In Conversation: Lucile Hadžihalilović talks mysterious childhood rites, as her first film in eleven years is released
Lucile Hadžihalilović has completed just two feature films – Innocence (2003) and Evolution (2015). Her achievements across this sparse twelve-year directing career, however, are prodigious. Each film leaves one with the sense that potent questions have been both posed and answered; crystalline and queasy each in their own way, the two films are entangled yet completely distinct, and considered in combination they are evidence of an unnervingly consistent imagination. One way to think of Hadžihalilović’s work as director is as a game of brinksmanship. Audience and characters alike are brought to the very point of comprehension – and left suspended. Satisfaction derives from lack of consummation.
In a literal sense too the films stage this state of life-on-the-edge. Both are about the flush of pre-pubescence, the point at age ten or eleven when children begin to question and transition. And the narrative of each is structured around the rituals and mythologies employed to explain away this process, to lessen the necessary trauma of leaving childhood proper behind. Innocence is set in a thick deciduous forest that is neither fairytale nor horror. Isolated from the world in an Edwardian-style boarding school, girls aged six to twelve learn about zoology, practice ballet and swim in lakes. There are no men, and the two teachers – Mlles Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) and Eva (Marion Cotillard) seem haunted by their own pasts and the future they are preparing these girls for.
Evolution takes us to a bare, almost lunar-landscaped sandstone island (the film was shot in Lanzarote). Again strict gender segregation is in play: the one small town is populated entirely by young boys and their impassive, nurse-like mothers. The strict routine of protagonist Nicolas’s (Max Brebant) life is disrupted by revelations about sexuality and procreation, visions of death and aquatic life and internment in a pre-modern “hospital” where the boys are subject to experimentation whose aim gradually becomes clear: the women who tend them are trying to impregnate them.
I ask Hadžihalilović whether she wants the audience to grasp the logic behind the rituals and regimentation that her characters are subjected to. Is this supposed to be relatable? “The reason I am interested in children of this age,” she says, “is because this is a moment when you feel very deeply that the world is an enigma, but you are beginning to question it, to change how your mind works. [As children] we are more open to mythology… As adults, you don’t experience this feeling so naturally.” The aim, then, is for the audience to see the world as the children do: opaque, with an innate meaning that is grasped only through ritual and play.
The seclusion and timelessness of the Innocence’s forest and Evolution’s island, though, make it hard to tell what it is exactly that these children are being initiated into. Are they – and we the viewer – learning about nature, about primal instincts, or about society, human customs and culture? “In both films, it’s a kind of natural environment for the children and they have to learn to leave that, to go into some kind of society or civilization,” Hadžihalilović says. But this does not necessarily mean a clean shift from ignorance to understanding. “I think the natural elements are both normal and an enigma. What is outside your element is a mystery [but] it’s just an unknown. You will learn what it is about. There is no great enigma about it [the outside, adult world], while in the natural environment there is.” The adult world, whether experienced as alienation or civilization, at least possesses rules and regulations: less so the forbidding lake where a girl drowns in Innocence, or the tentacular, submerged world of Evolution’s coral coastline.
“The reason I am interested in children of this age is because this is a moment when you feel very deeply that the world is an enigma, but you are beginning to question it, to change how your mind works. As children we are more open to mythology…"
Speaking to Hadžihalilović, I begin to feel that there are two approaches to her films that perhaps reflect her concerns: gender and genre. Most critics have read the two films as a straightforward diptych. Innocence is about girls and adolescence; Evolution is about boys and burgeoning sexuality. Hadžihalilović disagrees. “I totally see how much the two films are related. But Evolution is not ‘about’ boys. For me, it’s more about that boy [Nicolas] and his relationship with his mother; the other women and boys are kind of echoes of that boy.” The character of Nicolas, she says, could easily have been a girl, but “that would have been more obvious and less interesting.”
Maybe it is more accurate to say that Hadžihalilović’s work decentres the masculine position. In her words, adult men are at most “shadows and silhouettes” in her films. Instead, we are asked to engage with characters only tangentially defined by a world made in the image of men. “I organise the world in these films without men: men come after that moment” Innocence ends with the oldest cohort of girls released from the forest into a modern, mixed-gender environment, while the remarkable final shot of Evolution sees Nicolas floating away from his island towards the smokestacks and lights of an industrial city. But at this moment of release or transition, Hadžihalilović’s stories end. It is not so much a case of her making “explicitly” feminine (or even feminist) films: it is simply that Hadžihalilović deals with the locus of imagination, body and society, and she herself experiences these things as a woman. As she says: “I’m a woman and I guess I’m talking about myself.”
Hadžihalilović’s welcome unwillingness to describe her films either in terms of her own personal childhood or more universal questions of womanhood is also reflected in her unease with questions of genre. She has talked elsewhere about her immersion, aged twelve or so, in the science fiction novels of Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon, and horror maestro H. P. Lovecraft. Some people have read into her films’ world-building exercises an attempt at sci-fi cinema; the waking dream of male pregnancy and creeping marine invertebrates in Evolution has been labeled Cronenbergian body horror. Yet she insists that both films “work more like a dream, and not so much a genre like sci-fi or horror.”
“For me it’s more exciting to mix genres,” she points out. It does seem true that, sometimes despite herself, Hadžihalilović’s work always reverts back to what she variously calls her “enigmatic” and “intimate” type. The original treatment for Evolution, she admits, featured more straightforwardly sci-fi elements: the experiments on the boys were linked more explicitly to the starfish that is a recurring image in the film, and to the idea of space travel. But budget constraints meant that this particular trajectory of the flight of fancy was removed from the final cut (and Hadžihalilović confesses that she “wasn’t so unhappy” to do so). This aversion to generic pigeonholing, she says, also explains her “problem filming technology”: anything too shiny would see the film partitioned off as science fiction. The old-fashioned lepidoptery set and rickety underground train in Innocence, or the grim 1960s hospital furnishings in Evolution are purposefully “archaic”, timeless.
Where does this resolute unconventionality leave the audience, then? Hadžihalilović is walking a fine line between the world-building of classic science fiction – the worlds of Innocence and Evolution have their own strict rules and rituals – and the outright experimentation and illogicality of dreams. Whilst both films feature the well-worn dystopian sci-fi trope of a character questioning the rules of the world around them and attempting to break free (one girls in Innocence even manages to scale the wall at the edge of the forest and flee into the outside world, never to be seen again), neither pairs this with the parallel trope of revelation. At no point are the ways of these strange societies explained or justified; both human and natural worlds remain opaque, arbitrary. Nor can we fall back for explanation onto the emotional ties between characters – as much as Evolution in particular might seem to lend itself to a crude psychoanalytical reading, to make this all a question of Oedipal conflict would risk losing sight of the sheer visual complexity of the material (Hadžihalilović professes herself more a fan of Jung than Freud in any case).
Hadžihalilović is walking a fine line between the world-building of classic science fiction – the worlds of Innocence and Evolution have their own strict rules and rituals – and the outright experimentation and illogicality of dreams.
It is when Hadžihalilović speaks about other directors and writers that one gets a sense of quite how insular she considers her creative position to be. Many people will have seen the fruits of her labour without knowing it, since she contributed to the editing and production of her partner Gaspar Noé’s much more (in)famous films Carne, I Stand Alone and Enter the Void. She can cite a whole litany of works that have altered her perspective: Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, which she remembers watching at the age of four or five; as a teenager, the “operatic” early work of Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento; later on, Eraserhead by David Lynch and Walerian Borowczyk’s 1968 oddity Goto, Island of Love; contemporary art house luminaries like Peter Strickland and Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Yet she admits to having filmmaking “cousins” rather than “comrades” when it comes to her own work. She remembers her cohort at La Fémis film school as overwhelmingly female, but notes that hardly any went on to work in cinema. She herself has struggled to secure financing for her work – hence the twelve-year disconnect between Innocence and Evolution. She describes France as “a country where people have difficulty with imagination.” Her citing of Eraserhead strikes me as particularly telling. Critics and fans alike are quick to label Lynch’s films as “dreamlike” and leave it at that. But things only get interesting once you recognise that all film is fantasy and stop attempting to unravel the “real” and the “unreal” aspects. Eraserhead brings to mind Hadžihalilović’s work because it belongs to that period in Lynch’s career when the images he conjured up did not seem to need validation. It isn’t a film about dreams: it is a dream, and the better for it.
On the edge of comradeship, on the fringes of national cinema, on the borders of genre and gender. Perhaps it is no wonder that Hadžihalilović deals so quixotically with those moments of transition and transgression that define young minds and bodies; nor that her films are centred on rituals of initiation, structures that guide both audience and characters alike through the looking glass. I am reminded of two moments of dialogue in Innocence. When one girl questions the rules of the school, the line of questioning is blocked over and over until the exchange becomes a semi-comedic refrain: “Why?” “Because.” Later, a rebellious girl declares: “They cannot force it if we don’t want it ourselves.” The inescapable arbitrariness of leaving childhood for adulthood, and resistance to this change, animate both films. Insulation is partnered with transgression. Does Hadžihalilović understand adolescence and sexual maturation as somehow tragic?
“You can’t stay a child forever. In Innocence the character of Marion Cotillard is unhappy precisely because she has had to stay within a child’s world and cannot go out. You have to change. It’s scary but it is inevitable. Maybe I was scared as a child myself, I don’t know…” She drifts off somewhat. There seems little appetite to invite an autobiographical reading of her onscreen dreamworlds, and this is understandable. To do so would threaten the all-important “enigma”, making it somehow reducible to the strands of individual personality. Lucile Hadžihalilović is more expansive than that. The ocean that Nicolas swims in resembles the womb; the forest in which the girls play contains an entire world. And then we move beyond.
Samuel Goff has previously written for The Calvert Journal on cinema and architecture. He is a researcher in Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge.