carne," “I Stand Alone” and “Enter the Void” — talks to us about not explaining everything, working with children and how she hopes midnight movie audiences will accept a movie like this.
I don’t want you to explain what everything in “Evolution” means, but I imagine you get asked to do just that a lot. It’s a strange habit humans have, to want everything to be understandable.
I think most people are talking superficially about the narrative. But I do think both films are somehow quite direct, even simple. The themes or the emotions or situations aren’t so complicated and not so weird. But I still like things to be ambiguous and ambivalent and kind of unstable. I guess some audiences want to be sure they’re right, or think that the director knows better than them — when in fact I think the films belong to the audience.
When you’re coming up with some of the images or ideas, do you tend to just do it instinctually and not question what everything you imagine means?
At the beginning it’s very instinctive and all about images and sometimes details and mood. Sometimes it’s about character. But then I get to a process of writing the script and organizing these ideas. This wasn’t the case with “Innocence,” which was based on an existing story. But for “Evolution” I worked with a cowriter [Alante Kavaite]. We talked a lot about the meaning of things and how to verbalize everything. So it’s both instinctive and then going through a process of being more conscious of what I’m doing and what I’d like to share.
How do you work with the people who design, say, some of the strange creatures in “Evolution”? How specific are you about what you want?
It’s important to find the right person with the same kind of sensibility, who can understand where I want to go. For instance, with “Evolution,” when I was working with the guy who was making the creatures, the babies, we had to discuss whether it’s supposed to be a monster or if it’s supposed to be human. I need the people I’m working with to help me make things more visual. What is unconscious becomes more conscious. The choices we make make it more rich, but they also make the film more precise.