A striking and maddening delivery system for art house creepinesss, Lucille Hadžihalilović's "Evolution" dreams up a cloistered island community of ailing young boys and unsmiling adult women that feels like the exact opposite of a nurturing paradise. As bad vibes go, the scenario is certainly a haunting one, but don't expect answers to your questions from this stylish French provocateur, whose visuals recall the jaundiced beauty of David Fincher and the claustrophobic terror of David Cronenberg, without their complementing impulse to entertain.
Hadžihalilović may raise "Twilight Zone"-like expectations with the sinister goings-on, but she prefers her ambiguities to crash against your mind like the waves on the shore where her story's imperiled children play.
It's after one of these swimming explorations that our methodically paced tour of this enigmatic world unfolds. Following a languid opening with picturesque underwater cinematography of sun-dappled reefs, a lad appears on the surface, shot from below. This is Nicolas (Max Brebant), whose reverie is interrupted when he notices a dead boy wedged in the rocks, with a red starfish on his stomach. Back home, this bulletin doesn't seem to faze his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a blank-faced figure in a plain frock with all the warmth of a Soviet bureaucrat.
In their austere living quarters, she feeds Nicolas a chunky mix of what looks like worms and oil sludge, and administers to him a medicine of black liquid drops that prompts from him the worrisome question, "Why am I sick?" Her clinical response? "Because at your age, your body is changing and weakening." Overactive imaginations, start your engines.
Naturally, there's a medical component to this grim society, a shadowy, damp hospital where Nicolas — like many boys in town — is taken for injections, operations and a closely watched recovery. The other boys in this predicament are a mix of the gullible and suspicious, and Nicolas is leery enough to know his treatment isn't exactly for his benefit. (A nighttime surveillance of his cold-eyed caregivers feels like confirmation, revealing a freaky, writhing seaside ritual that only amplifies the no-no-no coursing through your head.) Complicating matters is the attention of one seemingly sympathetic nurse named Stella (Roxane Duran), whose interest in Nicolas — she indulges his frowned-upon interest in drawing — toggles between creepy and liberating.
After only two features, Hadžihalilović has proven decidedly adept at skeeving you out with painterly but menacing spaces, not to mention the upsetting proximity of guileless children to controlling grown-ups. Her 2004 debut "Innocence" tweaked fairy tale maturity narratives with frolicking pre-pubescent girls enduring strange grooming rituals in a woodsy manor run by women who knew more than they were letting on about the future of their charges.
That "Evolution" — which replaces the ominousness of that movie's forest with persistent water imagery and lapping sounds — makes unsuspecting little boys the subjects of her corruption allegory this time around, could be seen as artistic balance, if one were thinking about the least desirable audiences to be drawn to this stuff.
But while "Evolution" is a disturbing coming-of-age variation that opaquely mixes fear and eroticism, it carries an intellectual ripeness, too, in its gender-upended tale of authoritarian women and medically oppressed boys, one that goes beyond simple notions of smothering maternity. "If only men could get pregnant" is a common exasperated hypothetical in the real world battle of who controls our bodies. One could easily envision Hadžihalilović's discomfiting body-horror yarn coming across to many female viewers as the ultimate in table-turning parables.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Cinefamily, Silent Movie Theatre, Hollywood