UK-France-Belgium 2021, 114 mins
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilović

+ Q&A with director Lucile Hadžihalilović

There is no straight story coming any time soon from David Lynch’s closest filmmaking heir, Lucile Hadžihalilović. Her new film – her first in English – is an adaptation of Earwig, a novella by the British artist and author Brian Catling. Paul Hilton (Lady Macbeth) plays the title character, a middle-aged World War I veteran, named for his extraordinary hearing, who is responsible for the care of a ten-year-old girl. Here comes the rabbit hole: every day Earwig must make and replace her teeth, which are made of ice.

It was the image of these teeth that made Hadžihalilović want to adapt the book when she first read it: ‘Teeth are linked to vitality but here are combined with the fragility of the ice that melts; it’s a stunning combination. The mystery and the ambiguity of the characters and of the events also fascinated me. As with every piece of art that you don’t fully “get”, it stays in your mind.’

Having just one main setting – Earwig’s apartment – proved helpful for shooting under Covid restrictions. (The film was due to shoot in April 2020 but production only started in November.) A huge house in central Brussels served as both set and production base. Hadžihalilović describes the apartment on film as ‘a kind of maze, with interior stairways and many doors. [The location] already possessed an atmosphere of secrets and loneliness, and the faded charm I was looking for.’ One challenge was that in the book the apartment’s shutters always remain closed. So to stay true to the book’s eeriness, Hadžihalilović only used natural or in-source lights.

After Innocence (2004), a gothic horror set in a boarding school, and Evolution (2015), about a young boy undergoing strange medical tests, what made her again return to a dark fable about children? ‘The fairytale form is very well suited to telling coming-of-age stories. They are deeply linked to the unconscious, and maybe children are still more connected with these forces – at least this is what I imagine. [Fairytales] allow me to be more easily poetical and metaphorical and to express underlying or hidden motives in a freer, more direct way.’

However, this time, she explains, the protagonist is an adult: ‘It’s as if I was adopting the reverse angle from my previous films, and this was also very appealing. Earwig is not so much a coming-of-age story – although there is an element of that in the film – but an awareness of something that has been repressed: the story of a haunting and, perhaps, of deliverance.’
Isabel Stevens, Sight & Sound, April 2021

The title of Brian Catling’s 2019 novel Earwig is also the nickname of the protagonist Aalbert Scellinc, earned for his acutely sensitive powers of hearing. You would never know this from Lucile Hadžihalilović’s film version, even if its opening shot does show the main character’s ear. Albert (Paul Hilton) is also now missing an ‘a’ from his forename, lost in translation. For in Hadžihalilović and Geoff Cox’s adaptation, much of the novel’s detail has been pared away, including its very specific location (Liège) and final destination (Paris), here reduced to a more vaguely Continental 1950s setting. In the film, the only clear reference for the title is an actual earwig with which Albert’s young ward Mia (Romane Hemelaers) is seen playing at night in her bedroom, much as she builds fortresses for a fly with the scraps of newspaper that are her only toys.

Earwigs and other insects seem to be a metaphor in this impenetrable Kafka-esque fable of humans caught in a metamorphic life cycle that they – and we – never fully understand. Like the young girls in Hadžihalilović’s Innocence (2004) and the young boys in her Evolution (2015), Mia is being prepared for a rite of passage that is presented in the irrational idioms of surrealism. It is a process which her servile ‘keeper’ and (possible) father Albert may have himself undergone, even if he now seems to remember it barely, if at all.

The shuttered house they share is drab and sparsely furnished, with the dim, sickly yellow of its lamps the film’s dominant colour. Both Albert and Mia separately seek refuge from this jaundiced, hermetic monochrome by losing themselves either in the kaleidoscopic iridescence of a crystal glass, or in a painting of a large building. A flashback reveals that this painting was also in Albert’s boyhood home, while a reproduction decorates the apartment of barmaid Celeste (Romola Garai), with whom Albert will form a strange bond, born of violence and loss. Meanwhile, the building depicted – a building which, in one way or another, links these three characters’ fates – will be the location of the film’s climax (and may also be the orphanage on whose steps Albert was left as a baby, much as Albert will leave Mia there).

Albert has been hired to observe Mia, feed her, and regularly fit her with icy false teeth fashioned from her own saliva, which he collects in phials and freezes in moulds. Beyond these ministrations, the dour, haunted man remains aloof from his charge, hardly talking to her, but he is shaken from his strange, affectless routine by a phone call informing him that he must bring the girl in 13 days, and before then ‘teach her how to behave outside’. As she readies to leave her cocooned existence, Mia begins to transform: she acquires a new red coat and shoes, and a new desire to leave the house; she begins to hum the tune that was the signature of Albert’s late wife Marie (Anastasia Robin); she starts bleeding from her mouth (an absurdist analogue of menarche); and her temporary ice teeth are replaced with permanent glass implants. At the same time Celeste, recovering from a horrific bloody injury to her own mouth, is groomed by wealthy, opportunistic benefactor Laurence (Alex Lawther).

‘We’ve met before, I’m sure of it,’ says the stranger (Peter Van den Begin) who approaches Albert in the bar where Celeste works. This line, and the stranger’s insights into Albert’s identity and history, evoke the Mystery Man from David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), with its similar themes of parallel lives and psychogenic fugue. Earlier in the film (although chronologically later), Mia falls headfirst into a lake on her first ever outing from the house and nearly drowns, her bright red coat recalling the drowned daughter in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), which similarly follows a father driven by loss towards a dark destiny. These allusions are as close to a map as the viewer will get in a film whose only narrative coordinates are tentative maybes and obscure, even contradictory suggestions, and whose obfuscation is perhaps best encapsulated by a train journey near the end, where a passing landscape and terminus are rendered nearly invisible by night and fog. Earwig keeps its secrets, which is what will ensure that its enigmatic visions burrow their way into the darker crevices of the viewer’s consciousness.
Anton Bitel, Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Directed by: Lucile Hadžihalilović
©: Anti-Worlds, Petit Film, FraKas Productions, British Film Institute, Channel Four Television Corporation
an Anti-Worlds, Petit Film film
in co-production with: FraKas Productions
with the support of the: Film and Audiovisual Centre of Wallonia Brussels Federation, The Tax Shelter of the Belgian Federal Government, Casa Kafka
Casa Kafka Pictures empowered by: Belfius
with the participation of the: Brussels-Capital Region
in association with: Cofinova 16, Cofinova 17
developed with the support of: Arte/Cofinova, Cofinova Développement 14
Developed with the support of: Arte/Cofinova, Cofinova Développement 14, Angoa
in association with: Cofinova 16, Cofinova 17
with the participation of the: Film and Audiovisual Centre of Wallonia Brussels Federation, The Tax Shelter of the Belgian Federal Government, Casa Kafka
Casa Kafka Pictures empowered by: Belfius
with the participation of:
Developed in association with: Film4
Made with the support of: BFI
Presented by: BFI, Film4
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Executive Producers: Julia Oh, Daniel Battsek, Ollie Madden, Lizzie Francke
Producers: Andy Starke, Jean de Forets, Amélie Jacquis
Line Producer: Serge Catoire
Location Manager: Damien Hamon
Continuity Supervisor: Marie Chaduc
Casting Directors: Sebastiàn Moradiellos, Nanw Rowlands, Rose Denis, Christophe Hermans, Angele Bardoux
Screenplay: Geoff Cox, Lucile Hadžihalilović
Based on Earwig a novel written by: B. Catling
Director of Photography: Jonathan Ricquebourg
Steadicam Operators: Olivier Merckx, Manu Alberts, Jo Vermaercke
Editor: Adam Finch
Production Designer: Julia Irribarria
Set Designer: Émilie Nélis-Culot
Set Decorator: Jeanne Fonsny
Graphic Designer: Amandine Grafe
Costume Designer: Jackyie Fauconnier
Make-up and Hair Designer: Anne Moralis
Music: Augustin Viard
Sound Designer: Ken Yasumoto
Sound Re-recording Mixer: Benoît Biral
Sound Mixer: Bruno Schweisguth
Stunt Co-ordinator: Olivier Bisback
Thanks: Gaspar Noé

Paul Hilton (Albert)
Alex Lawther (Laurence)
Romane Hemelaers (Mia)
Romola Garai (Celeste)
Peter Van den Begin (stranger)
Anastasia Robin (Marie)
Michael Pas (dentist)
Marie Bos (receptionist)
Isabelle de Hertogh (concierge)

UK-France-Belgium 2021©
114 mins

Courtesy of Anti-Worlds Releasing

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