A scene from Evolution (IFC Films)

A scene from Evolution (IFC Films)

The reveal of the solution to a mystery is often somewhat disappointing. It’s an abandonment of tension, a collapse of possibilities into a simple, single, tidy truth. For writers like Conan Doyle, that’s the point: the triumph of the rational over the uncertain. But Lucile Hadzihalilovic, with her haunting new film Evolution, is much more interested in mystery than resolution. There are no answers to be found, only strangeness, horror, and just enough sanity to hold it all together—and no more.

The descent into the grotesque is slow. First, Hadzihalilovic shows us unimaginable beauty. The film starts with a boy, Nicolas (Max Brebant), swimming through a lush undersea wilderness, a visual that would make David Attenborough proud. Then, he discovers a rotting face within the depths. From there, the oddities continue to trickle. He and his expressionless mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) live in a plain town with dull white walls, a direct contrast to the chaos of the ocean. There are no men on the island, only mothers and boys around Nicolas’s age.

The community has a hospital, of sorts, and Nicolas and his peers are taken there due to their supposed illnesses. The intentions of the nurses (all female) are obscure, but many of the procedures they perform on the boys would be familiar in a maternity wing. There’s also something to do with cephalopods, but at this point, I think it’s best to admit that the film cannot, or should not, be summarized.

Many films in the body-horror genre fail in their attempts to cohere. Evolution succeeds because it treats coherence as a means to an end. When it needs to introduce a concept or plot point, the film becomes concrete enough for the audience to follow along, but once we’re there, it prefers to give us over to the madness.

The excellent performances help anchor the ship. Brebant mingles fear and curiosity with perfect innocence as Nicolas. Parmentier, as his mother, steals the show, allowing glimpses of maternal emotion—such as pride over a cooked meal—to escape her otherwise steely sterility. Roxane Duran plays a similarly standoffish nurse who grows attached to Nicolas in spite of herself. She and Parmentier offer the most fascinating and maddening clues about the silent, isolated town, simply through expressions tinged with regret.

If you feel you need to understand a film to enjoy it, then Evolution may not be for you. But often the best stories end with a question mark. The film’s imagery, stark and vibrant, will stick with viewers long after the credits roll. Also lingering will be the mystery’s hundreds of clues, each leading one further and further away from resolution.

Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Written by Hadzihalilovic, Alanté Kavaïté, and Geoff Cox
Released by IFC Midnight
France. 82 min. Not rated
With Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, and Julie-Marie Parmentier