Director Lucile Hadžihalilović and her co-writer Geoff Cox’s Earwig is a curious oddity; a singular and hypnotic work from its opening scenes. It belongs to the realm of dreams and nightmares, hallucinatory fantasies, whose roots lie in the dark origins of fairytales before they were pacified for modern childhood consumption.
Adapted from Brian Catling’s 2019 novel, the story centres on Albert (Paul Hilton), guardian to Mia (Romane Hemelaers), a young girl he has been employed to care for. They live in a desolate house in a nondescript location, the only hint of the locale is seen in a brief glance of The Dundee Post newspaper. When Albert receives a phone call from his employer enquiring about progress with her dental prosthetics that are made of ice, he’s instructed to prepare Mia to enter the outside world upon her departure from his care.
This offers a partial outline, but Earwig is the type of film that audiences are advised to present their minds as a blank canvas. Polarising, some may glean from a brief outline that it’s not their type of film, while others may be drawn to it only to be disappointed.
For audiences that appreciate Hadžihalilović’s vision, the first encounter will not satisfy. A repeat viewing will be needed to scrutinise and explore the mysteries and ambiguities that are left unanswered. Encountering Earwig is like being lost in a dream that only makes sense in the immediacy of the experience. There are moments that coincide with the stirring from sleep before the dream’s believability begins to fade.
A subversive piece of filmmaking, the storytellers refuse to offer answers in a time when audiences’ concentration span is shortening and spectatorship is passive. Hadžihalilović doesn’t care enough to quibble over such tedious things, and even if confounding, hers is a welcome strong vision.
Cinema is about ideas, and while it draws from reality, we must separate the two and forget what’s possible. As adults, we’re analytically led, dependent on a grounded sense of belief that limits our capacity to suspend our disbelief. Children mould the world around them, but the adult mind thwarts this imagination. Films like Earwig challenge us to discover our inner child.
Hadžihalilović and her cinematographer Jonathan Riquebourg create a deceptively tangible world – it seems real enough that we could reach through the screen and touch it. The haunting vibe is constructed through a meticulous focus on the image, sound, and lighting. The sound design and the score is exquisite, the title music alone possesses a sadness, a longing that pulls on the heartstrings.
Indeed, Earwig immediately announces itself as a deeply emotional film, and it continues to build on this first impression. One of the striking aspects of the film is the finger circling the rim of the glass, the light refracting set to the main musical theme. Glass becomes a conductor for hypnotic sounds, creating the otherworldly feel as much as the awkward relationships between the characters.
Unlike David Lynch’s work that explores dreamscapes and presented puzzle boxes that teased an answer, there’s every chance that Earwig leans into the pure and inexplicable dream logic. Yes, it will polarise audiences, but for those that connect with the film, the connection will be a deeper one for its commitment to conveying its hallucinatory dreamscape. The question, however, is who’s the dreamer? It could as easily be the filmmaker’s own nightmare as Albert’s, or perhaps it’s an ambiguous dreamer we’ve not met.
The director and co-writer interrupt the intriguing relationship of Albert and Mia, when one fateful night in a bar he crosses paths with a woman (Romola Garai), who falls under the care of a mysterious man (Alex Lawther). If a nightmare, Earwig reads as a story about gender relationships – vulnerable femininity, women cared for by men, creeping out of the crevices of gender conflict and politics that still troubles society. It’s difficult to dissect the themes within Earwig because of its secrecy. Beneath it all lies an anxiety about human relationships, particularly the paternal.
Hadžihalilović and Cox never intended to offer a traditional narrative, and they succeeded in crafting a film that will flummox even its most ardent of supporters. Designed to provoke a response, it’s a powerful piece of aesthetic art. Audiences should exercise caution against a hasty judgement. Instead, they should absorb the film’s merging of art and dreams, free of restrictive narrative constructs and a need for explanation.