Review: Earwig

Director: Lucile Hadžihalilović

Stars: Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai

Mid 20th century (approximately 1960), somewhere in Europe. Behind the shuttered windows and locked doors of a bleak apartment building, a young girl, Mia (Romane Hemelaers), is sequestered with her guardian/dentist Albert Scellinc (Paul Hilton). Few words pass between them. Albert collects saliva from Mia via an ornate glass contraption that fixes onto her mouth. This viscous liquid is then channeled into dental molds, suggestive of bizarre or rare qualities. Sometimes her teeth appear like cut diamonds themselves. He is her warden and gatekeeper, listening at her door (an act that possibly gives the movie it’s name). Possibly he is her jailor, too.

Lucile Hadžihalilović loves mystery. Having gifted us only three films in nearly 20 years, these experiences feel precious for their scarcity. Even if her last offering – 2015’s Evolution – proved a little too elliptical and precious to grasp. Ever since 2004’s far more beguiling Innocence, her work has been preoccupied with children, the boundaries of science fiction, and the potential fireworks that can occur when one fixation meets the other. Here – as before – she eschews all forms of exposition, presenting us a tone poem or mood board of her story, allowing us to piece together as much as we care to.

This quality can gall or inspire. Fortunately for this viewer and for this film, Hadžihalilović’s dark specificities and moebius strip connections made for grim if fascinating viewing. This is more than a dour riff on Let the Right One In. There are specific cinematic reference points but they date back further.

Albert is told to wrap up his procedures with the closeted Mia and to prepare her for a return to the outside world. A stroll in the park leads to a lake and an open gesture to Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror Don’t Look Now. The acknowledgement is so direct as to feel like a deliberate piece of signposting from Hadžihalilović. This is the milieu she is interested in; the realm of eerie, liminal horror pictures of 50 years ago, the finest of which carried a shrouded sense of foreboding that – especially in Europe – spoke of a traumatic post-war malaise.

Indeed, the war is mentioned in one of Earwig‘s few wordy sequences. Spending a rare night in a bar, Albert is accosted by a Stranger (Peter Van den Begin) who assumes they’ve met before (a nod to the Lynchian like all of the film’s many stressful ringing phones). The Stranger posits that Albert married after the war, and it’s mention gives us one of the few reference points offered. From this one’s mind is encouraged to wander and presume. Is Albert’s work some continuation of Nazi-era experimentation? The dwindling efforts of an ethically bankrupt enterprise? Are he and Mia the last breath of a particularly morbid past?

Further mysteries abound. Two paintings of an eerie-looking institution haunt the opening passages of the film, one has undeniably supernatural qualities, and it comes to feel as though they are mirrors of one another, or portals through time. A child also credited as Albert (Martin Verset) seems to represent a set of memories of our forlorn dentist, wrapped around imagery of glass wear and the ephemeral sound of fingertips running circles about their rims, creating halos of music that Hadžihalilović responds to visually with shimmering golden montages.

Earwig is almost absurdly coy with particulars, but it feels honest; everything is there, one feels, to put together as one wishes. This steadfast refusal to pander but also to attempt everything cinematically echoes similar experiments made by Jonathan Glazer, Peter Strickland and particularly the giallo-loving duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, responsible for Amer and The Strange Color of Your Bodies Tears. Though stylistically and thematically separate, these are good indicators of the kind of experience Earwig has in store for you. Mesmeric, mysterious and brimming with the potentiality of sudden horror.

It fulfills that last promise on a couple of occasions, and further reference points present themselves. The rhapsodic and potentially erotic fascination with scar tissue here is downright Cronenbergian, perhaps preempting his comeback Crimes of the Future, while the unexpectedly vile finale tips thrillingly toward the bodily grue of Palme d’or winning provocateur Julia Ducournau.

With so much namedropping in this review you’d be forgiven for taking the notion that Earwig amounts to little more than a patchwork of other creative’s mannerisms, but the whole is entirely Hadžihalilović’s own. Her cinema encourages heady sensory responses, relishing – even fetishising – the tactile. Here her curiosities are in the weathering of hands, the brittleness of glass, the grotesquery of teeth, the play of light through wooden slats, the stiffness and paucity of mid-century living. These items and their properties are as important as her story. Hers is a cinema built out of the lived in history of things. A dark carnival of memory.

At it’s most hypnotic, Earwig leaves it’s darkened rooms and boards a train. Here we are transported through a delicious fog. The film is awash with blues for the first time. And on the soundtrack, Warren Ellis and Augustin Viard build a bewitching ambient siren’s call that brings to mind Mark Nelson’s Pan-American work circa the album Quiet City. That record – a hushed masterpiece of hazy recollections and hushed laments – is one I often listen to aboard trains, and it’s conjuring here turned the cinema into a kind of railway tunnel for me, with Hadžihalilović’s images the light at the end, forever retreating like a mirage. Earwig may not maintain this sense of transcendence, but that it achieves it even in part makes it worth seeing on the big screen.

7 of 10

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