Lucile Hadžihalilovic explains how she created her oneiric exploration of birth and matter in an elusive, disquieting female world.
Evolution, Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s masterful follow-up to her 2004 debut Innocence revolves around a little boy living on an island peopled only by women and other young boys. After a disturbing discovery while swimming in the sea, the boy becomes suspicious of the women’s behaviour. He soon falls mysteriously ill and is sent to the hospital, where he is subjected to a no less mysterious treatment.
Virginie Sélavy: You made Innocence 10 years ago. Why did it take you so long to make another film?
Lucile Hadžihalilovic: What took so long was the financing of the film. It wasn’t quick to write, and it went through many drafts, but that wasn’t the reason. It was really difficult for people to understand the project on paper. I thought it’d be easier, because unlike Innocence, Evolution is more narrative and more of a genre film. But even though it is connected to horror, science fiction and the fantastique, it’s not completely a genre film, it’s also an auteur film. People who finance auteur films in France are not used to dealing with the fantastique, it’s a little too close to exploitation and not serious enough for them maybe. The other problem, even if no one said it explicitly but it seems obvious to me, is the fact that it is about children who are subjected to unpleasant things, and on paper people could imagine things that were even more terrible than what I intended to show.
To straddle art and genre film is very difficult for filmmakers, and maybe especially for French filmmakers. A clear example of that was Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day.
That’s true, and when she made Trouble Every Day she had already made a number of films, she was a name. The theatrical release of Innocence was more successful in countries like Britain and the USA than it was in France. It wasn’t a big release but we got press and people understood the film. I think there is a cultural problem with what is imaginary, metaphorical, people don’t get it in France. I think that people here understand it better because there’s a literature and a cinema that are closer to it, and they don’t look down on the fantastique so much, as though it were only for children or teenagers.
What’s your relationship to horror?
I saw a lot of horror films when I was 20. When I started going to the cinema on my own around the age of 13, it was a time when there were a lot of Italian horror films coming out, Argento, etc. It was fascinating because at the same time they were very seductive, very beautiful, and at the same time rather horrible, and I didn’t understand that combination or the adult world they depicted very well. Until I was about 25 I watched a lot of those films and then I stopped. Now I’m not focused on horror film, but it was important to me at a certain age, and I think it’s something that remains with you. It seems natural to me to watch horror on the screen even though I’m easily scared in real life. It’s like a catharsis and it evokes a lot of things for me.
Despite the fact that nearly 10 years elapsed between the two projects, Innocence and Evolution are very close in terms of theme and atmosphere.
I’d started working on Evolution before Innocence but I wasn’t aware that they were so close. Obviously Evolution was about children again but I wanted to get away from Innocence in the sense that I wanted to make something more narrative, more within genre, whereas in Innocence that was more in the background, it was more abstract. But I didn’t think, ‘right now I’m going to make a film with boys’, rather I thought that for this story it wasn’t interesting if it was a little girl.
Yes, even though the story seems to be about a little boy, the film seems to really be about the feminine again, but from a different angle compared to Innocence.
Yes, it’s a feminine world once more, seen from a more disquieting, more threatening angle. But it’s also about a boy who is not separated from his mother, who is still in his mother’s belly and cannot come out, and what it would be like to give birth. It’s the nightmare of maternity or pregnancy, which is a girl’s anxiety. The relationship to society was also stronger in Innocence, the fact that it’s set in a school means that it’s about a certain form of education with specific aims. Evolution is a more intimate story of this child’s fears, rather than a reflection about society. In this sense, it is not a science fiction film and that’s why I wasn’t interested in saying who these women are exactly, and what the hospital is. It’s more the internal theatre of this child.
Evolution also features much more horrific imagery than Innocence, and the most shocking of all is the documentary footage on a Cesarean birth that you include.
Yes, I liked the idea of horror coming from reality, and that’s because a Cesarean is not a natural birth, it’s surgery, so it’s another abnormal way of depicting birth, another fear of it. Before making the film we had to look for those images and I had seen some videos, and they are really difficult to watch. I liked the idea that there would be some gore at some point in the story, you have to have some gory elements.
Evolution evokes a number of literary, cinematographic and mythical figures, Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the siren for instance. Did you deliberately want to evoke those figures?
Yes, absolutely. I think that we have this whole shared mythology, classical mythology but also science fiction literature, more recent things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but also Philip K. Dick. Theodore Sturgeon, H.P. Lovecraft. Those references are now so much part of culture that I thought I had to be very careful not to say too much because it seemed so obvious. It’s better to guess.
Your film very much functions like a myth, it is built from very simple elements that recur throughout, the village, the red colour, the starfish.
I like to start with something very real, and for the mystery or the strangeness to come from very simple, familiar things. The image of a child playing with a starfish on a beach is incredibly familiar but if you look closely at the starfish you think, ‘what is this monster?’
You seem fascinated by organic matter, the starfish, the strange creature that the children bury, or the body of the women for instance.
The intention with the film was to explore the organic, because it’s this archaic thing that is part of us but at the same time is really odd. It can be disquieting as well as attractive. So we tried to have that throughout the film, to fabricate the film with it. It was upsetting to be forced to shoot on digital rather than celluloid, I thought it was such a shame not to be able to have the material of film. But we tried to work differently to create texture.
The village where you filmed looks dilapidated, the paint on the walls is chipped, everything looks a little decrepit.
It was to give it a reality, a patina. Locations were a key issue, including the interiors. It was out of the question to shoot in a clean setting, in a studio, regardless of what it would have cost, precisely to render the materiality of the walls. As the film is a little abstract, it had to have a very concrete aspect to counterbalance that, and for me that was the setting. That village was great because there’s the humidity from the sea, the saltpetre. It was used as a holiday place and people didn’t live there all year round so it wasn’t all freshly painted. We even added to the decrepitude, to avoid smooth white surfaces and have a sense of reality, of materiality, the sense of time that had passed.
Where did you shoot the film?
We shot in Lanzarote, and the hospital was near Barcelona, it’s an abandoned hospital that has been often used in Spanish horror cinema. It’s very big, and you have the structure, the operating theatres, the tiling, all of that is there, in a state of more or less disrepair, so we had something real to start from, but we could also paint things how we wanted.
Was it important for you to use those two places specifically?
Yes, I thought the most important thing was to find the locations. Early on in the project we found the village in the Canaries. I thought, ‘that’s incredible, it exists’, and it really helped me to think that the film was possible, that we wouldn’t have to create everything from scratch, that there was a very strong place that carried a lot of emotions and mythology. It was a little more difficult with the hospital because some of the ones we saw were too derelict, others were too new, and we had to find something in between.
How did you approach the sound?
I would have liked the sound editing to be done together with the image editing but because the film was a co-production, the sound was done in Spain and the image in France, so it ended up being more separated than I would have liked. We knew from the start that we’d have to create a lot of sounds because there wasn’t much dialogue. I wanted the sound to reflect the feelings of the child, and not to be realistic, but rather emotional, internal and oneiric. We worked in this way using natural sounds from the location such as the wind and the noise from the sea – which we had to rework because it’s difficult to record the sea, you have to recreate the waves one by one.
In the mixing I wanted to create something very specific and not use effects like the ones you have in horror films, to create tension using the sound but not through the usual means. I didn’t think I’d use so much music – there isn’t that much, but it’s quite a lot for me – but as we didn’t have sound when we were editing the editor asked for music, and it led me to use more than I had intended. I wanted something with an instrument that wouldn’t be recognizable, something a little strange. I heard pieces by Messiaen that used the Ondes Martenot and I thought that was exactly what was needed. I couldn’t get the Messiaen piece unfortunately but we were able to do something with the Ondes Martenot on some of the recurring tracks. They bring a certain melancholy, almost a human voice, and it instantly creates a particular atmosphere.
You’ve worked a lot on the sounds, textures and colours of the film, and like Innocence, Evolution is an intense sensory experience. Is that how you view cinema, as an immersive, sensory experience?
Absolutely, and I’d say that’s why you have to see the film in a cinema, it’s like dreaming awake, with other people, in the dark. That’s also why it was so difficult to explain the script even though we tried to describe it in an expressive manner, because it’s an emotional, even physical, experience, with sound and image, and so you have to go through it to understand it, for something to happen.
Interview published in Electric Sheep Magazine, 6 May 2016.
Picture credit: Evolution (Dir. Lucile Hadžihalilovic, 2015).