French film director Lucile Hadžihalilović deals in contradictions. Her imagery is vivid yet cryptic; her methods precise yet intuitive. It’s been 12 years since her last film—the lush Freudian fairy tale Innocence—played in a small handful of U.S. theaters. Now, after last year’s festival run—including a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, where our own A.A. Dowd said it “casts a singular dreamlike spell”—her third feature, the sci-fi/horror hybrid Evolution, is in limited release thanks to distributor IFC Midnight.
Evolution takes place on an isolated island populated only by young boys and women, all with the same pale skin and long auburn hair. There, the preadolescent Nicolas (Max Brebant) is taken to a hospital by his mother, where he and a handful of other boys receive a series of mysterious injections. Soon after, unexplained beings begin growing inside of them. We asked Hadžihalilović about this unsettling imagery when we talked to her at home in Paris via Skype, as well as her subconscious approach to storytelling and creating the poetic images in her new film.
The A.V. Club: Innocence came out in 2004, and now it’s 12 years later. How long has this film been in the works, and what else have you been up to in that time?
Lucile Hadžihalilović: I have been trying to make this film for eight or nine years, which is a long time. I never thought it would take so much time. [There were] many times when I was thinking that the film was going to happen in the next six months, so that made it very difficult to really do something else. But I had another project that was almost at the beginning of shooting, and then we couldn’t do it. I also worked on some other people’s projects as a co-writer.
AVC: What was the other project?
LH: I worked with Alanté Kavaïté, my co-writer. She worked on my film, and I worked on a project she hasn’t made yet. I spent quite a long time doing that.
AVC: Your films tend to have a mythic, fairy-tale quality. Are fairy tales something that inspires you?
LH: I am very much interested in fairy tales. I guess that most of the films I like to do have this kind of aspect—even the very first one [1996’s La Bouche De Jean-Pierre], which was a more realistic environment, but kind of Little Red Hood in the suburbs. With Evolution, which is a bit more of a sci-fi/horror film, I always thought it was more like a fairy tale, absolutely. I’m very interested in also talking about children in this moment where you are going to become a teenager, and I think it’s very relevant to use a fairy tale to talk about that. Evolution has a lot to do with the unconscious, so for this reason I think that fairy tales are very good tools to tell that story.
AVC: How do you conceive the idea for a film? Does it start with an image, or is it a mood you want to set?
LH: For Evolution, it was very much about images, and a situation, which was this boy, this child at the hospital. And then mood, of course. I tried to find a story that could make these elements happen. So the story is secondary. I really try hard with my co-writer to make it more understandable and as coherent as possible, so these images can happen and this mood can be felt. So yeah, there’s a first moment where it’s very instinctive, and then I try to make it more current and exquisite.
AVC: Is that where your co-writer comes in, when you’re trying to build the story?
LH: This is what happened with Evolution, yeah.
AVC: You worked with children on your last two films. How do you approach children as actors?
LH: I don’t think they really are actors. And it’s the same with adults. What I’m attracted to is their personalities, and not really their acting ability. I try to simplify things for the children. For instance, [I arrange] for them to have almost no dialogue, or to somehow give them very precise indications, because usually they ask for that. They ask, “What do you want me to do?” But at the same time, [I want] to make them inside this frame very free, and I’m not at all looking for a performance. I’m really, again, looking for cinematic qualities that they have. It’s all about the casting, I guess. And what is very exciting with children is they like to play, and they don’t care so much about the meanings [of things], and they are just excited to have weird scenes to do or weird things to do, like playing deaf, or playing sick, or swimming in the water. So it brings a joyful approach—not joyful, that’s not the word—but a very playful approach to this dark universe.
AVC: One of the dark parts of this universe, I think, is the body-horror aspect, exploring pregnancy through the character of a boy. Could you talk about that a little bit?
LH: I thought it was much more interesting with a boy than with a girl. Because with a girl, I think it would have been a bit more cliché, with the young girl being a victim of adults and fears about pregnancy. With a boy, I thought it was a more primitive or more general fear about changing and being invaded by a creature somehow. And I also wanted it to be nightmarish, and of course with a boy, it is nightmarish and more striking.
AVC: It’s more surreal, I suppose.
LH: More surreal, absolutely. I want it to be irrational. If it had been a young girl, it would have been a little bit, let’s say, normal—or not normal, but possible. With a boy, it was totally impossible. I liked the idea of it being totally irrational.
AVC: So is that something that takes the island [where the film takes place] and moves it further away from the rest of the world, that this fantastic thing happens there? Is it a place on Earth, this island?
LH: It’s not a French island. [Laughs.] It’s funny, because at the very beginning, it was only the hospital [that I had in mind], and at some point we needed to go outside of the hospital. I thought then, “What would it be?” And then came the idea of the ocean around the hospital, and of course it worked very well, because the film is about birth and giving birth. And then the ocean and the sea was a bit like a frontier and a whole universe by itself, so, okay, it’s an island. But it’s mainly [supposed to feel] like being isolated in the middle of the ocean. Like, maybe our Earth is totally alone in the universe. There’s a parallel with that.
And also, it was very convenient [plotwise], so you don’t have this idea of, “Okay, so what happened with the rest of society?” They have been totally separated. The film from the beginning is not the real world; it’s an imaginary world. And this imaginary world is both inside and outside the normal world. Many times, when we were writing this script, we were thinking about the end. How would it end? Would he come back to the real world? I never wanted it to be like he was dreaming and he woke up. I wanted him to stay in this imaginary world somehow. The end would not be a return to reality, because I thought that would be disappointing. The film is about the fact that you might have nightmares, and you might drift away a bit from reality, and this is a thing that can follow you all your life. And so there is no real passageway from reality to this world. It’s all separated, but very, very close to ours.
AVC: You see this in Innocence, too, with the walled-off school. These processes—these adolescents facing their fears—they happen in these very sheltered, isolated places. What are you trying to explore with that?
LH: I guess maybe it’s autobiographical, somehow. When I was a child, I had a quiet, protected childhood. I had good parents. Nothing terrible happened. But I had the feeling that they kind of protected me from reality somehow. I used to live in a little city by the sea, and the feeling of isolation—it was not like living in Paris or London. It was a bit apart from the main city, and [it gave me] this feeling of isolation and also being close to nature, with nature as a surrounding and also a frontier, from the society of the world. I guess this is what is in my films—the forest in Innocence, the sea in Evolution.
AVC: It sounds like a lot of your imagery comes from more of a subconscious place.
LH: I think so, yeah.
AVC: Do you deliberately leave your films open to personal interpretation?
LH: Yeah, because as an audience [member], I like that in films. I think sometimes there are films where I understand what they are about, but there are also some mysterious areas in the film where I haven’t got the whole image and I haven’t got everything. And then it stays much longer with me, because I have to somehow put myself much more into the film to get it. And so this is what I’m trying to do with my films.
It seems to me that [my films] are talking about very simple and, I hope, universal feelings. And at the same time, as I said, even though they are set in a very weird world with elements that are irrational, at the same time, it’s very close to an ordinary world. And I like to have this third feeling of mystery. I think the feeling of mystery is something that was very strong when I was a child, and I am trying to talk about that in my films. But this feeling comes from very simple and very ordinary [feelings], and it’s [about] having an invisible world and at the same time a very precise physical world.
AVC: This film was shot on digital, and Innocence was 16mm. Can you talk about that decision?
LH: We wanted in fact to do it in 16mm again, because both my DP [Manuel Dacosse, who also did Amer and The Strange Color Of Your Body’s Tears] and I wanted to have a lot of texture. We didn’t want to have such a precise, definite image. We were a bit afraid, because we were going to shoot in the Canary Islands, [that we would] have too much light, especially in the outside daytime scenes. But it was complicated to shoot in 16mm, because we were on that island, and we would have to send the dailies to the lab in Paris every day. It seemed to be a bit too complicated and expensive, so we decided to do it in digital.
Manuel had quite a lot of experience with digital, and we thought that it was possible to get this texture [we were looking for] nevertheless. We didn’t really try to make it look like film, of course, but [we were able] to at least to have some kind of a blurry look, and also to have this texture. We could come during the shooting with some fog, for instance. Or when we were under the water, we were looking for dirty water, and not clear water. And then in the grading, we also worked in that direction.
AVC: The film is dark, in subject matter and lighting-wise.
LH: Also, the fact that it was in digital allowed us to shoot easily at night with no lights, and to shoot underwater, which with film would have been more complicated for us.
AVC: Can you even shoot film underwater?
LH: You could, but then you would have to have equipment [that is] quite more expensive and complicated to get. But with digital, you can shoot longer, take more risks.
AVC: Your shots in this film look very composed. Do you use storyboards?
LH: No, I don’t have storyboards, but I have some very strict rules, like not moving the camera. There were some choices that were made before shooting, like to shoot it in CinemaScope with steady shots. I had some references from Japanese CinemaScope film from the ’60s that I showed to Manuel. Again, I think I was very lucky to have a DP that really understood what I was looking for and had the same sensibility. So it was very quick and easy to frame the shots. We didn’t have much time on the shooting, so it wasn’t a very long and careful process. It was quite intuitive, in fact.
AVC: How long was the shoot?
LH: It was 26 days.
AVC: Oh, wow, that’s very fast.
LH: Yeah, that was very quick.
AVC: Wow. Well, it turned out beautifully.