Lucile Hadihalilovic: ‘The first idea was the male pregnancy and the hospital’
French writer-director Lucile Hadihalilovic’s transfixing new film Evolution will subvert everything you thought you knew about procreation
Lucile Hadihalilovic: “I liked that the women were the threat in the new movie.” Photograph: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water. Prepare to be amazed and discombobulated. As Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s transfixing new film Evolution opens, 10-year-old Nicolas (Max Brabant) happens upon a dead body in the waters surrounding the idyllic island where he lives with his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier from Sheitan and The Snows of Kilimanjaro).
Indeed, their remote seaside community is entirely peopled by women and pre-adolescent boys. The mysterious population all visit the island’s hospital, a facility where the boys are all subjected to medical “treatments”. What exactly is going on here? Why are there no adult males? What is that strange indigo medication that Max receives every day? And can a sympathetic young nurse (The White Ribbon’s Roxane Duran) allow for Max to escape whatever dread fate awaits him?
The answers will subvert everything you thought you knew about reproduction. Male pregnancy, it soon transpires, is the least weird aspect of Evolution’s science fiction. How on earth does Hadzihalilovic come up with this stuff?
“The first idea was the male pregnancy and the hospital,” says the writer-director. “At the very beginning the movie was more about the hospital and the idea of the mother bringing the boy there. And that horror idea of the boy having something inside his belly. I had forgotten that when I was 10, I went to hospital for an operation. It was the first time in my life when my body was bring touched by adults I didn’t know. And because I had pain in my abdomen there were questions if I was having my period. That seemed very mysterious. I guess that hospital and becoming a woman became linked in my mind.”
I wonder – as all viewers will – what kind of conversations she had with her young lead, Max?
“He was not so young – he was 13 years old – when we made the film,” laughs Hadzihalilovic. “I was waiting for his questions. But I think he didn’t care so much about the script. He just wanted the experience of being in the film. The two questions he did ask were: will I have to get real injections? And who is going to play the girl? For him the kiss was the most crucial scene. The other boys all said: ‘Oh, you’re kissing a naked girl.’ I guess it was the first time he was kissing an older girl.
"And once we were shooting, all our conversations were more about the discipline of how to act with the camera.” It’s tempting to see Evolution as an inversion of Hadzihalilovic’s equally mesmerising debut feature, Innocence. That film, a loose reworking of Frank Wedekind’s novella Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, followed a group of young girls who, arriving in a coffin, were sequestered in a remote dormitory and trained for sinister, ambiguous future roles. Does Evolution tell us that we raise young men just as callously as we raise young women?
“They are both about the horror of puberty,” nods the filmmaker. “I don’t think that either film has a single interpretation. I liked that the women were the threat in the new movie. But as a child you’re not so concerned about girls and boys. That happens more with maturation. I mainly wanted to find a way to tell a story in images, not like a straight narrative. I don’t want to tell everything. There are already too many films like that. And not all of them are good.”
Hadzihalilovic was born in Lyon in 1961 to Bosnian parents but was raised in Morocco. She studied fine art, then film-making at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris. Her graduation film, La Bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996), explored child abuse from the viewpoint of a young girl. This hard-hitting short and Hadzihalilovic’s collaborations with the director (and her domestic partner) Gaspar Noé ensured she was introduced to global audiences as part of the New French Extremism. He was a camera operator on her early shorts; she edited his terrifying 1998 debut, I Stand Alone.
“It’s a compliment, yes?” she says. “We worked on each other’s films but I think our films are very different now.”
In person, the surprisingly jolly Hadzihalilovic doesn’t seem to fit neatly with either New French Extremism or, indeed, with the cerebral, hypnotic innovations of Innocence or Evolution.
“That’s why it took so long to make Evolution,” she laughs. “I thought it would be easier than Innocence because it was less abstract, but it was still too hard to explain. It’s a bit like film fantastique or science fiction. But it’s not either. It was hard for producers and financiers to get what it was.
“If I have a film family, it’s probably Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy), or Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears). Eraserhead had a big impact on me. The Italian films of Dario Argento. That’s not exactly right, because maybe I’m more realistic. Maybe Jean Painlevé films are the closest thing to what I do. I’m just happy people react so well to the film now and seem to understand it!”