Director Lucile Hadzilhalilovic denies that Evolution is allegorical for anything, including puberty, gender identity, or sexual assault, but it’s almost impossible not to when it possesses the same eerie plot and themes as a good number of recent films.
A volcanic-looking island of black rocks and rough waves where there’s no sign of life on the horizon is inhabited solely by women and young boys. They live in spartan houses and are forbidden from swimming in the turbulent seas, despite frequently bathing in them with their mothers. How big is the island? How many people live on it? How does it exist in the modern world? Hadzilhalilovic, who created a similarly morbid and closed world in her controversial film Innocence 12 years ago, is thankfully not interested in answering such questions. Despite showing no signs of life (outside scenes are silently still), the island is definitely big enough for 11-year-old Nicolas to glimpse the body of a boy he doesn’t recognise floating in the sea, a dark dose of reality that typically symbolises coming of age. Quickly becoming suspicious of what goes on once all the boys have been put to bed, he evades his nightly dose of a sleep-inducing black squid ink-looking goop to go make a horrifying discovery. If one knows anything, however, free-thinking is never rewarded – he’s promptly whisked off to a hospital, which ends up being a nightmare chamber of odd medical experiments that are undoubtedly made to halt puberty.
The film’s blue-green palette and elegiac pace is deceptively calming, an atmosphere that makes the film’s gradual descent into light body horror even more unnerving. It’s in the closing minutes, where the film abandons some of the ellipses that left the true horror unseen, that Hadzilhalilovic loses grip on the alien world she has built. But the lasting impact comes from the beautiful work from cinematographer Manuel Dacosse. Whether an expansive shot of a desolate beach or a close-up of a face when barbarity is happening outside of the frame, it’s the images that speak volumes about the aching, hollow loss of innocence that haunt the most.