Young Nicolas (Max Brebant) lives with a woman he calls Mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) in an isolated settlement by the sea. He is one of a group of boys his age, who also live with women they call mother – but his drawings suggest he remembers another life. The boys are fed on what looks like worms and seaweed and made to drink a disgusting tonic which might be squid-ink. All fall ill and are removed to a nearby medical institite staffed only by women for further, perhaps non-beneficial treatment. We see dead bodies (as Nicolas does) but the children are told their friends have been cured. Stella (Roxane Duran), a nurse involved in the project, forms an attachment to Nicolas, who becomes more alarmed and suspicious about what’s actually going on … he reports finding a drowned boy when out swimming, but his mother denies this is so … he witnesses the mothers twining together on the rocky shore in a starfish-shape … he sees the staff watching an instructional video about caesarean section and discovers a store of malformed foetuses … he nags less intrepid friends into night-time spying expeditions. Eventually, the time comes when he has to undergo his own operation, which involves implanting something rather than taking it out.
Director-writer Lucile Hadzihalilovic prefers hints to statements, which makes Évolution an engrossing, unsettling art-horror hybrid. There are many possible ‘explanations’ to the life-cycle we observe here, but the audience is no more given a definitive run-down than the young hero. Have the boys been abducted by alien (or nonhuman) aquatic creatures as part of a reproductive process where – as in certain fish –eggs need a host rather than a mother? Or is this a feminist experiment in rearranging the human reproductive process so that men – here, boys – can be impregnated, brought to term and even suckle (in a fairly Lovecraftian manner) their water-dwelling offspring? Or is the takeaway more to do with mood and image and nuance than the science fiction plot mechanics of how this works. The emotional core is the way Stella becomes attached to Nicolas because he isn’t as cowed as his peers, and tries to help him even though she is committed to whatever project the starfish-women are bent on. I was surprised to check the IMDb and find Duran and Parmentier have long lists of credits because they (and the rest of the adult female cast) have such a strange, borderline-inhuman look I assumed they were cast for it – slim, very white, invisible-eyebrowed, with colourless lips and glassy smiles (plus prosthetic suckers on their backs). The women of Evolution are a strange breed indeed, and rare horror movie menaces who are so alien it’s impossible to tell if they’re really terrifying or merely acting in accord with unknown and unknowable purpose.
An astonishingly beautiful film, this even finds wonder in drabness – using rocky Lanzarote shores and lovely, muted underwater vistas for its back-to-nature, sinister sisterhood scenes … and undecorated, peeling walls for its institute of horror (the children’s beds look amazingly uncomfortable and probably damp). It’s quiet and committed, with slow reveals rather than shocks — but the moment when Nicolas and Mother suddenly come across other identically-dressed little boys and their smothering mother-guardians is joltingly strange. The climax in a misty tank weirdly evokes the finish of the scarcely-respectable Inseminoid, to the extent that this film could be taken as an answer film to all those Alien imitations in which raped women are hosts for monster eggs.