❉ The third feature from auteur Lucile Hadžihalilović is a journey from our world into a place that unsettles and soothes by turns.
“I don’t like it when everything is revealed, explained. I like to have to guess, and I like to have time to feel and think. I like holes in the narration, they are very attractive. To have to fill the gaps or to wonder about blurred zones involves me much more in the film and makes the experience more intimate. I try to involve the audience of my films in the same way.” ― Lucile Hadžihalilović
“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” ― Samuel Beckett
It begins with the saddest of all sounds, the sound of the Ondes Martenot playing a soothing lullaby. The first thing we see is a man’s ear, as his nicotine-stained fingers press into his temples. It’s like he’s been dreaming, like the music is coming from some place inside his head, and now he’s been rudely jarred out of this reverie by the clanking of his fridge as it’s motor shunts into life.
A young girl of 10 or 11 wanders into the gloomy kitchen and sits down expectantly. She’s wearing a blouse that’s the same yellow as his fingers and an odd Heath Robinson-like contraption on her jaw that could be a brace or torture device. Glass vials full of water (or saliva) dangle from the sides of her face. These vials are poured into a mould and placed carefully in the freezer as another freshly-frozen mould is popped into her toothless maw. She smiles, toothily.
This is our introduction to the spare, grimy, abject world of Earwig, less a film that we’re watching than a place we’re invited to inhabit for the next 2 hours. The third feature from French-Bosnian auteur Lucile Hadžihalilović, and much like her previous films (2004’s surreal schoolgirl fantasy Innocence and 2015’s sparse, not-quite body-horror Evolution) it is about a closed community who follow rules that they can’t quite grasp the purpose of, cut off from a wider world that they can’t know about and which can’t know about them. This time Hadžihalilović,’s focus is tighter yet: from small armies of boys and girls in her previous films, to one man and one child, living by the meagre light from a filthy skylight in a cavernous house full of hard surfaces, devoid of warmth or comfort.
The man, Albert (the lugubrious Paul Hilton, looking at times like an elongated Russell Hunter and at others like Sid Vicious if he’d lived to his fifties) is taking care of the girl, Mia (Romane Hemelaers, exhibiting an uncanny stillness and blankness for one so young) for an undisclosed presence who communicates by phone in a rasping baritone, asking after her wellbeing, issuing instructions for her to be ‘prepared to go outside’.
Albert is puzzled and perturbed by his new orders from his ‘master’, a disruption to his odd routine. Mia is entranced by the cold air on her face and her own reflection in a nearby lake to the point where (like Narcissus before her) she falls in. Shadows multiply in the house. Memories of happier times seem to haunt Albert from the collection of crystal glasses he peers at closely every night, captivated by the colourful light they refract, as well as from a painting of a mansion which changes, subtly as one looks into its textures and details. Mia acts out after getting a taste of Outside, her nights of clicking her icy dentures and watching earwigs (hey!) crawl on the torn wallpaper now feeling somehow unfulfilling. Albert escapes for a beer in a local tavern where an unsettling encounter with a sinister stranger ends in a sudden act of shocking violence which ripples forward and back through the film like the wash from Mia’s near-fatal accident in the lake.
Earwig is an easy film to get lost in if one is happy without explanations. It’s an easy film to get confused and perturbed by if one isn’t. Hadžihalilović is more than content to allow her characters to wander through her grim, unlit permanent autumn without the need to explain themselves or exhibit anything resembling relaxed, human behaviour. In its depiction of an un-named place in an un-named era (it was filmed in Belgium, and the early 20th century style of dress and mittel-European accents allude to a recent war) where frowning men and women face a daily, joyless grind of repetitive, near-meaningless activity it recalls Kafka (indeed one of the production companies involved is named Kafka Café). In the way it gazes lovingly at grimy surfaces, unflattering wrinkles and empty spaces in the near-dark it recalls Samuel Beckett. In the unexpected flash-forwards to events not yet witnessed and people not yet encountered, Nicolas Roeg (indeed Mia’s unexpected plunge happens when she’s wearing a bright red coat, an image which unsettlingly brings the harrowing opening of Don’t Look Now to mind). The shadow of David Lynch hangs heavily over proceedings too: Hadžihalilović has frequently spoken of her love of Eraserhead, and there’s a LOT of that film in here, particularly in its forensic attention to sound and space, and measured, almost maddeningly unhurried pace. There’s also a hint of Lynch’s Lost Highway: Albert’s disturbing encounter at the bar where someone he claims not to have met before seems to remember him from somewhere and seems to be familiar with the details of his life is a close relative of the similar scene where Robert Blake’s Mystery Man quietly destroys Bill Pullman’s sanity with his creepy confidence that the impossible things he’s saying are true.
From the bar scene onwards a parallel plot unfolds involving Romola Garai’s sad-eyed, facially-scarred barmaid Celeste and her creepy mystery benefactor Lawrence (the youthful Alex Lawther, wearing a big-boy moustache and looking eerily like two schoolkids in a long coat sneaking into the pictures). Here again we see a passive female waif being ‘chaperoned’ by an outwardly kind male authority figure whose exact intentions are vague at best (although in Lawrence’s case the fact that he gets Celeste checked out to see if she’s free of venereal disease should ring several quite shrill alarm bells).
Ultimately Earwig is a journey from our world into its creator’s dream, a place where she unsettles and soothes us by turns. The grotesque, bleak, unclean imagery feels like something conjured from an unsettled mind that’s dozed off on a train on a winter’s day, and just as in a dream there are interludes of striking beauty peppered throughout: when Augustin Viard’s Ondes Martenot emerges from the soundtrack with it’s hushed keening quality it always feels like a warm glow in the veins, accompanied by abstract, kaleidoscopic colours, or the bare branches of trees sweeping out at us from the fog. There are many shades of horror in the human mind, but also the promise of something sweeter in the distance: a tender lover’s reunion in the grounds of a large manor, perhaps? Maybe. Earwig is not interested in your need for answers, and right to the final second is more than happy to throw out some new questions for you.
Earwig is a journey into a land you may wish to flee at the earliest opportunity. It’s hard to ask you to stick with it, because it isn’t certain that you will feel that your patience has been rewarded. Better to think of the journey itself as the reward then. Hadžihalilović would certainly want you to.
❉ ‘Earwig’ (2022), a film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Starring Paul Hilton, Alex Lawther, Romane Hemelaers and Romola Garai. In UK cinemas now.
❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.
Image credits: © Anti-Worlds/Petit Film/FraKas Productions/The British Film Institute/Channel Four Television Corporation