A fog of menace descends on this hauntingly photographed, oppressive and driftingly directionless movie from Lucile Hadzihalilovic. It has the intensively curated atmosphere of body-horror noir – if not the conventional plot structure – and some way into the running time you might find yourself awakened from its reverie of formless anxiety by a sudden, horrifying stab of violence. It’s a flourish of brutality whose meaning and motivation are never entirely revealed (there is no question of calling the cops in this nightmare-world) and maybe it doesn’t entirely earn the resulting jolt of attention as the story loops mysteriously around and in on itself.
This is Hadzihalilovic’s first feature in English, adapted from the experimental novella of the same name by Brian Catling, author, performance artist and longtime Iain Sinclair collaborator. (Earwig could also be inspired by Gerard Reve’s recently translated Dutch novel The Evenings, and its ambient atmosphere of strangeness.) The scene is a gaunt, gloomy apartment building somewhere in Europe after the second world war, or conceivably the first. Its walls and furnishings look as if they are spongy and damp, and that your hands would disappear up to the wrists if you tried touching them.
A miserable middle-aged man called Albert (Paul Hilton) lives in one of the flats and his job is to look after an obedient little girl called Mia (Romane Hemelaers), who has no teeth and must every day submit to Albert fitting her with dentures made of ice. She must also wear a bizarre contraption attached to her lower jaw that collects the resulting drool-melt in two little glass capsules, one below each cheek. (The design of this device is credited to the director of Delicatessen, Marc Caro.) Poor little Mia mopes around the flat all day, making a heartbreakingly earthbound model of a kite from spindly bits of old newspaper (oddly, an English newspaper). Albert is haunted by memories of his late wife and by his past, growing up in a huge country house – whose image we see in an old painting and whose exact purpose we learn at the very end. Every so often he receives a telephone call from a male voice gruffly asking for updates about Mia’s wellbeing.
One afternoon, Albert is instructed to take Mia for a walk, to acclimatise her to the outside world, because his orders are now that she must prepare to leave the apartment for an unknown location. So Mia is dressed up in a smart little red coat and taken to the park – and the film’s mood shifts from David Lynch’s Eraserhead to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now when Mia attempts to drown herself in a lake. And it is here that we see a careworn woman called Celeste (Romola Garai) looking on. Celeste works at the pub to which Albert slopes off for a miserable drink and she is the subject of a horrifying attack, perhaps engineered at one remove by a sinister stranger called Laurence (Alex Lawther), who is to take care of Celeste. Celeste too has memories of this country house that Mia and Albert see in the painting.
Is Celeste Mia’s mother? Is she Mia herself as an adult in a parallel time zone? Is Albert in fact Mia’s father as well as her guardian? Or could this be Laurence’s role? Are all these people the symptom-personae of European war trauma and war guilt, which is what Albert’s pub encounter seemed to be suggesting? The film is amenable to many conjectures, all of which lead to a cloudy world of transgression and dismay, and the final clinch of erotic horror may tie it all up – or tie up nothing at all.
As with her first full-length feature, Innocence, from 2004, Hadzihalilovic shows her preoccupation with the opaque riddle of what young girls are thinking and feeling. This new film is intriguing if not exactly gripping, and as so often with her work I found myself waiting for a real bite of narrative and character that never really comes, despite that shock of violence. But it is superbly shot by Jonathan Ricquebourg and exquisitely designed by Julia Irribarria: a dark shiver of sadness.
• Earwig screened at the BFI London film festival.