What a strange and unusual film.
Somewhere vaguely in Europe, mid-20th century, Albert is employed to look after Mia. Mia, just a ten year old girl, us forcibly shut-in, even the apartment’s shutters stay closed, casting a gloomy, and often creepy, atmosphere over the apartment’s two solitary dwellers. Despite the isolation, the two are not close, and no affection passes between them. Mia’s teeth are made of ice cubes, and Albert’s main responsibility is to care for them, changing them several times a day, and tending to the metal appliance fixed to her face, presumably to keep her teeth from melting (?). Don’t ask me any follow-up questions because the film isn’t prepared to answer them. This just is what it is, and isn’t it weird? The phone rings, and an unseen master enquires after Mia’s wellbeing. Every day repeats in this way until one day the master tells Albert this will be his last payment; Mia is to be prepared to go outside for the first time, and ultimately to leave. This is big news, and a convenient excuse for the movie to get even stranger.
Earwig is unsettling. It sends creepers up your spine. Even when nothing major is happening, the atmosphere is so dark and foreboding, it always carries the possibility of trouble. Director Lucile Hadžihalilović is a master of suspense; she bathes us in it whether there’s reason or not, which means we’re spending the entire film trying to puzzle out the movie’s mysteries, and trying to anticipate the horrible thing that surely must be coming. She uses all of horror’s familiar visual language, but she never gives the relief that comes immediately after a jump scare. It’s never-ending dread with no catharsis.
Hadžihalilović is clearly unafraid of slow cinema. Her films, and perhaps this one in particular, are so somber and bleak and deliberate that I start to wonder if perhaps I’m having a nightmare. I understand very little of the plot but I’m haunted by her specific imagery, sometimes held so long that I have to break eye contact just in case there’s a spell being cast, or some sort of hypnotism. It really is that disturbing, discomfiting.
Hadžihalilović builds such a complete world, almost acetic except for a fixation on glass, and establishes an almost ritualized routine that it’s of course jarring when she then disturbs it.
Paul Hilton, as Albert, is full of melancholy, anguish, and anxiety. His dentistry looks like medieval torture, but if it feels half as bad as it looks, little Mia (Romane Hemelaers) doesn’t show it. She may be stoic, but I am not. This film was bad for my skin. I spend a lot of money on creams and serums and peels to keep it relatively unlined, and then a movie like this has me making my perturbed face for nearly two hours straight, sure to leave an ugly furrow between my brows. I never understood the movie, not once, not even a little, and I’m not entirely convinced I was meant to. ‘Story’ seems besides the point when it comes to a movie like Earwig, which wants to provoke, disrupt, disturb, yes, but not exactly entertain. Hadžihalilović holds power over us, and enjoys it. We are helpless in her hands.