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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Island of the Day After
by Donald Levit

Along with adult-imagined innocence, childhood can be fraught with fear and nightmare, and childhood’s end often traumatic. Its title ironic or to be taken as interrogative, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution/Évolution appears in New Directors/New Films of the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center after Toronto, San Sebastián, Dublin and other festivals. The director/co-writer has mainly produced and screenwritten and directed shorter pieces, so this her first feature in a dozen years is only the second overall.

That 2004 title, Innocence, can be applied here, up to a point, as in a Q&A the French filmmaker spoke of seeking “an imaginary world but a real place,” the blissful though troubled ignorance of ten-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) coming up against actuality, not so much adolescent hormonal tumult-slash-sexual awakening as the alarming, emotionless world presaged by science and technology. This eighty-one-minute “play with reality and fantasy is not like one thing or another; it’s maybe both, and I like that very much.”

Shot in less than four weeks aboveground plus one underwater on a rocky Canary Island coast, with marine life, black volcanic dirt, and a stepped matriarchal village of the damned, it is tangentially science fiction, vaguely of a not-distant past and future but in fact a shadow “out of time” and at once no place and anyplace. This is a “very physical film” with near-the-surface submarine photography; limited, indirect-light brooding; soft weird music after an initial impulse had been for none at all; minimal makeup aside from the boy’s red lips, and severe clothing and furnishings. And little dialogue. The bugbear of sex, first awareness of the serpent in the garden, figures in as well, obliquely.

Such refusal to define, the insistent lack of general sharp focus, is intentional, and reinforces the mystery and -- good or bad, depending on one’s reaction -- allows of myriad conflicting interpretations. Conversely sharp in the Manuel Dacosse cinematography are super-close-ups of eyes -- Nicolas never blinks -- and of horror elements in bad dreams or in waking reality.

Austere and unsmiling with mouths or eyes, some dozen pre-pubescent boys on the isolated isle are being raised by some dozen not-young-not-old women outwardly their mothers. There are no men, no girls; there is no noise of play or laughter, no love or emotion or pets or toys, which makes all the more unusual Nicolas’ notebook drawings of animals and a curly-orange-haired female. The mother-son relationship in their bare house must be representative of all of them, nameless she (Julie-Marie Parmentier) obliging him to drink his dark daily medicine and eat what looks like kale and white worms.

In a hospital, peeling yellow outside, peeling green inside, a nameless doctor with hair pulled back (Nathalie Le Gosles) heads the interchangeable female staff that injects and hooks up the boys, operates on their abdomens, immerses them in liquid, and carries out other unclear “medical” procedures prior to consigning them to beds in stark wards.

Nicolas has seen something unsettling while diving, is of a more skeptical bent than his mates, and voices his first faint rebelliousness. Interested in his stick drawings, her intuition sensing his difference, nurse Stella (Roxane Duran) is the sole adult with a name, soul, and compassion. She timidly encourages him, both inside the facility and, later, outside. “Shall I tell you a secret?” she asks. Though teased as a coward, he is mentally tough enough on his own to explore, whereas compeer Victor (Mathieu Goldfeld) is too conditioned and cowed and will pay dearly.

The water, water everywhere, in the roiling sea and medical tanks, is an amniotic fluid that cushions monstrous births. The monsters are not, however, so stomach-churning as the images of violence in other current movies and real life. Publicity for Evolution refers to The Island of Dr. Moreau, of which there are four “House of Pain” versions, one of which was banned in the U.S. and U.K., but the ending in especial recalls more those of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the first Planet of the Apes.

The French film is suggestive, but suggestive of what? In its dystopia which some viewers may consider a utopia, atmosphere and dread reign, too little is explained, and the coldness of story makes for aloof cinema. With slow, similar mystery and mood, Tarkovsky’s cerebral Solaris works better.

(Released by Alchemy; not rated by MPAA.) 

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