Somewhere in a fogbound pocket of mid-century Europe, a little girl with curly brown hair shares a dark and dingy apartment with a middle-aged man who makes us nervous. Her name is Mia (Romaine Hemelaers), and her constantly melting teeth are made out of her own frozen saliva. The man’s name is Aalbert Scellinc (Paul Hilton); he is not her father. Neither of them speak. The slatted wooden floors groan like ghosts whenever anyone moves, or when Aalbert tinkers with the headgear he fits around Mia’s face before meals, fresh spit pooling into each of the glass vials positioned on either side of her mouth.
Aalbert is careful not to touch her, or to let her out of the house unsupervised. At night, he holds a glass up to the girl’s door in order to listen to her sleep, or perhaps just to hear something other than the refrigerator that hums to itself through the walls. Sometimes the telephone rings, and a snakey voice on the other end of the line asks two simple questions: “How is the girl? And how are the teeth?”
Both of Lucile Hadžihalilović’s previous features adhered to a liquid sort of nightmare logic (especially 2015’s “Evolution,” about a small French island on which all of the mothers have starfish-like suckers on their backs, and perform strange procedures on their sleeping preteen sons every night). Those eerie phantasmagorias were the latest Marvel installments compared to the plotless “Earwig,” which she adapted from Brian Catling’s surreal novella with all of its 2+2 = cockroach storytelling intact — and then some. The result is an impressionistic film that flirts with slow cinema on its way towards something more incantatory; a film that doesn’t want to lull you to sleep so much as it wants to lure you into a place so dark and dreamy that you can no longer be certain that you’re still awake.
It would be unwise to presume too much about what happens (all interpretations are fair game), and perhaps even unwise to use the word “story” at all. Hadžihalilović’s slim and immaculately strange body of work has long been rooted in themes of innocence lost — the friction attendant to over-supervised children as they develop their first taste for adult independence — and “Earwig” certainly provides more acrid grist for that particular mill. Mia is a vintage Hadžihalilović heroine, and only becomes more so when a rare stroll along the gray banks of the lake near her apartment ends with the girl face-planting into the water as if trying to merge with her reflection.
Who is the fair-haired woman (Romola Garai) watching helplessly from a nearby footbridge, and why does one of her cheeks appear to have been chewed apart by a wild dog? These may not be the most helpful questions to ask, and Hadžihalilović’s giallo-inflected visuals encourage you to accept the mystery. (Peter Strickland fans will recognize a kindred spirit.) It would be more productive to focus on the seductive pull of the water in a film preoccupied with the way that light bounces off and refracts through clear surfaces, as Jonathan Ricquebourg’s chiaroscuro cinematography lavishes attention on ice teeth and the rims of wine glasses.
Prisms of color provide their own kind of magic for Mia, who lives in a purgatorial fairy tale so Grimm that the red wool coat Aalbert gives her might as well be a sign from God. The girl never complains, not even when a creepy dentist arrives to fit her for new dentures. The helplessness of childhood is conflated with that of dreaming, and the film’s hollow soundscape — which collects a full orchestra of Foley work into an ASMR track so unnerving the Devil would use it as a meditation — dulls Mia’s determination to resist. Speaking of the Devil, it’s possible he makes a cameo appearance during a scene when Aalbert visits the local pub. An odd man goads Aalbert into a deadly bar fight, which precipitates his instructions to ready Mia for a big trip of some kind.
Other characters — even those with actual names — are similarly uncertain. “The End of the F***ing World” star Alex Lawther, suddenly a full-grown man, plays Laurence, a mustached fellow who appears at the foot of the scarred woman’s hospital bed and nurses her back to health. These scenes are siloed into a timeline of their own, and suggest the possibility that Laurence and Aalbert may overlap in some way, but the specifics are left to our imagination. That proves doubly true for the film’s third couple, who read as Mia’s parents (and certainly seem intent on creating a child). Every detail that emerges from the musky shadows of Hadžihalilović and Geoff Cox’s (“High Life”) feverish screenplay raises more questions than it resolves.
The threat of violence festers in the background, as the eldritch disquiet of Hadžihalilović’s imagery compounds itself without the catharsis of traditional scares. We sense Aalbert has been complicit in something awful — that even the process of implanting Mia with a permanent set of teeth is fraught with patriarchal disregard — but it’s unclear what his comeuppance should be.
A climactic train ride through miles of transcontinental mist epitomizes a film that can be arrestingly evocative once you make peace with the fact that it won’t be anything else. Anyone still aboard by the time “Earwig” reaches its final destination will be rewarded with a mouthful of the body horror that lurks beneath all of Hadžihalilović’s surfaces. Whatever the film’s ultimate worth, no other filmmaker could have captured the “Dracularian elegance” of Catling’s writing (to quote a character description in his novella), or listened harder to the music of becoming that’s hidden between his words.
“Earwig” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.