By Peter Keough
Earwig taps into a diabolical Freudian cabinet of uncanny curiosities and symbols.
Earwig, directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović. Screens at the Brattle Theatre, July 29 through August 2.
As befits the title of French director Lucile Hadžihalilović’s starkly surreal Earwig (an adaptation of Brian Catling’s novel), the narrative begins with a close-up of an ear. Not severed as in David Lynch’s comparatively rollicking Blue Velvet (1986), but attached to the agonized face of Albert Scellinc (a cadaverous and compelling Paul Hilton), whose nickname in the novel (it had been bestowed on him by his monstrous father because of his habit of eavesdropping) is not used in the film, aside from its title. (Though an earwig does make a poignant cinematic cameo.)
The reason for Albert’s anguish might lay in his occupation. He has been tasked with overseeing the welfare of Mia (Romane Hemelaers), a young girl whom he hosts in an apartment of surpassing bleakness, a nightmare of soiled tile floors, hideous wallpaper, and scant furnishings outside of a few crude chairs, a chest or two, a table, and a bedstead. A stove and 1940s-era icebox dominate the kitchen, and from the latter Albert extracts the trays containing the ice dentures fitted to his toothless charge. Prone to melting, as you might imagine, they must be replaced frequently, a procedure involving gizmos that look like they might have been left over from the “gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women” in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). But Mia endures the ritual complacently with a groan or two and an icy smile, sometimes mirrored by Albert, at the successful completion.
But other ills may be eating at Albert. He is drawn to two extraneous items in the apartment’s décor. He studies a yellowy, vaguely glowing painting of a mansion that lies against a wall — it never seems quite the same each time he looks at it. Could that be a basket left by the doorway? The impression passes, but in a flashback he is a child in pajamas wandering through a dark corridor to some possibly primal scene — an image reminiscent of that of the much-abused boy in Hadžihalilović’s previous film, Evolution (2015). Albert lingers longer at a large hutch full of crystal. At times he takes out a glass and rubs the rim to elicit a tone that evokes flashbacks to what might be a younger version of himself and a young woman. Mia also takes an interest in the painting and the cabinet. When she breaks Albert’s favorite glass it leads to an end of a routine that they have been so tediously and unnervingly repeating.
Albert receives a call from an overseer with a crackling voice via a ’40s era Bakelite telephone. The film is apparently set in a post-World War II Liège, Belgium, that seems dreamed up by a glum Magritte; it is the antithesis of the fanciful Mitteleuropa whipped up in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Albert obsequiously assures his interlocutor that all is well with the girl but is gruffly informed that his services will no longer be required and he should prepare her to leave. This involves introducing her to wearing shoes and taking her for a walk in the park, a rare glimpse at nature and daylight and a suggestion of freedom which Mia celebrates by throwing herself face first into a stream. Albert, panic-stricken and ineffectual, stands over her like Frankenstein’s monster pondering what to do.
After barely rescuing Mia and returning home, Albert must resort to drugging her to subdue her wordless demands to be let outside and taste the outdoors again. He takes a break by heading downtown to a pub where his quiet beer is interrupted by The Stranger (Peter van den Begin), a figure even more cadaverous than himself. Didn’t we meet before, perhaps on the field of conflict? The Stranger asks. Or before the war, in the orphanage? Don’t you have a wife, a child? Albert denies all these accusations and begs The Stranger to stop bothering him but the Stranger persists in his insinuating interrogation. “Have you wondered what it would be like to be someone else?” he asks triumphantly, and adds, referring to the barmaid (Romola Garaï), “like the lovely Cèleste?” Then, with the abruptness of a broken bottle thrust into a person’s face, the film introduces another line of narrative and perhaps another level of dreaming.
In Earwig, Hadžihalilović — who has also collaborated with her spouse Gaspar Noé on similarly transgressive films including I Stand Alone (1998) and Lux Æterna (2019) — develops the limited but intense motifs, themes, and style that marked her previous features, such as Evolution and Innocence (2004). These efforts concentrated on the systematic, exploitative, and in some cases literally inhuman torture of children. In this film, for the first time, she focuses not on a child’s but an adult’s point of view — but only to connect the anxious protagonist’s bewildered and destructive adult behavior to repressed traumatic memories of an abused childhood (in the novel Catling goes into more detail about Albert’s back story). Following orders from a distant, garbled superego-like voice, Albert dutifully inflicts cruel, seemingly purposeful but inexplicable torments on his helpless though uncomplaining victim. At the same time, he submerges deeper into his own tortured past, moving toward its mysterious, never plumbed origins. He can’t escape them yet can’t quite acknowledge their reality.
Hadžihalilović pursues this sour dream logic via a style that is paradoxically both bleak and minimalistic. The takes are glacially elongated, underscored by the ticking of a clock, or by other chthonic, barely identifiable background sounds in the manner of Lynch. The simple but hypnotic soundtrack is played on esoteric instruments, such as a Cristal Baschet and an ondes Martenot.
The palette is toxic and etiolated. The details — teeth, invasive medical tools, toys made of trash, gross food and grotesque eating, a black cat, hideous claustrophobic interiors and angsty, suffocating exteriors — tap into a diabolical Freudian cabinet of uncanny curiosities and symbols. Every surface seems tainted and unhygienic — the infliction of a septic wound seems inevitable. The sudden outbreaks of violence — stabbing, drowning, the invasion of orifices — thrust you into an abyss of subconscious horror.
The great critic James Agee asserted in his (unsuccessful) 1937 application for a Guggenheim grant “that any dream is a faultless work of art.” But rare are the works of art, if any, that can claim to be faultless dreams. This may be one such, hard to shake off and harder yet to comprehend.
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).