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Earwig review – oppressively atmospheric and dream-like fable

Writer-director Lucile Hadžihalilović spins a slow-burning, narratively elusive mood piece about a girl with teeth made of ice

The French filmmaker Lucile Hadžihalilović doesn’t make films often – this is just her third feature since her debut Innocence in 2004 – but each one is recognisably the work of an auteur with a singular style, from which she will do very little to compromise or budge.

Earwig takes place in a world that is stale, sickly and always underlit, where the daytime seems to last 10 minutes and the nighttime lasts forever. The wood-panelled interior of the house where most of the film is located doesn’t seem to have ever had a window opened. A blink-and-miss-it moment places the setting sometime in England in the mid-1950s, but this could easily be 1900, 1920, or even 1800, so arcane, closed-off and unerring is the carefully-built atmosphere.

Shot by cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg, the film continually returns to images of light refracted through glass, or to city streets devoid of street lights, or to oppressive, icy, early morning fog (some of the outdoor scenes are reminiscent of the deeply unsettling moods of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now).

There is technically a plot here, but it is minimal: we follow a young girl (Romane Hemelaers) with no teeth, who has dentures made of ice fitted daily by her caretaker (Paul Hilton). One day, a mystery voice on the phone orders the girl to be delivered elsewhere. There is also a violent encounter with a barmaid (Romola Garaï) in a pub, but it’s not obvious what link this has to the rest of the film.

Perhaps looming somewhere here is a metaphor about emotionally distant men taking care of women whilst using that duty of care to limit and restrict their freedom. Yet the film’s slow pace and arcane style denies us such satisfactory metaphorical resolutions. The mood becomes one of a deeply unsettling dream – not a nightmare from which you wake up screaming, but an unnerving half-memory of a dream that stares back at you in your morning coffee, aided by a droning, woozy score written by Augustin Viard, with help from Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis.

Finessing such a unique and tricky atmosphere is no mean feat, and that Earwig is able to pull it off so completely and entirely is to be applauded. Those searching for a plot to latch onto will be left sorely disappointed: the two threads that Earwig follows never really align in any clear way, and one senses that the script was left undeveloped, functioning instead as a stage for Hadžihalilović’s aesthetic approach. Yet when that approach is so all-encompassingly oppressive and unerring, it’s impossible not to fall in line with this director's vision.

Earwig is released in UK cinemas on 10 June.

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