Lucile Hadžihalilović

FilmWatch Weekly: “Evolution” director Lucile Hadžihalilović, interviewed

This eerie fable about adolescence and isolation returns months after its screening at PIFF

One of strangest and most memorable films from this year’s Portland International Film Festival makes a belated return to town for a regular engagement this week at Cinema 21. “Evolution,” the second feature from the French director Lucile Hadžihalilović, is set on a rocky, isolated island populated entirely by women and young boys, including Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his…mother?. It’s sort of a fable, sort of a horror film, and plays like a strange admixture of Jean Cocteau and David Cronenberg.

There are mysterious medical facilities, bizarre treatments and injections, and a raft of visual and narrative metaphors circling around notions of reproduction, birth and water. Mostly, “Evolution” is a sensory, sensual experience, moody cinematography and all-encompassing sound design transporting the viewer to a place that is both familiar on some limbic level and utterly alien at the same time.

A scene from “Evolution.”

I first saw “Evolution” as part of the Rendezvous with French Cinema event I attended in Paris in January of this year. At that time, I was able to interview Hadžihalilović (whose surname isn’t as hard to pronounce as you’d guess) in a hotel suite, where she proved to be a graceful, almost reticent presence. Nearly a year later, I’m very pleased that Portland audiences will have a chance to experience the film on the big screen. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

MM: The film has been described as a horror movie, which to me seems reductive. How do you feel about having that label applied?

LH: I think there are many kinds of horror movies. I really wanted the horror to be attractive, appealing. I wanted to be more elliptic, more allusive. I think it’s more playful to do it like that. It’s ok if people say that [it’s a horror movie], but I can see how that makes it a bit more narrow somehow. If people ask what genre of film it is, I don’t know what to say. In French we say “film fantastique,” which is more appropriate perhaps.


Innocence at 5th Ave Cinema

The first feature from French director Lucile Hadžihalilović screens this weekend at PSU's 5th Avenue Cinema

It’s okay if you’ve never heard of Lucile Hadžihalilović. She’s a great filmmaker who rarely makes movies. (If you do know her, well then, I already like you.)

Her first feature film, 2004’s “Innocence,” is screening at PSU’s 5th Ave Cinema this weekend. You should see it if you care about film. And if you don’t, hell, you should still consider catching the 35mm print the student-run theater will be showing. Telling an opaque female coming of age tale set in a gorgeous but quietly nightmarish boarding school, “Innocence” is a rare specimen in the film world. An auteur-driven female story told by an actual woman. Nearly all levels of the industry hierarchy are sadly still dominated by men. But that hasn’t stopped Hadžihalilović from making her own completely unique stamp in world cinema. Just in small doses.

The Internet tells us she’s in a relationship with Gaspar Noe, the highly transgressive French filmmaker behind such gloriously stylized provocations like “Irreversible,” “Enter The Void” (which Hadžihalilović co-scripted) and last year’s limp, goofy but occasionally engaging 3D porn “Love.” Beyond whatever her personal connection is to Noe, the two have been important collaborators since the early 90s, when they started a production company called Les Cinémas de la Zone and she was his editor on his first two breakout films “Carne” and “I Stand Alone.”

Before succumbing to the typical issue at hand with her work—that she’s almost always discussed in film circles as Noe’s wife first and a filmmaker second—I should make clear that she’s a wonderfully gifted visual stylist in her own right. With two features (her excellent new film, “Evolution,” screened at PIFF this year and should arrive back in theaters by the fall) and several long-ish shorts under her belt, her slow-burn style of quietly escalating moodiness is already honed and recognizable. And though she’s worked with Noe a lot, her style is nothing like his, favoring the subtle, considered and more deeply haunting effects of tone and atmosphere over his visceral punch of camera movement and style. You don’t have to like one more than the other, but if you hate Noe’s work, I’d be willing to bet big you’d love her films.

Only problem is, she just hasn’t made enough. I wish I knew more as to why it’s taken so long between projects. It’s without doubt presumptuous, naive and even pretty damn selfish of me to want more from a filmmaker whose work I enjoy, especially when I don’t know why. I don’t mean to conjure any conspiracy theories, but there’s been a lot of evidence and testimonies of late shedding light on how difficult it is for women filmmakers getting work. Yet directors like her with a specific point of view and original style seem to struggle the most to get work produced. Could this be at least part of the reason we’ve only got two features from her in nearly thirty years as a filmmaker? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. (I’m working on an interview when “Evolution” opens in Portland and hope to get some understanding.)

But that’s where those plucky young film loving folks at 5th Ave Cinema have done right by Lucile Hadžihalilović and other talented female filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce and Kelly Reichardt (their respective films “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” both excellent as well, will screen there in the following weeks). Hadžihalilović, along with the absolutely brilliant Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (I sure wish 5th Ave was showing “Ratcatcher” or “Morvern Callar” in this female-director-heavy series too, but alas, it’s not to be), are two of my favorite working filmmakers these days, man or woman. None of them have made enough movies, far as I’m concerned.

If you catch “Innocence” this weekend, I bet you’ll feel the same way.