A multi-generational family saga about the lingering psychic wounds of the Holocaust in contemporary Europe, Evolution is another personal passion project for director Kornel Mundruczo and screenwriter Kata Weber, the married team behind last year’s Oscar-nominated Netflix drama Pieces of a Woman. After previous visits to Cannes with White God (2014) and Jupiter’s Moon (2017), the duo are unveiling their latest collaboration in the glitzy French festival’s newly inaugurated “Cannes Premieres” strand.
With its disjointed three-act structure and subtitled dialogue in multiple languages, Evolution is a more experimental, less commercial prospect than Pieces of a Woman. But it is stylishly shot and emotionally engaging, full of daring camerawork and strong performances. Considering its potentially dark subject matter, it is also surprisingly warm and funny in places. Festival programmers and arthouse connoisseurs will find much to savor here, while adventurous distributors and streaming platforms could leverage interest based on the writer-director duo’s prize-winning track record. Co-producers The Match Factory are also handling sales in Cannes.
Disjointed but dazzling.
As with Pieces of a Woman, Weber’s screenplay for Evolution is rooted in her own personal history. Both films began as theater productions, although the 2018 stage blueprint for this time-jumping triptych was a more unorthodox hybrid of stylized chamber drama, musical performance and art installation. Shot between COVID-19 lockdowns over just 13 days back in April and May, the expanded screen version of Evolution retains this lightly experimental feel, but adds more conventional filmic elements, blurring the line between magical realism and narrative naturalism.
A largely wordless opening chapter plunges viewers into a dank, hellish subterranean bunker. A team of grim-faced workers enter and begin fiercely scrubbing the walls, as if desperately trying to erase evidence of some terrible crime. Their task becomes increasingly ominous as they discover huge deposits of human hair embedded in the crumbling walls, some woven into long knotted ropes. Heightening the nightmarish horror-movie mood, a crying child can be heard somewhere in the darkness.
This turns out to be a baby girl, Eva (Roza Kertesz), who is plucked from the building’s collapsing drains and carried aloft into the snowy daylight. Thus far, the setting of Evolution has had a purposely vague, surreal, allegorical feel. Above ground, the context becomes clear. We are in the Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz, newly liberated by Red Army troops in January 1945, and one little Jewish girl has miraculously survived. This scenario may feel like a fanciful fairy tale but, amazingly, a small handful of children born in the death camps did survive.
Jumping forward to present-day Budapest, the film’s mid-section catches up with that little girl in the twilight of her life. Eva (veteran Hungarian screen icon Lili Monori) is now a mentally fragile grandmother living in a malfunctioning apartment, her memory clouded by dementia. A visit from her middle-aged daughter Lena (Annamaria Lang) becomes a fractious argument about the family’s complex Jewish heritage and the semi-dormant antisemitism that still haunts much of Central and Eastern Europe. “I don’t want to be a survivor, I just want to be alive,” Lena complains bitterly.
Drawing on her own Hungarian-Jewish mother’s experiences, Weber’s screenplay alludes here to Hungary’s controversial recent history of blocking compensation and restitution payments to Holocaust survivors for petty technical reasons. But she and Mundruczo also layer this specific trauma with a more universal set of tensions, including Eva’s worsening dementia and Lena’s recent acrimonious divorce. This feverish two-hander achieves a kind of emotional crescendo with a bravely graphic depiction of Eva’s bodily decline and a superbly staged domestic disaster that works both literally and metaphorically. Parallels with Anthony Hopkins in The Father are hard to avoid here, not just in Monori’s powerful performance but also in the hallucinatory visual effects.
Berlin is the location for the film’s concluding chapter, which revolves around Lena’s zombie-loving, piano-playing teenage son Jonas (Goya Rego). An outsider at school, he is targeted by bullies and distrusted by teachers, who blame his classroom troubles on “imported Mideast conflicts” and other casually antisemitic tropes. Not surprisingly, Jonas has come to view his Hungarian-Jewish ancestry as more burden than blessing, playing down his heritage as he develops a tender crush on a fellow misfit student, punky Turkish tomboy rebel Yasmine (Padme Hamdemir).
Once again drawing on Weber and Mundruczo’s own family history, this closing section is the most formally conventional of the three, and also the most dramatically weak, with its rambling tempo and trite love-defeats-hate conclusion. The apparent take-home message, that multicultural teenage romance can erase centuries of murderous ethnic conflict, is appealing but unconvincing. Even so, this third chapter still features sharp dialogue, dynamic visuals and engagingly sweet performances by its youthful leads.
Whatever its dramatic blind spots, Evolution is a mostly fruitful collaboration between high-caliber talents both on-screen and off. It is also a consistently compelling visual spectacle, largely thanks to hotshot French DP Yorick Le Saux, whose other credits include Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Le Saux’s restlessly kinetic camera captures the action in intimate close-up and bravura long shots, including a seamless 36-minute dance around Eva’s apartment that incorporates a gravity-defying detour into thin air high above the streets of Budapest. On many levels, Evolution is a dazzling high-wire act.