Watching Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s mesmerizing sci-fi arthouse stunner, Evolution, I thought of the paintings of surrealist Rene Magritte — a few in particular: The Collective Invention (1934) and The Human Condition diptych (1933, 1935). The former features a creature — the bottom limbs of a woman and the body of a fish — lying peacefully on a white sandy beach. The latter depict windows through which calm blue skies and waters seem within reach — until you look closer and see that they might only be too-perfect paintings (within paintings) of those pretty things. It’s okay if you don’t know anything about art. Just know that there’s something off, something a little scary and claustrophobic, despite the serene and airy surfaces. Evolution, a story about an island of little boys being raised by a colony of pallid mothers, is just as gorgeously unnerving.

Nicolas (Max Brebant), a prepubescent boy, swims through the electric-blue and rust-red seaweed on the ocean floor. We hear the pounding of water in his ears. He’s frightened to the surface by a gleaming red starfish, its five protrusions spanning out to the size of his torso. Back on the land, waves hit the rocky, lunar-like shore. The sound of the ocean is always there, even as Nicolas sits in his room with the crumbling stucco walls and the sun filtering in a square window, through which — like the Magritte painting — lay the ocean. Nicolas questions why his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) and all the other mothers give the boys medicine and a steady diet of seaweed goop. “Because your body is growing, and you’re weak,” she says. But these boys don’t seem sick at all.

These mysterious exchanges between the village mothers and their sons that infuse the simple narrative with a creeping dread. The boys seem relatively normal, ribbing one another and digging in the sand to play, while the mothers gather together on the shore, silently bathing their children. Where are the fathers? The girls?

It’s not long before the boys are taken to “to recover” at a convalescent hospital, where all the doctors and nurses are nearly identical to the mothers. Here’s where Hadzihalilovic reveals a mind-bending gender role reversal, because the constant grooming of these boys, the way they’re bedridden and poked and prodded in the belly, is reminiscent of exactly the kind of “harvesting” scenes we’ve come to associate with female characters in movies. Think of the baby-farm motif of Mad Max: Fury Road, or even the alien/demon pregnancies of Prometheus and Rosemary’s Baby. But these are little boys under the control of mechanical, domineering women.

Clues reveal the origins of these boys, but nothing is explicit. This is a film that greatly rewards a close watching, sometimes bucking for the subtly, horrifically grotesque — and somehow beautiful — like when Nicolas slips out to spy on the mothers and finds them writhing naked like slippery eels on a moonlit beach. The sucking, liquid, slushy sound from that scene isn’t something I’ll likely shake from my brain anytime soon. All of these elements begin to point one very obvious thematic direction: boys’ sexual awakenings.

The overt symbolism of starfish suckers and cavernous sea plants (that the boys tentatively jab their hands into) is no less uncomfortable and compelling than what so many recent genre films about girls’ awakenings (like Under the Skin, Dog Tooth and Hadzihalilovic’s own excellent 2005 film Innocence) depict. It's all the more jarring coming from the unfamiliar male protagonist’s POV. After watching so many male-directed horror films this year that acted as expansive metaphors for girls’ burgeoning sensuality, I’d been pining for a peek into a boy’s brain from a woman’s hand, and Hadzihalilovic delivered with one helluva pretty, fucked-up picture.

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