Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Stars: Max Brebant, Julie-Marie Parmentier
3 (out of 5) Globes
Meaning can be overrated. Plebeians sometimes think art film patrons sit there trying to decipher symbolism, like a kid with a decoder ring. Thing is, symbolism is usually the least intriguing part of cinema tagged as “highbrow.” Few films make the act of this-means-that translation as pointless as Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s 2004 film “Innocence.” A languorous hang in a school where little girls are educated to please the male gaze, it’s nothing if not obvious. It’s called “Innocence,” ferchrissakes. What’s arresting is the way it creates a world that’s both clear and vague. We know what every inch of it means, but it still feels strange and otherworldly. Freed of interpretation, we’re allowed to soak it in as an experience, find pleasures elsewhere.
“Evolution,” Hadzihalilovic’s first feature since, is a tougher nut to crack. At first we might think it’s “‘Innocence,’ but for boys.” After an overture under the sea, in which fish swirl like tornados and reeds sway furiously, we come above sea level, wobbling towards an oceanside hamlet. There resides an army of tween males, each living with a mother. It’s as though each one has been assigned — as though this was another incubation site a la “Innocence.” But whatever’s going on, they’re not simply being groomed for conformity. One of them, Nicolas (Max Brebant), seems slightly different than the rest: he’s more prone to curiosity, even violence. After going to town on the arm of an innocent starfish, Nicolas is sent to a grotty hospital to be “fixed.” That’s when “Evolution” gets really weird.
We might have more incentive to lean forward, put on our thinking caps. Once our hero is a patient, we see inscrutable surgeries, oddball injections, bookcases housing monster fetuses. The nurses show their young charges disgusting C-section videos, clearly to horrify them. But to what purpose? We can’t just sit back and take it in, as one does “Innocence.” Your brain demands a solution, and there must be some cutting message — about biology, about intrusion upon nature, maybe even something about a world where grown women lord over young boys — that’s just out of reach.
Or we could still do what we did with “Innocence”: blow off figuring it out, letting that unease between imagery and meaning linger. We can groove on the way Hadzihalilovic spends the film returning again and again to the same places, the same gross-out sights, from a slug-like beast to the green goop that passes for gruel. There’s no catharsis, no eureka come end and — despite being sold in America as a midnight movie — no big climactic showdown. It’s another deep stew in a world that seems familiar and alien. With Hadzihalilovic, it’s a treat being lost.