Scannain Talks – Evolution with director Lucile Hadžihalilovic

The process of evolution is prolonged. The process of making Evolution, writer/director Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s follow-up to her acclaimed feature debut Innocence, was not quite as lengthy, but there are still eleven years between the two films. The wait has been worth it; the new film is an eerie, mesmerising beast. Telling the story of a village inhabited solely by women and their young sons, the unfolding tale of medical intervention and conspiracy is full of difficult questions about childhood and the roles we ascribe to ourselves at various ages, and it asks these questions in beautifully troubling ways

We meet Hadžihalilovic in Dublin, where she’s presenting Evolution at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. Her soft-spoken voice suggests a lack of confidence in her (perfectly fine) English. Born in Lyon, France, to Bosnian parents, Hadžihalilovic is an introspective and vivid filmmaker, a description on which Evolution seals the deal. It leads us to ask why, with these skills and this intriguing narrative, it took so long to get the film made. Framing the question in the context of Innocence’s acclaim, Hadžihalilovic seems surprised “Firstly, I’ve very glad to hear how well-received Innocence was.” Why the surprise? “I think, probably, Innocence was a bit more difficult in France. It took a long time for it to be well-received.”

EvolutionSo, why the wait? “The main reason why it took so long [to make Evolution] was finance. I thought that it would have been easier because it was much more of a genre film, but in France sci-fi, or anything imaginary or fantastic is not very well considered. They think it’s not art; they don’t take it seriously enough. But at the same time of course, it was not a commercial film, so it was between two things. For a long time, people were saying they didn’t understand what kind of film it was going to be, and showing them Innocence was, surprisingly for me, not so helpful in showing the kind of film we wanted to make.” Still, Hadžihalilovic was undeterred.  “I tried with one producer for a few years and after a while, I realised that it was not going to happen that way. So then I tried to find another producer, and at the end I found someone who said, ‘We won’t be able to find any more money; can you cut your script?’ So, that’s what I did.” That somebody was producer Sylvie Pialat, who clearly has an eye for topical, edgy fare, be it Alain Giraudie’s Stranger By The Lake, Abderrehmane Sissako’s Timbuktu or Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja. Pialat knew this idea had something, explains Hadžihalilovic, “I cut quite a lot, and she really wanted to make it happen.”

Shot on the exotic black-sanded shores of Lanzarote, Evolution sees young Nicolas (Max Brebant) become suspicious about his frequent trips to the nearby medical clinic for tests. His mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) deflects his queries, offering him sleeping aids and odd nourishment (Worms for supper, anyone?) in place of answers. “I’d like to say it’s very autobiographical,” Hadžihalilovic laughs when asked about the film’s genesis. “The beginning of it, the embryo of it, is very much in my own childhood, about some fears or suspicions I had when I was 10, 11 years old. When I was 10, I had appendicitis and had to go to the hospital. It was very normal; nothing unusual happened, but I absorbed this experience of having your body opened and having something cut inside. When you think about it, it’s something very strange.”

It also came at a time when bodies and minds change without medical intervention “It was at a moment when I was a pre-teenager and my body was changing, so it was a collusion between all these things, this kind of experience of fear and expectation. So the film comes from something very intimate, but also I think that it’s shared by many people at the same age. When you are a pre-teen, you begin to distrust and question adults, but you are still a child and not yet a fully-formed mind, so you make your own links and conclusions.”

The film grapples with the roles assigned to gender, primarily roles involving sexuality and procreation “I would say it’s something more pre-sexual,”  Hadžihalilovic explains, “something more primitive, because in a way there is no sexuality in the film. The idea is that, for some reason, the women can’t procreate by themselves, so the boy is playing a very reversed role. I guess also it comes from my own feeling that this would be more interesting with a boy instead of a girl. I think it’s an interrogation of films that are more common about women and pregnancy, but I put it on the boy. Questions of pregnancy are very certainly imposed on women; I thought it would be interesting if they couldn’t, and they found an abnormal and nightmarish way to do it.”

The resulting film is reminiscent of the blends of fantasy and reality of David Cronenberg (more than one scene recalls The Brood) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The design is evocative of The City of Lost Children). We ask Hadžihalilovic about the influences that fed into Evolution.Besides this unconscious image of pregnancy, you have a film like Eraserhead, mainly because it deals with an organic nightmare, a bit in reality but not entirely; it’s kind of in between.” Even when focusing on specific films, Hadžihalilovic clearly has enough confidence in the material not to borrow too liberally. “Directly, I didn’t have a particular film in mind, except for a Spanish film called Who Can Kill A Child?” Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s 1976 thriller about an island of murderous children is an interesting touchstone, but Hadžihalilovic cites it for reasons beyond plot. “It’s the mood, the idea of a horror film under the sun, the presence of a village with children, something like that. But I think also there is a lot of fairytale influence, when the children are wrapped and bearing these strange creatures. It’s more like Lovecraft, the idea of metamorphosis, especially with the transformation of the body and the birth of the new being.”

The absence of adult males from the film adds another dynamic. “If you see the film from the point of view of the boy, there is no adult male character, so they don’t have an image of themselves growing up. They don’t know what they are going to become.” With this in mind, is Evolution intended as a feminist text? “It was not the way I imagined the film. I was not thinking of saying, ‘It’s up to the boy to do this job now!’ It was probably more my own questions about it that, and that it was more interesting with a boy. It would underline the dramatic, nightmarish aspect of it. It’s about fear of pregnancy, and this kind of primitive sexuality. I put it on a boy, and why not? I think it’s true that it could be seen as feminist; this necessity of sexuality and pregnancy is a kind of oppression. But it was not a manifesto. It was not an active approach.”

By refusing to borrow too much from any one source, it may be that Evolution’s best comparison might be with its director’s previous film. Is this a conscious decision on her part? “It’s not my approach. I absolutely see how Innocence and Evolution are linked and I see the similarities, but I really tried to go away from Innocence when I went to write Evolution. It was more narrative, more of a genre film. It’s true they’re both about children with strange biologies, but this one is a more intimate story.” Perhaps we won’t be using the phrase ‘Hadžihalilovic-esque’, then? “I didn’t have an idea of making a category of my own; I just try to make my own films, and I guess my mind can’t escape from this way of thinking.”