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Earwig – first-look review

A middle-aged man tends to a young girl with ice dentures in Lucile Hadžihalilović’s elliptical English-language debut.

It would be reductive, though not untrue, to say that Lucile Hadžihalilović enjoys disturbing her audience. Her first two features, Innocence and Evolution, are slow-moving (often cruelly so) and plaited with enough obscurity and body horror to send bile inching up viewers’ throats. But her aim, as further evidenced by Earwig, is to disorient her audience, not simply frighten them.

This generous adaptation of Brian Catling’s novella of the same name sees Aalbert Scellinc (Paul Hilton), a stoic middle-aged man in postwar Europe, caring for 10-year-old shut-in Mia (Romane Hemelaers). Their exact relationship is unspecified; he carries out tasks for her, the most critical and bizarre being tending to her ice dentures, which need to be changed frequently and with caution.

Vials fastened to elaborate headgear collect saliva from Mia’s mouth, which is subsequently poured into a mould of her teeth and sealed inside a freezer. Once solid, Aalbert gingerly fixes the dentures to her gums, as though manoeuvering a tripwire. Mia flashes a translucent smile and their cycle looks set to continue. That is, until the stern, nameless “master” that phones intermittently to inquire about Mia’s teeth, dispensing instructions on her care and Aalbert’s compensation, informs him that he must prepare her to leave their apartment and travel elsewhere.

This is familiar territory for Hadžihalilović, whose work consistently surveys cloistered children, their caretakers and the ominous higher-ups who direct them. Unlike her earlier films, however, which attend to preadolescents, Earwig is more concerned with Mia’s keeper than Mia herself. “It’s not the story of the little girl, but of the 50-year-old Aalbert Scellinc who looks after her,” says Hadžihalilović in an introductory message to the film.

Indeed, it is the eponymous Aalbert – nicknamed “Earwig” in the novella – who eats away at the runtime. Hilton’s performance shifts between restrained caretaker-cum-widower and overwrought instigator with apparent ease. Aalbert’s anxieties are underscored by Ken Yasumoto and Bruno Schweisguth’s chilling sound design, made up of dripping saliva, tinnitic ringing and the violent hum of wine glass rims.

And yet the novelty of Hadžihalilović’s unorthodox set-up dwindles with every unturned stone. New characters crop up (including a moustachioed, all-too-brief Alex Lawther), each with coiled motivations, seeking answers to questions never asked. The most visually emboldened sequences – light refracting off of crystalware, spinning colour into an otherwise sooty milieu – offer little narrative insight. The film’s last-gasp reveal is superbly realised, but clouded by a desire to cling on to more.

Hadžihalilović’s slow, contemplative style begins to fold into itself, dodging riposte by embracing aloofness. Earwig consciously lacks the clarity we’re taught to ultimately expect from mysteries –  but then Hadžihalilović is not in the business of making clear-cut mysteries. In opting to take a less-trodden path, she creates something sensuously distinct but narratively ambivalent. A positively disorienting film, if not always for the right reasons.

Published 12 Sep 2021

Tags: Earwig Lucile Hadžihalilović Toronto Film Festival

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