Put aside everything you know about the birds and the bees. Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Evolution” proposes an entirely new paradigm to explain where babies come from, burrowing into young men’s subconscious anxieties about those aspects of their biology that they can and cannot control — including fear of penetration and pregnancy — to create an unsettling companion piece to her 2005 arthouse provocation, “Innocence.” Whereas that film was rather faithfully adapted from Frank Wedekind’s boarding school-set novella, in which prepubescent girls are groomed for ambiguous adult roles, Hadzihalilovic’s latest nightmarish allegory is entirely her own invention, an open-ended visual feast that disconcertingly turns the tables on the snips-and-snails set for a narrow, yet discriminating cult audience.
In French, the words for mother (“mere”) and the sea (“mer”) are homonyms, but if such maternal associations make you think of Freud, don’t. “Evolution” is far more Jungian in its sense of the unconscious, imagining a volcanic island surrounded by water where a primitive society of young boys are raised by Stepford-like women we presume to be their mothers — if only because they shelter the boys in spartan white stucco houses; feed them a disgusting gruel-like dish (whose principle ingredient is either noodles or worms); and administer droplets of an indigo-tinted “medicine.”
On closer inspection, however, the relationship between the young men and their guardians isn’t so straightforward, the unease accentuated by the film’s electric whale-song score. Of the island’s many dark secrets, most unsettling is the revelation of what these women are grooming these boys to do: Through a peculiar twist of biology (the first of many, as it turns out), child-bearing falls to the males in this particular species — which isn’t exactly human, but something more akin to merfolk. Their backs striated with cephalopod-like suction cups, these strange boys divide their time between land and sea, where our protagonist, Nicolas (Max Brebant), thinks he may have seen a drowned corpse the last time he went swimming.
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His “mother” (Julie-Marie Parmentier) dismisses the claim, but Nicolas’ curiosity is piqued, rightly sensing that the adults are hiding something about the true nature of their idyllic comment (actually Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands). And so the boy and his fellow blond-haired friends break from their naive play to investigate the sinister truth, delving into such mysteries as where the women go after dark and what exactly happens at the community “hospital” — a foreboding underground institution that’s more mad-scientist lab, really, with its dank cells and strap-in gurneys.
As in “Innocence,” the movie capitalizes on our natural impulse to supply sinister explanations for those things left deliberately vague onscreen, encouraging auds’ imaginations to personalize according to their own worst-case scenarios. “Evolution” advances that evocative strategy even further, stepping fully into the realm of science fiction with its idea of male pregnancy, while at the same time falling just short on the visual information we need to make sense of this alternate ecosystem. Trading upon Hadzihalilovic’s unique strain of body horror (with a screenwriting assist from “Summer of Sangaile” director Alante Kavaite and Geoff Cox), “Evolution” reps yet another stunning, squirm-inducing contribution to the New French Extremity movement, as practiced by her husband Gaspar Noe and others.
One of the film’s most striking images features a crimson red starfish tentatively (menacingly? hungrily?) extending its creepy tube feet toward Nicolas’ exposed navel. What role, exactly, does the belly button serve in “Evolution’s” revisionist biology? In ours, the scarred-over skin knot stands as evidence of an involuntary operation performed on children before they’re old enough to exercise control of their own bodies, its trauma akin to those circumcised at birth (to force Freud back into the equation) except there’s no castrating father figure to be found here. Actually, there are no adult males of any sort on the island, for reasons that Nicolas’ investigations will reveal in time. As it turns out, the boys’ belly buttons are both the entry point by which they can be fertilized and the “orifice” through which fetuses pass during delivery, both operations performed by female nurses armed with menacing-looking syringes and scalpels.
Lucky for Nicolas, he manages to befriend one of these pale young hospital attendants (“The White Ribbon’s” Roxane Durane), who subsequently initiates him into all manner of taboo behavior. And so, where “Innocence” commented on young women’s involuntary conditioning, presenting a system of mandatory education by which girls are prepared for some sort of ambiguous sexual function, “Evolution” deals in a more physical suite of anxieties: Not just those “natural” transformations brought about by puberty, but also the avoidable ones forced upon us by parents and authority figures. (Presumably, it also confronts the male fear of experiencing pregnancy, though that’s not really a thing, so better to put that one aside.)
Switching her underage subjects from female to male all but guarantees a fresh set of criticism from those already wary of Hadzihalilovic’s potentially exploitative tactics, seeing as how most societies respond differently to cameras objectifying their young men — which, of course, is yet another talking point the helmer invites. With its linear narrative and clear sense of a protagonist, “Evolution” is both more beautiful (thanks to gorgeous widescreen cinematography, including stunning underwater and nighttime footage, from “The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears” d.p. Manu Dacosse) and accessible than “Innocence,” though the two films clearly function best as the twisted diptych that they are, offering dual answers — one for each sex, neither of them comforting — to the question, “What will become of us when we grow up?”