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- Reviewed from BFI London Film Festival 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 Hadzihalilovic’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 Hadzihalilovic 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.
Yet earwigs and other insects also seem here to be a metaphor in this impenetrable Kafka-esque fable of humans caught in a metamorphic life cycle that they – and we with them – never fully understand. For like the young girls in Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004) and the young boys in her Évolution (2015), Mia is being prepared for a rite of passage which is presented in the irrational idioms of surrealism. It is a process which her servile ‘keeper’ and (possible) father Albert has maybe himself also undergone, even if he now seems to remember it barely, if at all.
The shuttered house that they share is drab and barely furnished, with the dim yellow of its lamps the film’s dominant, sickly 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 same painting was also in Albert’s own boyhood home, while a reproduction of it decorates the apartment of local barmaid Celeste (Romola Garai), with whom Albert will soon form a strange bond, born of violence and loss. Meanwhile the actual building depicted in the painting – 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 equip her with icy false teeth fashioned from her own saliva that he collects in phials and freezes in moulds. Beyond these administrations, the dour, haunted man remains aloof from his charge, barely even 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.” From here, 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 once 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 odd 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 from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), which similarly follows a father driven by loss towards his own dark destiny. These allusions are as close to a map as the viewer will get through 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 the view of a passing landscape and terminus are rendered nearly invisible by night and fog. Earwig keeps its secrets which is precisely what will ensure that its enigmatic, oneiric visions burrow their way into the darker crevices of the viewer’s consciousness.
30 great films playing at BFI London Film Festival 2021
Unsure where to start with this year’s LFF? All of the films in this selection come with the seal of approval of Sight and Sound critics.