TIFF21 REVIEW: Earwig [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 114 minutes
    Release Date: 2021 (UK)
    Studio: Petit Film
    Director(s): Lucile Hadzihalilovic
    Writer(s): Lucile Hadzihalilovic & Geoff Cox / Brian Catling (novel)

Everything is well, sir.

Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic explained how she’d rather viewers of her latest film Earwig (co-written by Geoff Cox) go in knowing as little about it as possible. As such, her introduction said little beyond its source material’s mysterious origins (author Brian Catling dreamt of a girl offering him her teeth before writing the novella in one sitting) and her freedom to make her adaptation unique with as many changes as she saw fit. Do I wish she gave more in hindsight now having finished watching? Yes. Very much so since I have absolutely no clue about what just happened. But there’s something exciting about that realization too since it helps the content linger in my head as I continue trying to decipher its puzzle long after the credits roll.

My wanting to describe the plot like the set-up to a joke seems fitting since the whole feels like a joke was played on me (with a punch line conclusion as flabbergasting in its horror imagery as it is absurd in its audacious surrealism). A fifty-year-old man (Paul Hilton‘s Albert) with an infatuation towards stemmed glassware, a ten-year-old child (Romane Hemelaers’ Mia) needing dentures made of ice teeth frozen from a collection of her own saliva, and a bar waitress (Romola Garai‘s Celeste) suffering from a violent attack all walk into a painting of an old European mansion during the mid-twentieth century only to discover themselves psychologically molting in ways that connect them beyond coincidence, blood, or body. Add a loudly meowing black cat and anything becomes possible.

The aesthetic is reminiscent to early Jean-Pierre Jeunet films while he was still working with Marc Caro: darkly atmospheric, oddly idiosyncratic, and beyond imagination. Hadzihalilovic plays with time without us being aware, identity with a creepily obtuse and foreboding messenger (Peter Van den Begin), and setting with a deteriorating apartment, hallucinatory oil canvases, and a stream inexplicably forcing our parties to collide. There are cryptic phone calls from Albert’s “master” requesting he ready Mia to assimilate to the outside world (she’s stayed inside her entire life up until that point with nothing but stiffly dried newspapers as toys); an off-putting and unexplained bystander (Alex Lawther‘s Laurence); and a haunting question that looms over it all: “Have you ever wished you could be someone else?” Good luck finding sense.

I personally gave up rather early and simply let the vibe take over. The first word isn’t spoken until about twenty-five minutes in and I’d wager that there’s only about twenty minutes total that possess any dialogue at all. We’re instead treated to an aural soundscape of Mia’s crunching teeth (the contraption that collects her saliva is straight out of a torture porn), Albert’s memory of a woman playing a note on the rim of a glass, and the jiggle of locked doorknobs amongst other foley work taking center stage. With close-up cinematography putting us inches away from Albert’s eyes as he listens in on Mia through her door or the period-specific label of a bottle of laudanum, Hadzihalilovic chooses sensory overload above concrete narrative explanation.

Not that we can’t parse the odd moment of strangeness via context clues. There’s obviously some sort of metaphysical transformation occurring even if we don’t know why just as Albert’s mind starts to fracture due to a mix of repression, grief, and duty. Whether they’re all a part of some experiment or everything that happens is part of some dream, however, is really left up in the air. And since Hadzihalilovic stated that she changed a lot from the book, I’m not sure reading it would add much clarity anyway beyond the title (I’ve read that Earwig was apparently Albert’s nickname despite no mention being made on-screen). Watching the film ten more times will either expose more clues or merely create more questions—I don’t know.

Would I make the attempt to find out which? No. But I wouldn’t deny you partaking in it, though. Because while Earwig proved nearly impossible for me to penetrate its motives, it still held me in a trance for the duration. You can’t afford not to get caught up in its allure since Hadzihalilovic is constantly adding tiny shifts in perception like a painted baby’s basket or a distorted reflection of love. And no matter how nightmarish or tense things get (Albert is pretty high-strung with a volatile temper when triggered aurally), no one can deny the beauty of each meticulously composed frame. From full-screen geometric glare patterns to a mirrored dinner of orgasmic pleasure, it’s a stunning work of cinematic art. I’m unsure, however, of its depth.

courtesy of TIFF

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