“The Girl and the Spider” opens with a PDF floor plan of an apartment layout, and ends with a young woman perhaps vanishing. The tantalizing mysteries in the latest film from the “Strange Little Cat” team of Ramon and Silvan Zürcher never quite reveal themselves in this story about two roommates torn asunder and to separate middle-class flats in Berlin. While the mad entropy of this chamber piece — filled with doppelgängers, women coming and going from rooms, as T.S. Eliot might say — will drive some viewers barking insane, those patient and curious enough to soak in the fuzzy vibes of the film’s painterly reds and yellows and key into this film’s odd rhythms will find much to love.
One half of the splitting duo (and it’s never clear if she and her now-ex-roommate were ever quite romantic) is Mara (Henriette Confurius), whose odd tactile obsessions puncture the entire film and are immediately announced in the opening scene: she is oddly soothed by the sight and sound of a jackhammer. She hangs around in the wings, picking at a herpes blister, as her roommate Lisa (Liliane Amuat) prepares to move out to a place of her own — albeit one in the same building. At some point in the movie, that herpes blister infects Lisa, too.
The move, by some uncanny force of its own, sends a bizarre current through the entire apartment complex, a loony constellation of friends, lovers, strangers, and pets. It’s impossible to keep track of the commotion, the comings and goings of the various players, whose desires and impulses bleed into one another. A confusing rush of people is dizzyingly choreographed. There’s Lisa’s mother Astrid (Ursna Lardi) hovering around, and the script from the twin brothers Zürcher never quite spells out what her feelings are toward Mara, but there are Sapphic vibes flying everywhere in this movie.
The Zürchers’ last film — directed by Ramon, produced by Silvan — was also confined to a single apartment, revolving around a family zipping around like molecules. Here, there’s a sort of ode to “The Strange Little Cat” in the story of an elderly woman next door who might be stealing cats, and at one point is seen writhing on the rooftop in her nightgown during a storm. The wan-faced son (Flurin Giger) of the handyman ends up bedding at least two or possibly more of the neighbors here — following the movie’s only foray outside the apartment complex and into a neon-lit, smoke-filled Berlin nightclub — even as he seems to be chasing Mara. But she’s more fascinated by the sounds of a drill boring a hole through the walls or the mess a paper cup of wine makes when stabbed than by romantic entanglements.
All of this is to say that “The Girl and the Spider” offers innumerable teasing glimpses into the inner lives of a group of neighbors as if it were spying on them from across the airshaft — never grasping the full picture. The repeating motif of the waltzing twirl of Eugen Doga’s “Gramophone” makes for a fitting soundtrack to a film where loyalties and jealousies are constantly bouncing around. There are moments of cruelty, but always laced with humor: “Fuck you!” Mara tells Lisa, who replies, “Later. First, I’m moving out,” once again imbuing suggestive vibes into their is-it-platonic-or-not relationship. But this also could just be the Zürchers screwing with us.
It must be said that literally every shot in “The Girl and the Spider” — which includes a few shots of an actual arachnid that seems to be adored by all in the building, free to roam from flat to flat — is postcard, primary-color perfection. Director of photography Alexander Haßkerl seems to understand exactly when to close in on his characters and the audience to achieve maximum claustrophobia, and exactly when to pull backward. And there’s a sweaty tactility dewing every frame, which only adds to the sexual charge already thrumming through all. This is an odd film of poetic abstractions and ellipses, but consistently fascinating in its unrepentant coyness.
“The Girl and the Spider” played the Berlin and Toronto film festivals before next heading on to the New York Film Festival. Cinema Guild will release the film at a later date.