With her third feature, the eccentric and exquisitely made Earwig, French filmmaker Lucile Hadžhalilović confirms her status as one of art house cinema’s most singular auteurs, fashioning a rich and strange body of work that sits somewhere between Lynch, Cronenberg and a more restrained narrative approach that feels strictly European.
“Body” is indeed the key word in a movie that, like the director’s previous efforts, Innocence (2004) and Evolution (2015), explores the corporal horrors inflicted on the young — in this case a little girl forced to undergo a tortuous daily routine in which her teeth are surgically replaced by ice cubes.
Why she needs to do this, or who she even is, are not really questions Hadžhalilović concerns herself with in this moody chamber piece that premiered in Toronto’s Platform competition. Viewers looking for explanations should probably stay away, but those willing to be carried by the film’s casual pace and haunting aesthetic will find there are few places like it in contemporary cinema.
“Earwig” is actually the nickname of the silently tormented man, Albert (Paul Hilton), tasked with caring for the girl, who’s called Mia (Romane Hemelaers), in a dingy Lynchian apartment located in an unspecified dingy city sometime after World War II. It’s also the title of the novella, set in Liege, by British sculptor-author Brian Catling that Hadžhalilović and co-scribe Geoff Cox adapted their script from, sticking fairly close to a story that mixes the macabre with the squeamishly surreal.
Captured in foggy, underexposed images by Jonathan Ricquebourg (The Death of Louis XIV), whose cinematography here recalls the paintings of Belgian symbolists like Fernard Khnopff and Léon Spilliaert, the film establishes its bizarre scenario and setting from the very first frame, with hardly a line of dialogue offered for purposes of clarity. All we know is that Albert is Mia’s caretaker at the behest of a brusque, menacing man who occasionally calls him on the phone for updates, making sure the girl’s frozen chompers are doing whatever they’re supposed to be doing.
Much attention is given to the laborious process by which Albert removes Mia’s teeth each morning, after they’ve melted onto a metal-supported filtration system that looks like the world’s most horrible retainer, to install a new set fresh from the freezer. The methodical oral surgery is performed with ultimate precision, as if the fate of the world depended on these icy little dentures functioning perfectly. Sound designer Ken Yasumoto (who works with Hadžhalilović’s ex-partner, Gaspar Noé) makes sure we hear everything as well as we can see it, with each click, scrape and chatter amplified to the max.
At some point we learn Mia is to be sent away, prompting a chilling sequence where Albert takes her out in the world for the first time and she tries to drown herself. Unable to cope with such developments, Albert goes to the local bar to drown himself as well, except in beer, until he’s accosted by a man who seems to know way too many facts about his life — including the trauma he suffered during the war and the death of his wife. Albert tries to attack the man with a broken bottle, but accidentally plunges it into the face of a waitress (Romola Garai), whom he winds up permanently disfiguring.
It’s a lot to take in, and none of it makes sense sometimes, even all the time. But that doesn’t seem to be the point of Earwig, which relishes in its weirdness until the bitter end, when the plot is finally tied together but also torn apart. At nearly two hours, it’s a bit much to handle — Lynch’s Eraserhead, which is close to this movie in both style and spirit, clocks in at 89 minutes — and you feel, at times, that Hadžhalilović is overindulging in all her creepy tones and textures but also losing her grip on the story.
And yet it’s that same refusal to play by the book that makes her oeuvre so unique. Like her earlier movies, Earwig works in subtle ways, luring you in with its meticulous direction and design, then providing a few flashes of real emotion — most of them backed by a gorgeous minimalist score from Augustin Viard and Warren Ellis (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds).
It may not be enough to turn the film into a cult hit, but it does show how Hadžhalilović is a rare breed among genre directors today, especially those specializing in body horror. Like a good surgeon, she works at her own rhythm, administering gore and violence with extreme caution, killing us but doing it ever so softly. The knife cuts carefully but it cuts deep.