As husband and wife Lucile Hadžihalilović and Gaspar Noé brought both of their films to 40th annual Toronto International Film Festival last fall, much of the attention fell towards Hadžihalilović’s Évolution, which had been previously rumored to premiere alongside Noé’s Love in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival. It is fascinating to watch Hadžihalilović and Noé’s latest work in close proximity to each other, as both directors notably focus on the aesthetics of their film, leaving their narrative far behind them. While both filmmakers share a similar focus when it comes to their approach to filmmaking, their works could not be farther apart from one another.

Taking an eleven-year break in between films, Hadžihalilović’s sophomore feature, Évolution finds her taking a different spin to her critically-beloved debut, Innocence. Hadžihalilović’s debut revolves around a group of young schoolgirls who are boarding at reclusive private school, as they are primarily taught etiquette in a very regimented fashion. There is a very noticeable improvement on Hadžihalilović’s end when comparing her debut to Évolution. Innocence suffered from this unclear narrative. It works solely as an exercise in atmosphere, but the extensive runtime for the little narrative that she had was unable to maintain interest for the entire time. In fact, the originality behind Hadžihalilović’s craft begins to dwindle by the time the second act comes rolling around.

The main problem that Innocence suffered from was the incredibly bloated runtime that just felt like it would never end. Luckily, with Évolution, Hadžihalilović prevails with a much shorter runtime of only 81 minutes in length. With the short runtime, Hadžihalilović crafts this incredibly atmospheric look at the mysterious activities of a housing estate off the coast of France. Shooting in the wonderfully encapsulating CinemaScope ratio, director of photography Manuel Dacosse photographs some of the most breathtaking imagery that will leave the audience looking back at it for days to come. What stands out the most when looking back at Évolution is the underwater photography. In a time where so much of what hits the festival circuit feels wearily familiar, no one will be able to object that Dacosse’s work behind the camera is familiar, as it is some of the most jarringly impressive work behind the camera in years.

While Évolution is, on a purely aesthetic level, out of this world, not so much can be said about its narrative, which fails to ever elevate the mood that Hadžihalilović has meticulously crafted. The trajectory of Hadžihalilović’s skin-and-bones narrative is very easy to follow. An eleven-year-old boy discovers a dead body in the ocean one day when out swimming and alerts his mother later that day. His mother, who gives off a strange aroma from the get-go, immediately dismisses him. The following day, the boy returns to the spot he originally saw the body but does not find anything there, this time, thus setting him off to question the mysterious nature of his environment.

Mainly because of a committed child performance from newcomer Mac Brebant, the route that the film goes down never feels past its prime, in fact, Évolution flies by quite quickly, unlike Hadžihalilović’s previous feature. The mysterious aroma that Hadžihalilović sustains after she gets past the early moments of exposition allows for her to immerse the viewer into this otherworldly landscape. What Hadžihalilović has crafted in only her second feature is more than most accomplish in their entire careers. With a stronger narrative, Hadžihalilović’s next feature could easily be one of the best films of that year. One could only hope that it comes much sooner than Évolution.

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