“Is this on purpose?” she asks during an interview from France. She wonders if the twisted minds behind the second-annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival booked her movie at O Cinema Wynwood as a sort of mischievous marketing scheme to jump on the Zika-fears bandwagon.
Her movie follows Nicolas (Max Brebant), a 10-year-old boy who lives in a spare seaside village off a beach of black, craggy rocks. He has an ambivalent relationship with his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a woman with slicked-back hair and bleached eyebrows. She looks like all the other “mothers” in this coastal village also populated by other 10-year-old boys who frolic in the ocean when they're not being fed inky goop of worms by their mamas. When Nicolas dares to venture out at night in the village only to be confronted with an orgy of hissing mothers celebrating a newborn baby on the beach, he’s off to a hospital, where he will confront pregnancy on an uncanny level.
“It's better that pregnant women don't see my film,” Hadzihalilovic — a French filmmaker who grew up in the movie's alien setting of Lanzarote, on the Moroccan coast — tells New Times. “I've received a few remarks from pregnant women who have said, 'Oh, that's a bit too disturbing for me,'" she adds, laughing some more.
To Hadzihalilovic, however, being pregnant is disturbing to her. “I'm too much afraid about it,” she says coyly. “That's why I did this film.”
Indeed, to some women, pregnancy can feel like living a science-fiction movie, and the filmmaker agrees. “That's the idea, showing this idea of pregnancy as something abnormal, maybe like an alien. So that's why I thought, with a boy, it's of course much more shocking and abnormal and striking. If it would have been with a girl, it would have been a more normal kind of nightmare, whether being pregnant or raped. But with a boy, of course, it was more like a horror film.”
She doesn’t care whether some will be tripped up by the film’s logic. She has no interest in explaining why these things happen to poor Nicolas. Hadzihalilovic is more interested in exploring a more primal dread. To her, horror movies work best as fantasy, triggering the imagination — exploring the simple mysteries of the unknown while defying reason for atmosphere in a confrontation with the unreal. She prefers to induce the feeling of horror, which sometimes is best achieved by subverting rationale.
"American horror films are very explicit, which my movie is not at all,” she says. “There are horror films that are really kind of like nightmares. The very first horror films I saw as a teenager was Dario Argento's films, which are really a lot more like nightmares or dreamlike films."
For Hadzihalilovic — who also admits to being inspired by the body horror of David Cronenberg — the ultimate horror film is about creating a waking nightmare. The more abnormal the circumstances, the less predictable the film becomes. The result is a more unnerving experience for the audience. “I think, for me, the film is so much about the feeling of mystery,” she says. “It has nothing to do with narrative. It has much more to do with the unconscious and nonverbal and nonnarrative experience, but very little story.”
She also doesn't want to talk down to viewers or treat them with sly humor. In the end, she has great respect for the audience's ability to let go and connect with the movie on a deeper, more primal level.
“I think it’s more important to have an elliptical narrative so people can make their own connections," she says, "because it’s a way to go deeper into your experience as an audience. I like to not understand everything so I can stay open to it afterwards. When I don’t catch everything, I have to involve myself in my thought. I don’t think we need to understand everything to appreciate and enjoy it.”
Premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday, August 14, at O Cinema Wynwood. For tickets and more information, visit popcornfrights.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter: @HansMorgenstern.