Regeneration

Published November 22, 2016

ABOVE: LUCILE HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?’S EVOLUTION. COURTESY OF IFC MIDNIGHT. AN IFC MIDNIGHT RELEASE.

An isolated boarding school cloaked in darkness and surrounded by forest; a remote village on a stretch of rocky seaside: Lucile HadžihaliloviÄ? is an architect of worlds close to our own in which the most unexpected of events unfold. The French filmmaker’s debut Innocence (2005) was a gothic tale of impending womanhood; her long-awaited follow-up, the twisty-turny body horror thriller Evolution, out Friday, repackages pregnancy anxiety in the bellies of adolescent boys. Sumptuously filmed on the volcanic island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Nicolas (Max Berbant), lives in a remote town populated only with boys and their mothers, all seemingly tall, slim, and pale, with the severe look of a Richard Prince nurse. One day Nicolas sees a starfish attached to a dead boy while he’s swimming in the sea; he’s later taken to a hospital, where, with a group of other boys, they begin to undergo a series of enigmatic stomach operations.

Interview spoke with HadžihaliloviÄ? earlier this year while she showed Evolution at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York about the fissure between child and adult, appendectomies, and crafting nightmares.

COLLEEN KELSEY: After your last film, how did you develop the idea for this story?

LUCILE HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: I began to work on this film before, in a sense. The very beginning of it was really more about the hospital and the mother trying not to let the boy escape … something like that. Then I stopped working on that. I switched because I read the story [Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, which Innocence is based on] and I was totally amazed by it. So after that I came back to Evolution. This was when I really began to develop it and add more elements. For instance, the sea was not at the beginning. It was afterwards—at some point I revised it to be at the seaside. The sea seemed to be the perfect surrounding and I could develop all that. I had the other mother and children, and so it’s like an echo of Nicolas and his mother, but then it developed to a whole little microcosm.

KELSEY: In Innocence as well and in Evolution, the age of the child on the verge of adulthood is so crucial to their character and the way that they see the world, the mysteries and the preparation for what’s next. Why is the tension between children and adulthood so interesting to you?

HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: That’s a question I don’t really know how to answer. Maybe it’s my own experience in my life, the way people look at you if you are a girl rather than a boy. At that age, you are supposed to become a woman, and the way people act around you—there is a loss. But you are still in childhood so it’s quite enigmatic. The adults, their world, what they are, what they want, what they are doing: there is an authority upon you still, like, “You have to do that,” et cetera. At the same time, you begin to question yourself more, to take a little bit more freedom, but to not have so much yet. Then there is probably a contradiction with this authority—the desire also to stay under it and to escape it. It’s more like that in Evolution than in Innocence. I think a lot of people project a lot of bad things upon the adults, which we don’t see in Innocence. I understand, but for me it was not that dark at all. In this world, it’s more—

KELSEY: Overt?

HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: It’s also maybe about, I don’t know, the moment you become aware, when you begin to be a teenager, of some kinds of people. Adults are very powerful, but then they begin to be questionable. You can begin to see that they do not [do] everything for a good reason. It’s a moment of questions.

KELSEY: Why was it important to you to have a young male protagonist?

HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: I thought that if it had been a girl, it would have been more abuse, a girl as a victim of adults. I wanted to underline this fear of pregnancy, of something growing in your body, of even penetration. I thought that with a boy, since it was absolutely not normal, it was more striking and nightmarish, which was the tone I wanted to give. I liked also that the women had a powerful role, which I think is not so common in many films, and it’s more interesting. Also it’s this duo between the boy and his mother, and the power of a mother over a child.

KELSEY: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I read an interview with you and you had mentioned going into the hospital to get your appendix taken out. Were you a child?

HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: I was ten, maybe. It’s a bit silly. But I think it’s a moment because, for many reasons at that time in my life, I was kind of fragile. But it was also a moment before I—for instance, I was not having my period yet, and I was with my grandmother at the time and she thought when I began to feel pain in my belly that it might be that. So there’s this idea of my body changing into, “I’m going to be able to have babies,” because it’s the way that sometimes people explain it to you in a very heavy way at that age, when you really don’t want to think about that. Then I went to the hospital and then it was just appendicitis. But this thing of people, adults, opening your body, cutting something out of it—it’s mixed with the idea of changing, becoming a teenager and also, I think when you are that age, that change, the way people look at you, it’s different, because suddenly you’re supposed to become a woman. It can be exciting, of course, but you feel things are changing for you not only inside you, but also outside. This is why this sick moment was becoming a phantasmagoric element.

KELSEY: Earlier you mentioned that the ocean at first was not such an important part of the story, but it really becomes a critical part of the film.

HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: I had thought that it had to be in the South of France, and then we knew that we couldn’t shoot the film in France because it would be probably very difficult to get the authorization for the children. There’s a protective association that reads the script, and they are very scared when it’s a scary movie with children; they think that the children will be traumatized or whatever. So we decided to do it in Spain, which was quite a familiar surrounding for me. Then, one of the producers thought of the Canary Islands, which I didn’t know, and it was very interesting because this island was volcanic, and there is this feeling of isolation that we wouldn’t have found in Spain. The nature is very strong because it’s the Atlantic and there is a lot of wind and, and it’s volcanic and there’s lava everywhere. So it has every feeling of this post-catastrophic world.

KELSEY: What was your approach to filming underwater?

HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: It was quite challenging. When I wrote the scenes, I tried not to think about how we were going to do it. We were very lucky to work with a guy who is a diver and also a cameraman. There are two kinds of shots in the water: There are the ones with actors, [which] of course we did very close to the beach—really, really close. The other shots, he did by himself because I don’t dive. This guy was a kind of second unit. Even for the actor the problem was we couldn’t see what he was shooting while he was shooting. Normally you could with a cable, et cetera. But we didn’t have that. So I just had to put my head in mask and try to see what the actors were doing, but I couldn’t see the frame. It was quite a long process, and it was quite hard for the actors, especially for the boy. He was very happy to do it, but it was the sea, so very quickly it was cold for him. The last scene was difficult because they had to do it without breathing, and they had to be in position, and [by] the time they get into the position they already needed to go back. [laughs] But the surroundings and the underwater landscape around Lanzarote are very beautiful. This diver, this cameraman, he was used to doing documentaries, so he wanted it to be very clean, and we really tried to make him understand that on the contrary, we wanted it to be dirty, and to be more abstract. I was not interested in fish and whatever. I wanted more the movement of the weeds. He came out with some wide shots, like the one we use in the very beginning, which was so amazing, but it was like a gift to the film, not something I had really planned.

KELSEY: The image of the starfish—I don’t even know if I was even able to latch onto its full symbolism—

HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: Me neither. [laughs]

KELSEY: From the very beginning, and then Nicolas’s interactions with the starfish, his dissection of the starfish, the whole dichotomy of life and decay is somewhat encapsulated in the starfish.

HADŽIHALILOVIÄ?: When the sea came into the story, with the sea [came] the starfish. I think it’s such a familiar motif. But when you look at the starfish, it’s such a weird animal and so far away from our species. Seaside creatures are amazing creatures, and starfish are one of them, and it’s less common than an octopus to use. I think it was really fascinating. Also, it’s a very old creature, it’s a very primitive creature. There’s this idea, even if at the end we didn’t use it so much in the film, there’s this idea of generation. I think also the starfish has a subconscious resonance. It’s not that there’s a symbol for me behind it. It’s just if you really think about it, it’s so fascinating, but also it has symbolic meanings—I can’t put a word on it. It’s funny because someone said—and I didn’t realize it before—but, “Oh, strange,” because in Innocence there is the star on the coffin at the beginning, and I didn’t think of it until that person said it. “Oh yeah, it’s strange, I don’t know why.”

EVOLUTION IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE THIS FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2016.