When I stumble upon a filmmaker who I’m unfamiliar with, one of two things tends to happen. Either the movie is a passable distraction or simply a meager checkmark in my film-watching diary for the year. But sometimes a film becomes a portal into something unique that springs a new excitement for this artistic interest of mine. A few such examples of experiences over the past few years include my good friend taking me to a midnight screening of Let the Corpses Tan, which helped me discover the brilliant duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, or when someone on Twitter posted a link to a shoddy bootleg of Hiroshi Harada’s 1985 short film The Death Lullaby. For all the complaints I have about Twitter, such a moment makes it all worth it.
At TIFF, there’s plenty of mediocrity to wade through, sorry to say, but a movie like Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Earwig is that speck of light that has made me giddy and curious about the rest of the director’s filmography. I have no experience with Hadzihalilovic’s previous work, so I can’t evaluate Earwig in the context of that. The filmmaker’s latest movie, however, doesn’t seem to need context because it exists on its own planar dimension in the way that it’s constructed and in the way it carries itself. The opening sequence of a man named Albert (Paul Hilton) replacing a young girl named Mia’s (Romane Hemelaers) teeth with glass molds is startling, as no backstory information is provided for the audience. The girl wears a metal contraption with some tubes where a liquid slowly drips. Mia doesn’t seem to be in pain, and she is clearly not uncomfortable. The man (perhaps her father or uncle) performs an operation with a nervousness that is infectious.
Feeling and mood are commonly surmised through set design and acting but usually are still tied to an explained situation. Earwig operates similarly to Cattet and Forzani’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, where movement and navigation through a house, accompanied by an unexplained ritual and a cacophony of signature sounds, are all viewers get to piece the puzzle together. The rust and sepia-colored house with slight green highlights creates an old-world gothic atmosphere of abandonment and almost like a simulation of sorts.
It’s startling every time other human beings appear in Earwig. Hadzihalilovic jarringly transitions from the crippling isolation of the foggy mansion to a public space with the city’s population. The film takes place somewhere in Europe given the actor’s accents, but they all speak English. There is unnerving tension, like the people are all in on a joke or plan that the central characters are not. Hilton displays this beautifully. His meager hand movements and jittery vocations infer a sense of constant danger or doubt in everything that’s going around him.
When Albert is approached by anybody, be it a mysterious man who seems to know his past or a haunting woman on a bridge who is missing parts of her face, there is always a sense of looming terror or violence. But Hadzihalilovic shifts tone and place abruptly, like in a dream where places and events seem to appear and disappear into the dark without a second guess. Earwig doesn’t have a real plot or destination, and — as many others have pointed out — it’s probably futile to expect one. The slimmest thread of a plot comes when someone only referred to as “Master” rings and asks Albert to prepare Mia to leave the house.
Earwig is curiously based on a novel of the same name by Brian Catling. Differences in detail exist, as Hadzihalilovic’s inspirations completely usurp the novel’s narrative arc to concentrate more on atmosphere. This is a movie deeply entrenched in the traditions of gothic and giallo horror films, allowing for a disorienting effect inside the house where none of the rooms seem to have a stable geometry with each other.
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has some shadows and fingerprints of influence over Earwig, both in the lighting and sound design. The unnerving effect of evening glows and the creaking and cracking of wood and glass give the sensations of loneliness but also the feeling that a presence exists beyond Albert and Mia. What this presence may be is merely a notion to Hadzihalilovic, who is satisfied with riding her film purely on mood. Once in a while, there are startling moments of violence, like when Albert accidentally stabs someone with a glass bottle or when Mia attemps to drown herself. Overall, however, the lingering anticipation of something arriving is just beyond reach.
Movies like Earwig naturally test people’s patience, and in the landscape of modern cinema where instant gratification is not only preferred but expected and demanded, Hadzihalilovic’s film is likely to stay in the corner corridors of avant-garde film enthusiasts. But a movie such as this can create curiosity if forced upon unsuspecting audiences. The magic of Hadzihalilovic’s Earwig comes in the form of its suggestion that viewers abandon their expectations and preconceptions about what cinema should be and what a story can be. It’s a hard ask, but it’s rewarding. Whether Earwig is ultimately considered a masterpiece or merely a token of strange curiosity, it is not a movie that one will soon forget after seeing it.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.