Lucile Hadžihalilović interview: Évolution

Feature by Rachel Bowles | 04 May 2016

There's something lurking in the depths in Lucile Hadžihalilović's Évolution. We sat down with this deeply original French filmmaker to shine a light on some of her film's mysteries

Lucile Hadžihalilović’s much-anticipated sophomore film, Évolution, follows Nic (Max Brebant), a prepubescent boy living a simple shoreside life in a mysterious, austere village populated by uniform mother-son pairings. In this seemingly idyllic setting, Nic can’t help but indulge his existential curiosity, despite his mother’s warnings to conform. During last year’s London Film Festival, we met with this ingenious director to discuss Évolution’s strange Jungian nightmare.

Despite the critical and commercial success of her 2004 debut, Innocence, Hadžihalilović explains that she found the pre-production of Évolution to be an arduous process. “It was very difficult to get finance,” she recalls, “so that was the reason for this long production time.” The film was ten years in the making.

One of her biggest hurdles was simply getting across to the money people what the project was. “All the time it was, 'we don't get it.' Even if we worked a lot on the script to try to make it more understandable, more acceptable, and in narrative terms, to explain more, it was still very hard. It also took years for producers to understand that we wouldn’t have more money and so sometimes the film seemed impossible to make.”

Public response to Évolution 

Hadžihalilović prevailed, and getting the film out in the world is something that clearly excites her. “I’m so surprised that people react so well to the film now – people seem to understand it and don’t find it so bizarre!” She’s particularly pleased at how well Évolution seems to have gone down with UK audiences. “It is a very big pleasure and honour,” she says of the response at London Film Festival. “A lot of [non-industry] people go to see the films here, so it is not like it’s separate from its intended audience. That’s important to me.”

In fact, Hadžihalilović reckons the film might be even more resonant with audiences in the UK than in her home nation. “I think that the people here could potentially understand more of the film than the French,” she suggests. “I think metaphorical and imaginary worlds are perhaps not something easily intelligible to a French audience – it may be more difficult for them to get it, especially when the imaginary world comes from your own country. When you’re from outside, maybe it is more exotic and therefore acceptable. I think that [in the UK] people, because of its literature or cinema, can be more familiar with my kind of approach. And also the usage of genre elements aren’t so separate from mainstream and auteur cinema in the UK – like Under the Skin, where Jonathan Glazier did something different. I think people will be more able to, let’s say, ‘get’ Évolution here.”

Hadžihalilović sees the film as a fairy tale. “But very profound,” she adds. “It's a story about children and imagination and growing up.” This description could also fit Innocence, but with girls swapped for boys and Évolution's sci-fi swapped for the gothic. The new film's strain of body horror brings to mind an ethereal HP Lovecraft mixed with David Cronenberg; intangible yet grotesque, all tentacles and anxiety surrounding biological heritage and sexual reproduction.

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More from GFF 2016:

 Jerzy Skolimowski: “I’m making films I want to see”

 Patrick Stewart as a neo-nazi & 5 more unlikely roles

The horrors of female biology are displaced onto boys in Évolution – why the switch? “Of course the fears at the heart of the film are based on my own fears as a child, or as a very young teenager,” Hadžihalilović admits. “But it wouldn’t have been as interesting to have a little girl go through these fears. As a boy, it is even scarier to have this idea of burying a live creature in your body, so, of course, the horror is stronger, more nightmarish.”

In this uncanny, intensely grotesque way, Évolution explores and interrogates the expectations that society has for both boys and girls. “In Évolution, it is the reverse because it is the boy who does what girls are supposed to do,” explains Hadžihalilović, “so it was a play with those embodied gender roles, which I think is interesting. Women are the threat for once! They are the strong and active ones, while the boys are the passive element. It was something that I liked to play with.”

Perhaps for this reason, Hadžihalilović chose unknown 13-year-old Brebant to play Nic. “He has an emotive quality,” she says, “yet we tried to have him act with a neutral expression, so that it’s not like you are looking at him, but more like you are looking through him; he’s the vehicle through whom you can enter into the story, into the space.”

Lucile Hadžihalilović on space, sound and storytelling

Creating this isolated, coastal communal “space” is central to Évolution’s storytelling. Filmed in Lanzarote, the littoral village seems to be on the cusp of the tropics, yet cool breezes and stark interiors point to an uncanny horror just under the surface of this paradise. Just as Nic is drawn over and over again into the glistening azure waters, to dive for another glimpse of a boy’s rotten corpse that he finds under a beautiful blood red starfish, the viewer wants to uncover the rotting, grotesque secrets behind the breathtaking beauty of Évolution’s immersive, sensual world.

Hadžihalilović reckons her soundscape is central to this quality. “It is a very important element in the film,” she says. “We were unable to use natural sounds from the production, so the sound editor, Laura Díez Mora, really worked hard recreating the waves to give them this quality of strength, and to have them sound interesting and not always the same. We had the sounds of the wind and the little elements, because I thought that the sounds should belong to this place too, it shouldn’t be from something outside. We want to give a feeling of birth, interiority, an inner feeling, a kind of dreamy mood, something oneiric but at the same time a kind of suspense or pressure, and it shouldn’t be through effects.”

Hadžihalilović, wanting to sustain a suspenseful tone throughout, found that traditional horror scores did not work, and instead decided to use the Ondes Martenot, an obscure electronic instrument from the 1920s, known for its eerie sound. “It is very strange but also familiar, and it gives a sense of melancholy.”

Hadžihalilović nicknames Évolution’s uncanny coastline “Martenot waters”. We strongly recommend you dive in.

Evolution is released 6 May by Metrodome