Thursday 11 October 2018

The Question in Bodies #20: It Mattered to That One

Evolution (2015)

(This post comes with a content warning for discussion of child abuse. As usual, spoilers abound.)

You've probably heard some variation of the inspirational fable about the little boy who's walking along this beach that's covered with washed up starfish, and every so often he stoops over and picks one up and chucks it back into the sea, and some adult comes up and says, in the way that adults only ever talk to kids in inspirational fables, “What are you doing, kid? There are too many starfish here to save! How does it matter?” And the punchline comes when the kid picks up another one, throws it into the sea, and says, “It mattered to that one.”

Which makes a powerful and important philosophical point about the value of small kindnesses. I like that one. It's one of my favourites. I've used it myself more than once.

And of course, as is the case with all the best parables, which are by nature improbable, it is flawed if taken strictly literally as a narrative. Because of course, it didn't matter to the starfish, because starfish are utterly alien. There's no brain in a starfish, just a collection of nerves and ganglia spread out among its arms, and around its mouth, so that even if you could ascribe the thing with consciousness, it's not a unity, but a collection of joined and sometimes competing consciousnesses that grow and sometimes split, and regenerate lost components of the gestalt. The experience of a starfish is probably impossible to imagine.

I wonder if Lucile Hadžihalilović had this story in mind when making Evolution. The starfish, both in terms of its alienness and the value of throwing one back, is the thematic image that defines the film.

We see the undersea realm, a riot of colours and light. Nicolas (Max Brebant), a boy of about ten maybe, is swimming. He sees the corpse of another boy lying on the seabed, among the coral, a bright red starfish resting on his stomach. We see the corpse for a brief moment, far away, and the starfish, up close, for much longer, and that's a perverse formulation, the wrong thing to focus on. But it means that when Nicolas surfaces and runs into the village to tell his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), and she's oddly unconcerned, and insistent that he saw no such thing, we on a first viewing find ourselves in a position where we're being gaslighted too, because we begin to doubt what we saw. It's not the first sign that something is wrong, although the wrongness of Nicolas's mother isn't immediately certain until we have a more adequate context. Nothing is really strange. She's pale, and her skin looks a little bit clammy; her eyes are dark and opaque, her eyebrows barely there. Her hair is pulled tightly back, and she wears an austere brown shift, as austere as the concrete box of a home in which she and Nicolas live. We see her cooking lunch. It's a blue mush, made of something that looks like worms, or anchovies. None of this looks particularly uncanny to us, until we see the other mothers, all with the same brown shift dresses and severe ponytails, the same clammy skin, the same opaque eyes and bleached eyebrows. Women bring up boys here; men and girls are absent entirely.

The boys all eat the same mush. Their mothers give them inky blue “medicine” because they're all “sick”.
Nicolas: Why am I sick?
La Mère: Because at your age, your body is changing.
The women behave weirdly. Their affections, their gestures, have the odd sensation of being the sort of thing that an alien who saw one educational video on “basic human interaction” might perhaps do in an attempt to pass as human (in fact, instructional videos are a part of the women’s education).
So in order to calm Nicolas’s fears, his mother dives into the sea and brings him the red starfish. Look, there was just a starfish. And of course, this is weird. Why would it be that specific starfish if there were no corpse? It makes it worse. And Nicolas knows it makes it worse. He loses faith. They're lying, he says, several times, to the other boys.

Of course there was a drowned body. Of course the women know.

All the boys eventually wind up in a hospital, staffed by nurses in white who look just like the other women. They're told they're getting better. In fact, no, they're not. Something unspeakable is being done to them. One boy, later in the film, dies at the women’s hands; the hospital nurses come in to the dorm where the boys are and tell the rest of the boys that he's better. They say, “He sent you this,” and leave a big seashell in the ward, as if that's even remotely what a human child would do, as if they'd want a seashell.

One, Stella (Roxane Duran), begins however to take an interest in Nicolas. Nicolas has a book in which he draws things outside of any frame of reference he could have here. A ferris wheel, a car. A smiling woman with red hair. He has not always been here, we are supposed to surmise.

Stella develops a conscience, and is at the end a vehicle for a redemption of sorts.

The women on the island (in fact it's an atoll) have abducted children, told them they're their mothers, and use that as an accuse to do something utterly monstrous, and often fatal, to these children. And if that's inhuman, it's because they're not human.
The starfish, in its alienness, is the stress point of the film. It's seeing the starfish that causes Nicolas to experience the crisis that leads him to realise he's not supposed to be here. Offered the red starfish as a sort of weird gift, Nicolas sets to it with a rock, destroying one of its legs. But his “mother” keeps it, and we'll see later on that she has it in a bowl, where its leg is regenerating. Nicolas follows his mother to the beach by night, where the women join in a bizarre ritual, half orgy half something else, writhing in a star-shaped communion as if they're the arms of a starfish.

Later on, Stella will show him she's not human: she has suckers down her back, in two rows, like a single limb from a multi-armed marine creature. All the women do. In a sense, then, that's what she is. The women join and become a starfish; they're one creature. The question of what they are is elusive: are they humans who have evolved into something that apes the behaviour and lifecycle of a marine colony organism, or are they a colony organism that has evolved into the shapes of human beings?

And this is pretty interesting, the idea that individual identity might be transformed, and that liberation might be achieved, by adopting the bodies and identities of the more different and alien expressions of nature. In that sense, Evolution is sort of feminist, in that you have these women who are self-determining, in control, in community, and possessed of a sense of belonging, and I don't necessarily think that's awful by itself. And the fact that you can find on the internet lesbian hive mind erotica by and for women – men need not apply – sort of shows that perhaps some people find that kind of hot. The dividing line between being icked out by this and excited by it can be a wobbly one, but the sticking point is always who you might have to hurt to achieve the state of utopian grace. Here, it's children. When this eroticism is adjacent to something terrible happening to kids, though, it’s a tough one to unpack.
Nicolas, subject to invasive surgery, dreams of being molested by the cilia of a starfish. But the limbs of the starfish have minds of their own, and one limb of the starfish – and she's called Stella, of course she is, “star” – alters her behaviour, but only for a while. In a sense, the film reverses the parable. The starfish throws back one of the little boys.

Evolution is a strikingly designed film. Colour defines how we watch it. The underwater scenes that begin the film are riots of natural colour, contrasting with the muted, austere shades of the concrete village, the greys and beiges and dark grey-blues. But the starfish is red. Nicolas, alone, of anyone on the island, wears red. Nicolas's drawings become more representative of what he's had taken from him when Stella gives him a red crayon.

The sheer perversity of what happens to the boys – they're used as surrogates for embryos, presumably the offspring of the starfish-women – is carefully and ever so gradually revealed, but it's gut-wrenching nonetheless. It's a violation. Surgically impregnating a child is rape.

And Stella's conscience is troubling. Throwing one back makes a difference to Nicolas, but it doesn't amend anything. Stella leaves Nicolas; she is going to return and she's going to help her sisters violate more kidnapped little boys. Letting one go doesn't make you better.

The film doesn't define who the women are, and that's for the better. But they're most definitely in the tradition of Lovecraft. They're either sea creatures masquerading as human or humans interbreeding with sea creatures, and in the finest Lovecraftian tradition (and also the worst), they are fully as alien as the denizens of the deep.

The experience of a child is to be lied to. Some of us are of course lied to in our childhood more than others, but even the most well meaning parent in the world lies to their kids. We do. It's impossible to help. And adults are alien to kids, and some of us have the suspicion, the fear, that those closest to us mean us harm.
In that respect Evolution is, in the most hideous way possible, embodying those fears. And the adults are truly alien. As alien to us as a starfish is. And as unable to comprehend our experience as we are that of a starfish. But that incomprehension manifests in Evolution in the cold commission of revolting crimes.

Everyone has a line they'll draw, the thing that they personally will find unforgivable; many people have several. My absolute hard line lies in harming a child. If you harm a child, there is no power on earth that will redeem you in my eyes. God might forgive you. I won't (and if you don't believe in God, tough, you're out of luck).

Not long ago, I tried to watch Hadžihalilović’s earlier film, Innocence (2004). Here we have a similar original set up, that quickly goes to different places, here with little girls. It is one of the very few films I turned off early on because I couldn't bear to watch any more. There was something about the way the camera treated the children, the way they were objectified, the romanticising of their bodies. I read a review of Innocence, a profoundly negative one, that suggested paedophiles would enjoy the film. As much as I'm certain that this was not the intention, and I think Evolution in fact serves as a corrective to that, I was violently repelled by the images in Innocence and I don't think that review was entirely off base. I might be able to give it another go some time. But not for a while.

I suppose with all the body mashing, gender swapping, brain eating, trauma inducing, exploitative films I see, it's sort of perversely encouraging to know that there are still things I'm squeamish about. And Evolution (which the BBFC gave a 15 certificate uncut), is not a particularly explicit film, nor is it terribly scary. I have no doubt whatsoever that many horror fans won't bat an eyelid at this movie. And yet it's funny, isn't it, how we react to different things? Funny how we have our own areas of squeamishness.

You know what, I'm off to watch Possession again.

Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

My Patreon supporters got to see this post last week! To support my work and read early, please consider donating. No donation too small.