Berlinale FF 2021

The Girl and the Spider review – the Zürchers create magic out of nothing

This inspired exercise in the power of staging and editing, set within a series of Swiss apartments, is equal parts comic and heartbreaking

One year into our Covid-19 reality, it is now considered disorienting when two people stand in close proximity to one another on screen. In Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s The Girl and the Spider, the narrow corridors and tight rooms of one Swiss apartment become so crowded with bodies that it begins to feel like a film occupied by anti-maskers.

Ramon Zürcher’s debut feature, The Strange Little Cat, was the toast of Berlinale 2013. It reoriented domestic space to make small movements seem vast and was held together with a wry sense of slapstick humour. In his follow-up, The Girl and the Spider, made with his brother co-directing, this extreme style reaches expansive new heights.

It begins in close-up. Mara (Henriette Confurius) is anxious: her roommate Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out. At the new place, her mother Astrid (Ursina Lardi, recognisable from Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon) helps to unpack while decorators roll in to fix the place up some. The apartment suddenly turns into an open space where the residents of the neighbouring homes, including curious children, horny single mothers, and slobbery dogs, enter and leave at will.

But while there is often little more to a scene than a Jack Russell stealing a bathroom sponge, it would be impossible to characterise The Girl and the Spider as slow-paced. Each moment of human connection is charged with such swooning emotion. Furtive glances of curiosity, attraction, and jealousy constantly force the viewer to recontextualise what they are looking at and how the characters feel about each other.

The Zürchers begin almost every scene by showing one action, such as workman drilling or taking out the trash, before a reverse shot reveals that we have been watching from another character's point-of-view. Then the next shot reveals that they, too, are being looked at. And so on the game goes. This simple film grammar extends the characters’ interest in each other from a Humans of New York-like cheesefest to a more ironic observationism that breaks down social codes. When Astrid asks if she has herpes, Mara grins, “Yes!” It's this generosity of spirit that prevents the film’s meandering nature from ever losing its path.

These moments are captured with bright sunlight bursting through gorgeous wide windows. The photography by Alexander Haßkerl has a Berlin School sheen to it, suggesting the influence of Angea Schanalec and Christian Petzold. Not bad points of reference by any stretch, but the Zürchers are doing their own thing. They use minutely precise framing and gestures to erupt set-piece after set-piece. Some comic, some heartbreaking, all fascinating.

When the girls have a night out to celebrate, and characters start swapping beds, the film takes genuine pause to understand their mood, even when motivations remain mysterious. And Lisa, whose sneering countenance only grows over the film’s running time, proves herself to be the cinematic villain of the year. The Girl and the Spider shows how the power of editing and staging can be used to create magic out of almost nothing. In the process, the Zürchers remind us of that core cinematic truth: where eyes go, we follow.

The Girl and the Spider was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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