Toronto 2015: 'Evolution' review

★★★★☆
Returning to screens over ten years after her memorable debut Innocence, Lucile Hadžihalilovic's new film is akin to a beguiling and deeply unsettling siren's song. An alchemical concoction of timeless folklore and science fiction body horror, Evolution (2015) may vaguely resemble what might be the result were David Cronenberg tasked with injecting his cinematic DNA into a Grimm Brothers' narrative. This is in no way some cheap knock-off, though. Instead it is a singular, stylish and indefinable glimpse into the dark depths, contorting a unique rumination on the nature (and future?) of reproduction into a startling provocation of male physical anxieties.

The title lends itself nicely to a work replete with sinister possibilities as the direction in which the human race - and specifically our methods of procreation - might go. In this instance, however, this is not a natural progression but one of intervention. The precise setting, like much else, is left unnervingly free of context meaning that audiences are constantly left to speculate on the nature of what is happening, and what exactly it is supposed to mean. This often leads to worrying conclusions. An immediate touchstone is Jonathan Glazer's masterful Under the Skin (2013), which shared an eerie otherworldliness, much like a distorted reflection in the inky black beyond.

There's also a thematic thread in the suspicion of males being prey of some kind as more is seen of the relationship between Nicolas (Max Brebant) and the woman you assume to be his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier). In a strangely serene community living on an isolated and ascetic island - shot with apt, and consequently chilling, restraint by regular horror cinematographer, Manuel Dacosse - Nicolas is given a noodle-like dinner every night before his "medicine". But at night, the alarmingly homogeneous female population, almost like inverse Stepford Wives, are to be found on the grey sand of the seafront, writhing in briny ecstasy. Of course, the motivation remains unknown, but Nicolas' witnessing of this ritual sets his senses tingling. Dacosse captures him in closer compositions, to suggest his more typical human inquisitiveness and he draws pictures in crayon of things he's only dreamt. Dreams seem to be indistinguishable from reality in some instances and things glimpsed beneath the waves are deemed imagined.

Before Nicolas has truly begun to explore his curiosity, the reason for his - and all of the other boys on the island - medicine becomes slightly less obtuse but no less perplexing. Effectively a horror film, it toys with notions of penetration and a lack of ownership over the body that rarely applies to male characters. This is particularly true of the way that extreme close-ups are saved for syringes and knives on the skin of the boys - a cute inversion of cinematographer's giallo-inspired work with Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Actually, Evolution more often chimes aesthetically with a European arthouse drama, but that is only until it voyages into more fantastical territory. Then this haunting and esoteric work manages to seduce and repulse in uncanny harmony.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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