French director Lucile Hadžihalilović is fascinated by the volatile relationship between children and the adults who care for them. Her debut feature Innocence (2004) follows young girls at a mysterious boarding school, isolated from the world until they reach a certain age. Evolution (2015) is set at a seaside community where boys are held in a hospital by a group of women who perform experiments on their bodies. In both films, the children are confused by their circumstances, while the adults never find it necessary to explain anything. Love is mostly absent, with parenthood and childhood depicted as ritualistic rather than tender. Hadžihalilović’s latest feature Earwig, her English-language debut which recently made its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, takes a different approach. It’s told from the point of view of a guardian, unhappy in his position and yearning for a way out of his responsibilities.
Albert (Paul Hilton) is tasked with the care of Mia (Romane Hemelaers), a quiet girl with ice cubes for teeth. The ice is frozen from her own saliva, and Albert must change the teeth every few hours. Aside from this contact, he keeps his distance from Mia, who spends most of her time wandering the dingy apartment they share. Albert’s only source of joy is his collection of wineglasses, which he stares at with longing. Occasionally he will pull his finger around the rim of the glasses, soothing himself with the music. Even when he isn’t touching them, the sound of humming glass permeates the score, lending the film a haunted feeling.
This is a heavily gothic movie, set in a world bathed in darkness and decay. Each scene is filtered through sickly yellow and green light, with only rare glimpses of the sky. Characters speak sparingly, and when they do the words are cryptic, minimalist whispers. Albert is especially terse and morose, haunted by the death of his wife. Though it’s not explicitly said, the shared trauma of postwar living weighs heavily on every scene. This becomes especially clear after we meet the other adult characters — the morose Celeste (Romola Garai), her implied love interest Laurence (Alex Lawther), and an enigmatic, sinister man (Peter Van Den Begin) whose provocations force Albert to reckon with his past.
Earwig is deliberately opaque, forcing the viewer to pay close attention to every detail, with no guarantee of payoff. Unlike Hadžihalilović’s other films, it never gives the child’s perspective. The audience sees Mia as Albert does, clouded by his fear of building any attachment to her. The film plays like a storybook with no narration. The story moves confidently forward, treating us to gorgeous cinematography with grand compositions. One scene in particular is an obvious homage to an iconic moment from Nicolas Roeg’s classic 1973 horror film Don’t Look Now. Despite the appearance of style over substance, at its heart Earwig is an emotionally rich look at the burden of parenting while ravaged by trauma and survivor’s guilt.