A Fortnightly Review.
Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović
1h 54min | Drama | UK premiere at London Film Festival 15 October 2021
By SIMON COLLINGS.
EARWIG, THE THIRD full-length feature from director Lucile Hadžihalilović, is a ravishing spectacle. The muted colour pallette, chiaroscuro lighting of shaded interiors shot in natural light, the emphasis on natural sounds and the sparing use of music all generate a compelling atmosphere. There is one particularly stunning sequence, towards the end of the film, in which a train carries the principal characters through a foggy north European landscape. The film is complex and enigmatic, never going where you think it will, seemingly trapped in its own circularity.
Mia (Romane Hemelaers), a girl of around eleven, lives confined in a spartan, high-ceilinged apartment where she is looked after by her guardian, a troubled fifty-year old man called Aalbert Scellinc (Paul Hilton). The girl has teeth made of ice which have to be replaced at regular intervals. A contraption like a head brace collects her saliva which Aalbert pours into moulds and freezes to provide new teeth. Aalbert presses glasses against partition walls to listen in on Mia’s activities. The silent routines of their daily lives fill the opening 30 minutes of the film. The first dialogue occurs only when the ‘master’ telephones to ask how the girl is.
When the master calls again a few weeks later, it is to tell Aalbert his service is to be dispensed with and that he is to prepare the girl for the outside world. The equilibrium of this strange ménage is thrown off balance. The anxious guardian buys Mia a red coat, and the pair take a walk in a deserted city park, yellowing leaves falling from the trees. Encountering this world for the first time, Mia becomes fascinated by her reflection in a lake and plunges head first into the water, from which she has to be pulled by Aalbert.
Under increasing strain, Aalbert visits a bar where he is accosted by a stranger who seems to know his history, including the existence of a wife, Marie, a claim Aalbert vehemently denies. The stranger asks Aalbert if he’s ever dreamed of being someone else, and divines that Aalbert in fact has such fantasies about the barmaid, Celeste (Romola Garai). In his rage at this intrusion Aalbert accidently wounds Celeste, stabbing her in the face with a broken bottle intended for the stranger. A young man called Lawrence (Alex Lawther), who is drinking at the bar, comes to Celeste’s aid, and later cares for her while she’s in hospital.
Aalbert’s subsequent dreams and waking visions suggest there is some substance to the stranger’s claim that he once had a wife. There’s a suggestion she may have died in childbirth, and the stranger’s comments imply that Mia might be some kind of surrogate for Marie. As the film develops the lives of Marie and Celeste appear to subtly mirror each other.
Meanwhile, Mia is growing and her teeth no longer fit. Her mouth dribbles bloody saliva as she sleeps. A dentist visits the apartment and fits permanent glass teeth. He also brings with him a cat which Mia adopts, much against her guardian’s wishes. Finally, Aalbert embarks with his ward on a train journey to Paris where he is expected to hand over the girl. Lawrence and Celeste are also on that train. The film reaches an unexpected and bloody denouement outside the institution in Paris where Mia has been deposited.
AS IN THE director’s two previous features, Innocence (2004) and Evolution (2015), Earwig involves a child on the cusp of puberty, in a constraining environment, surrounded by a mysterious adult world.1 Like the young girls of Innocence being prepared for their metamorphosis into adulthood, Mia is being readied for the transition to adolescence. The schoolgirls of Innocence watch a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis as their teacher talks about bodily change, mentioning as an example the loss of their milk teeth. Later the older girls are told to expect the onset of menstruation. Mia’s bloody dribble and need of new teeth evoke the same biological processes, a transition which Aalbert finds troubling.
In Evolution, Hadžihalilović’s preoccupation with the anxieties associated with menstruation and pregnancy are projected onto a boy child. A group of pre-pubescent boys are being used to incubate human foetuses in an experiment which often results in the deaths of the children. The boys are not told what is happening and inhabit a world of mystery, menace and fear. The principal character rejects his mother’s attentions in favour of a young nurse. As the film progresses it becomes less and less clear what’s ‘real’ and what’s feverish nightmare. Evolution draws on sci-fi and horror genres in the presentation of its macabre story.
Mia, in Earwig, appears untroubled by her isolated existence with the withdrawn and laconic Aalbert. She plays by herself, seems self-contained and at ease with the inconveniences associated with her teeth. Only when the teeth cease to fit does she show signs of discomfort. As she grows she becomes less biddable, the cat an emblem of her increasing defiance of Aalbert. On the train to Paris the cat sits on Mia’s lap glaring at Aalbert. After he has handed her over to her new guardians we see the cat again in the hallway of the building. It hisses furiously at Aalbert as he leaves.
While the two earlier films are presented primarily through the perspectives of the children, with Earwig Hadžihalilović shifts the focus to the male lead Aalbert. Anxieties about sex, pregnancy and childbirth are elaborated both symbolically through the problems with Mia’s teeth, and through what we infer of his relationships with Marie and Celeste. At one point there is head-and-shoulders shot of Marie lying on a bed. She seems to be in pain, perhaps giving birth, but equally this might be how Aalbert saw her when they made love. Later we see a similar image of Celeste where it’s unclear if she is experiencing sexual pleasure or pain.
THE SCREENPLAY FOR Earwig was co-written by Hadžihalilović with Geoff Cox, a long-term collaborator. He contributed to the writing of Evolution, and was a co-producer of Innocence. Earwig is based on a novel of the same name by the multimedia artist and writer Brian Catling.2 Cox, who recently made a documentary about Catling for the BBC Arena series, introduced the film director to the novel, which was published in 2019.3
The narrative in the film version sticks fairly closely to Catling’s story, though there are inevitable cuts, transpositions and revisions. As in the film, Mia’s transformation from child to adolescent, and its unsettling effect on her guardian, is a central theme, with the sexual aspects even more explicit in the book. Aalbert’s listening to Mia through the walls of the flat has clear voyeuristic undertones. After the incident at the lake Mia seeks constant physical contact with Aalbert, including, to his disquiet, sleeping in his bed. In the central section of the book, which has been cut from the film, heavy snow in the city confines Aalbert and Mia for weeks in their apartment. Mia’s caresses become more insistent in this claustrophobic environment, but fail to arouse Aalbert, who is rendered impotent by her physical proximity. The crisis with Mia’s ill-fitting teeth, which Aalbert first tries to correct himself, coincides with his discovery that the girl has started menstruating.
Pain and pleasure are inextricably tangled in Catling’s tale, as they are in the film. A young boy, Pedric (again omitted from the film), who delivers groceries and whose help Aalbert enlists in the search for a dentist, becomes fascinated by Mia, and she by him. The boy provokes in her a feeling which Catling says: ‘tasted of sugar though it welled up like pain’. Like much of Catling’s work the book draws on traditions of the occult and horror fiction to create a narrative with an unsettling, nightmarish quality, the characters in the story at the mercy of extra-human agencies which control their actions.
Given the close relationship between painting, performance, video work and text in Catling’s output, the graphic and cinematic qualities of his writing, and the way he draws on genre fiction and mythology to make work which defies easy categorisation, it’s not hard to see why Hadžihalilović and Cox were attracted to Earwig.
THE PACE OF the film is slow, immersive, in keeping with the style of the director’s previous features. Film scholar Matilda Mroz provides an analysis of the interplay between duration and meaning in Hadzihaliovic’s first feature Innocence, which has an obvious application to Earwig.4 Mroz draws on the philosophy of Henri Bergson in her exploration of the tensions between clock time and the lived experience of time of the girls at the school. She argues that ‘the slow unfolding of scenes, moments and images in Innocence allows for a continual modulation between interpretative and sensory impulses.’
Bergson described ‘duration’ as ‘a continuity which is really lived, but artificially decomposed for the greater convenience of customary knowledge.’ Time spent in waiting is central to Innocence, and for Mroz highlights a sense of ‘protracted lived duration’ which stands in sharp contrast to the ticking of clocks heard throughout the film. ‘In the duration of the viewing experience,’ Mroz says, ‘our intimate sensory responses are likely to be continually modulating into and out of interpretative trajectories; part of the pleasure of slowness in film is precisely that it allows for, indeed rewards, movements across a spectrum of responses.’ The entrance to an underground theatre, where the older girls perform a ballet for the school’s patrons, is through the back of a long case clock. The pendulum is stopped to allow passage, decomposed time being literally suspended.
In Earwig, slowness results in sensory experience being similarly in tension with our impulse to interpret. A clock ticks in the apartment which Mia shares with Aalbert, but for the child amusing herself with her toys time seems elastic and unbounded. The occluded daylight adds to this sense of dislocation. Time gravitates around the experience of daily activities such as the fitting of the teeth and the preparation and consumption of meals. The austere physicality of these events is underscored by the use of diegetic sound, Mia clicking her teeth together, for example, or the noisy chewing of food. At one point In Innocence we watch a spider walking tentatively across a ceiling in what Mroz calls ‘an embodiment of slow moving time’. In Earwig there is a similar moment when Mia idly watches an earwig crawling up the edge of a curtain.
Sleep too features a great deal in Earwig, as it does in Hadžihalilović’s other films. In the sequence on the train towards the end of the film, structured time is represented by the rail tracks which disappear into the fog as the passengers drift restlessly in and out of sleep. We see first a shot from the back of the train, the tracks receding into obscurity, then a front view with the limited visibility ahead creating a sense of the travellers being cocooned. When the train arrives at Paris we see not the station concourse but a frozen image of the train advancing into the fog, the temporalities of the sounds of arrival and the images on the screen briefly diverging.
An even more radical destabilisation of our sense of linear continuity in Earwig is achieved through the mirroring of images and phrases at certain points in the film. While serving Aalbert in the bar Celeste tells him his drink is ‘on the house’. This same phrase is repeated later in the film when a café owner in Paris pours Celeste a second brandy. The most important of these destabilising echoes is an image of Celeste on a bridge in the park overlooking the lake. We first see her at the point when Aalbert has just rescued Mia from drowning, when she appears to be witnessing the scene taking place. Later we see her walking with Lawrence in the same park while he is trying to persuade her to go away with him. They come to the bridge and she stops and looks away across the lake. A counter-shot then presents her exactly as we saw her in the scene with Mia, standing alone on the bridge. Time seems to fold back on itself, and our sense of sequential temporality is disorientated. The long take in the final scene (I won’t spoil the film by revealing what happens) has a sense of mirroring earlier events, like the closing of a circle. The formalism of such techniques challenges conventional expectations about narrative progression.
CONSISTENTLY, IN INTERVIEWS, Hadžihalilović resists interpretation of her films, stressing instead that they are made to be experienced. This stance aligns with a body of work by contemporary French filmmakers which emphasises the sensuous materiality of the medium and the affective dimension of the viewing experience over plot and character development. Many of these films include scenes of extreme violence and graphic sex earning the ‘movement’ the tag of the New French Extremity. Scholars also refer to this corpus of film as le cinéma du corps (film of the body).
A leading figure in this ‘movement’ is the controversial cineaste Gaspar Noé to whom Hadžihalilović is married and with whom she collaborated on a number of films. She was the producer and editor for Noé’s first feature I Stand Alone (1998), the producer on Lux Aeterna (2019), and a co-writer on Enter the Void (2010). She also collaborated with Noé on his early short, Carne. Claire Denis is another major figure associated with le cinéma du corps. A number of the filmmakers linked to this tendency, Noé included, reference genre films and pornography in their work. Denis’ Trouble Every Day, for example, is the story of two people (a man and a woman) who have each been infected by a pathogen which provokes cannibalistic desires in them linked to sexual arousal.
Hadžihalilović’s work exhibits none of the extremes usually associated with le cinéma du corps. The brief episodes of violence in her films are heavily stylized, theatrical, often slowed down, so that we seem to view them from a distance. Sexual activity is hinted at rather than shown explicitly. But her insistence on cinema as an experience rather than as a visual rendering of something outside of itself (script, psychology etc.) does have affinities with this body of work. Film scholar Martine Beugner, in her book Cinema and Sensation, argues that conventional theoretical approaches to film appreciation, plot and character analysis, genre studies and psychoanalytic readings, are inadequate for dealing with the kind of cinema represented by le cinéma du corps.5 She sees these films as an attempt to revive Artaud’s proposals from the 1920s for a ‘third way’ in cinema, based on the materiality of the cinematic experience.6 Beugnet proposes a new set of critical tools which might enable us to think with and through the films rather than simply ‘about’ them. She does not mention Hadžihalilović directly in her book, but she does discuss Denis and Noé, and works by Philippe Grandrieux and Mariane de Van, filmmakers with whom Hadžihalilović says she feels an affinity.7 Beugnet’s focus on the haptic qualities of the viewing experience, the visual and auditory affect of films, offers a useful way to view Hadžihalilović’s work.
The décor in Hadžihalilović’s films, the objects with which the human subjects interact, and the spaces through which they move, reflect ‘the thoughts and emotions’ of her characters.8 All three of her features share a preoccupation with large buildings and high-ceilinged rooms, with sleep and eating, with mirrors and shadows. The lake which plays a central role in Innocence, and the sea which features strongly in Evolution, find an echo in the lake scene in Earwig. Aalbert’s preparation of meals for Mia resonates with the servants’ roles in Innocence, and the mother’s cooking in Evolution. The tactile qualities of bedding, cutlery and plates, of wooden furniture and floors, of glass are all strongly present in Earwig, their corporeity emphasised by the soundscape of the film, including the ringing sound a glass produces when a finger is rubbed around the rim. In her work Hadžihalilović draws not just on film but on the visual arts more generally. In one scene in Earwig the camera dwells for a moment on Aalbert’s exhausted face, the pallid flesh tones and angularities reminiscent of the paintings of Lucian Freud. The materiality of these images is intrinsic to the event which the film enacts.
Subtle references to well-known visual tropes from horror movies also heighten our emotional involvement in the film. Scenes in which Mia, seen from below, descends the stairs in her red coat, and elsewhere climbs the stairs, invite comparison with Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The tentative opening of doors and rattling of locked doors, the monstrous dental instruments, the black cat, all help to sustain a sense of unease and tension. Many of these cues function like playful misdirections, briefly evoking a sense of suspense which is quickly dissipated. Only rarely does the film erupt into gory violence.
NIKOLAJ LÜBECKER’S PERCEPTIVE analysis of Innocence, in his book The Feel-Bad Film, also offers insights which are applicable to Earwig.9 Lübecker contrasts what he calls ‘elegant’ and ‘clumsy’ approaches to the appraisal of Innocence. The former he identifies predominantly with critical readings of the film by Vivian Sobchack, Emma Wilson and Davinia Quinlivan. ‘These texts,’ Lübecker says, ‘emphasise the mystery, the sensuous and the ineffable nature of the film.’ Primarily phenomenological in approach, these readings share similarities with Buegnet’s methodology mentioned above.
Wilson’s detailed analysis of Innocence receives particular attention from Lübecker. She argues that the film allows us to enter the world from the girls’ perspective, a world in which ‘identity is non-self-identical, shifting, unsettled and future-oriented’. Wilson, though aware of the sexual dimensions of the film, deliberately sets these aside in order to focus on the potential of the children’s interactions to help us rethink ‘how intimacy and openness can co-exist.’
Lübecker contrasts this approach with the analysis offered by Sylvain Coumoul, who argues that the film places the viewer in the position of a pædophilic spectator in order to enact a critique of patriarchy. The girls in this reading are being groomed to fulfil their future adult roles as providers of sexual services in a male-dominated world. It is this strategy, Coumoul argues, which creates the unease in the film and discomfort for the viewer.
Lübecker argues that the tension between these two perspectives ‘needs to be internalized by the viewer’. We are compelled to hold this ‘double vision’, he says, because young as they are the children do exhibit a form of sexuality, however unconsciously, and the film clearly acknowledges this. Child sexuality, he points out, remains one of the most taboo subjects in our culture. We need to set aside the elegance of a unifying view of the film, he says, and adopt instead a more flexible, multi-level approach to do the film justice, even if that seems ‘clumsy’.
Earwig, Hadžihalilović’s most accomplished film to date, is an engrossingly enigmatic work which invites precisely the kind of multivalent response Lübecker proposes. As in the later sections of Evolution, the boundaries between dream and reality, personal history and myth, become inextricably entangled in Earwig. The film takes us to an experiential space of delicious indeterminacy, eluding our attempts as viewers to construct a rational interpretation of its affect.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal,Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His collection of short fictions, Why Are You Here?was published by our imprint, Odd Volumes, in November 2020. An archive of his work for the Fortnightly is here.
- Hadžihalilović’s early film La Bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996), which runs for 54 mins, concern a pubescent girl who is taken in by an aunt after her mother tries to commit suicide. The aunt’s fiancé, Jean-Pierre, attempts to seduce the child while the aunt is at work, and the girl takes an overdose. Unlike the later feature films this is a relatively straightforward piece of social realism, albeit with elements which point to the director’s later developments. The more recent experimental short De Natura (2018) again features children, two young girls playing in a wood. The film, which includes shots of apples, suggest a reference to the Genesis myths.
- Long-form prose has been a fairly recent addition to Catling’s multimedia oeuvre. His second novel, The Vorrh (2012), brought him significant critical attention. Terry Gilliam has talked of basing a film on the book, though the project has yet to materialise. Some of Catling’s earlier prose writing provides accounts of performance works, or originates from imaging possible performances. The Blindings (1995) explicitly documents a series of linked events Catling made for venues in Europe, Israel and Japan. His sequence of short prose texts Written Rooms and Pencilled Crimes (written in the 1980s) began life as an attempt to capture the transient and elusive qualities of performance. Number XIX in the series describes a bar in Liege, Au Metro, run by an exotic pair of queers. Catling reworked this text into his novel Earwig, adding Celeste as the third member of staff. Elsewhere in Earwig Catling re-uses text from a section of The Blindings about the Paris catacombs.
- A trailer for the Arena documentary on Catling can be found here. Details of the BBC’s transmission are here.
- Matilda Mroz, ‘Performing evolution: immersion, unfolding and Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Innocence’, in Slow Cinema, Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge, eds., Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
- Martine Beugnet, Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression, Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
- Artaud was arguing for an alternative to both the narrative-driven, psychological dramas of commercial cinema and the esoteric abstract work of avant-garde filmmakers.
- Interview with Bruno Dequen in Le cinéma de genre au féminin, No. 179, Oct-Nov 2016.
- See the interview with Bruno Dequen in Le cinéma de genre au féminin, No. 179, Oct-Nov 2016. Other directors Hadžihalilović names in this interview as people to whom she feels close include the Belgian duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, and the British filmmaker Peter Strickland.
- Nikolaj Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film, Edinburgh University Press, 2015.