Movie Review: More Than Oral Fixation – Director Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Icy, Fetishist “Earwig”
By Peter Keough
Earwig draws from a diabolical Freudian cabinet of strange curiosities and symbols.
Earwig, directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović. Screens at the Brattle Theater, July 29 through August 2.
As befits the title of French director Lucile Hadžihalilović’s surreal film Earwig (an adaptation of Brian Catling’s novel), the story begins with a close-up of an ear. Not cut like in relatively exuberant David Lynch blue velvet (1986), but attached to the anguished face of Albert Scellinc (a cadaverous and irresistible Paul Hilton), whose nickname in the novel (it had been given to him by his monstrous father because of his habit of eavesdropping) does not is not used in the film, aside from its title. (Although an earwig makes a poignant cinematic appearance.)
The reason for Albert’s anguish could lie in his job. He has been tasked with overseeing the welfare of Mia (Romane Hemelaers), a young girl whom he houses in an extremely sad apartment, a nightmare of soiled tiled floors, hideous wallpaper and sparse furniture outside. a few rough chairs, a chest or two, a table and a bed. A 1940s stove and cooler dominate the kitchen, and from the latter Albert extracts the trays containing the ice prostheses suitable for his toothless load. Prone to melting, as you can imagine, they have to be replaced frequently, a procedure involving gadgets that appear to have been remnants of the “gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women” in David Cronenberg. Dead ringtones (1988). But Mia complacently endures the ritual with a moan or two and an icy smile, sometimes mirrored by Albert, at the successful end.
But other ills may be eating away at Albert. He is attracted by two foreign elements to the decor of the apartment. He studies a yellowish, vaguely shiny painting of a mansion that sits against a wall – it never looks quite the same every time he looks at it. Could it be a basket left by the door? The impression passes, but in a flashback he is a child in his pajamas wandering down a dark hallway to a possibly primitive scene – an image reminiscent of the badly abused boy in Hadžihalilović’s earlier film, Evolution (2015). Albert lingers longer in front of a large hutch full of crystal. Sometimes he pulls out a glass and rubs the rim to achieve a tone that evokes flashbacks to what could be a younger version of himself and a young woman. Mia is also interested in painting and cabinetmaking. When she breaks Albert’s favorite glass, it ends a routine they’ve been rehearsing so painfully and unnervingly.
Albert receives a call from a crackling-voiced overseer via a 1940s Bakelite telephone. The film is apparently set in a post-WWII Liège, Belgium, which seems dreamed up by a brooding Magritte; it is the antithesis of the whimsical Mitteleuropa fanned by Wes Anderson The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)). Albert obsequiously assures his interlocutor that all is well with the girl but is informed in a gruff tone that his services will no longer be required and that he should prepare her to leave. It involves introducing her to shoe-wearing and taking her for a walk in the park, a rare glimpse of nature and daylight and a suggestion of freedom that Mia celebrates by throwing herself headfirst into a stream. Albert, panicked and ineffectual, stands over her like Frankenstein’s monster wondering what to do.
After barely saving Mia and getting home, Albert must resort to drugs to subdue his mute pleas to get out and get a taste of the outdoors again. He takes a break on his way downtown to a pub where his quiet beer is interrupted by The Stranger (Peter van den Begin), a character even more cadaverous than himself. Haven’t we met before, perhaps in the field of conflict? asks the Stranger. Or before the war, at the orphanage? You don’t 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 ever wondered what it would be like to be someone else? he asks triumphantly, and adds, referring to the waitress (Romola Garaï), “like the beautiful Celeste? Then, with the abruptness of a broken bottle shoved into a person’s face, the film introduces another story line and perhaps another level of dreaminess.
In EarwigHadžihalilović — who also collaborated with her husband Gaspar Noé on equally transgressive films, including I am alone (1998) and Lux Aeterna (2019) – expands on the limited but intense motifs, themes and style that have marked his previous feature films, such as Evolution and Innocence (2004). These efforts have focused on the systematic, exploitative and, in some cases, literally inhumane torture of children. In this film, for the first time, she focuses not on the point of view of a child but of an adult – but only to connect the bewildered and destructive adult behavior of the anxious protagonist to the repressed traumatic memories of a childhood. abused (in the novel, Catling goes into more detail about Albert’s story). Following commands in a distant, garbled superego-like voice, Albert dutifully inflicts cruel, seemingly determined but inexplicable torment on his helpless but uncomplaining victim. At the same time, he delves deeper into his own tortured past, moving towards his mysterious and never fathomed origins. He cannot escape them but cannot quite recognize their reality.
Hadžihalilović pursues this sour dream logic via a style that is paradoxically both dark and minimalist. The takes are icy elongated, underlined by the ticking of a clock, or by other chtonic background noises, barely identifiable in the style of Lynch. The simple but hypnotic soundtrack is played on esoteric instruments, such as a Cristal Baschet and an ondes Martenot.
The palette is poisonous and etiolated. The details—teeth, intrusive medical tools, toys made from junk, gross food and grotesque feeding, a black cat, hideous claustrophobic interiors and creepy, suffocating exteriors—draw from a diabolical Freudian cabinet of oddities and eerie symbols. Every surface looks contaminated and unsanitary – the infliction of a septic wound seems inevitable. Sudden outbursts of violence – stabbing, drowning, orifice invasion – plunge you into an abyss of unconscious horror.
The great critic James Agee asserted in his (unsuccessful) 1937 application for a Guggenheim Fellowship “that every dream is an impeccable work of art”. But few works of art, if any, can claim to be flawless dreams. This may be one of them, hard to shake off and even harder to understand.
Pierre Keough writes on film and other subjects and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the editor of the film boston phoenix from 1989 until his death in 2013 and edited three books on cinema, most recently For children of all ages: The National Society of Children’s Film Critics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019).