TIFF 2021 reviewer’s notebook: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s earwig
Lucile Hadzihalilovic*‘s Ear piercing is, in general terms, synopsisable with the same sentence as its first two lines, Innocence and Evolution: a child (or a group of children) grows up voluntarily isolated from the rest of the world under the watchful eyes of guardians with ambivalent motives, themselves operating under the direction of obscure masters. The intentions are unclear, but the core fears – of puberty, of parents, of the body and its sexual conditioning as an adult – remain clear and similar. The visual approach is still that of the visual language of horror without its traditional jerky sound components, i.e. long walks down grimly lit hallways or stairwells, not suddenly violent sounds. When I asked Hadzihalilovic about this in 2015, she explained to me that “surprise or catharsis with a very loud sound or a very graphic image, it does not exist. To me, it’s like a fear, and the threat is always there. In a nightmare, it is above all a matter of not having catharsis.
This is Hadzihalilovic’s first English-language film, a pandemic production that began filming in November of last year. These factors aren’t as important as they might be to other filmmakers: she was never geared towards dialogue, preferring instead a layered atmospheric malaise, nor aimed at naturalistic performances – in any case, I doubt. that it has more than 100 lines. The pandemic factor, too, is imperceptible without basic knowledge: Hadzihalilovic’s previous studies, taken in isolation, make her perfectly suited to the peculiarities of production at the time. Ear piercingOther new features of ‘s include graphic images (an act of violence in the middle of the film and its surprising ending) and a change in primary perspective from child to guardian – here, Aalbert (Paul Hilton), in charge of s ‘take care of Mia (Romane Hemelaers). Like his previous films, Ear piercing first establishes, then disrupts with the looming threat of the outside world, an airtight set of daily rituals, here charged by the inevitably sinister visual nature of orthodontics: Aalbert’s work has something to do with making series teeth from Mia’s mouth. One day, his masters’ phone call (sounding like they’re calling from Gray Lodge, deep voices against vinyl crackles and obscure jazz notes) informs Aalbert that it’s time to get Mia ready to leave their home. cloistered dwellings and put it back.
I never figured out for myself what was going on with those teeth or how the titular earwig works metaphorically (although the insect does show up), let alone how Aalbert and Mia actually crossed paths. with the other characters finally introduced. These questions are presumably somewhat explained in the source novel by Brian Catling, which I read afterwards and gleaned some details (Aalbert is a veteran, nicknamed “Earwigs” for his extraordinary hearing skills; for a some reason, his task is to make teeth out of Mia’s frozen saliva). As it is, Ear piercing is both clear in its overall trajectory (in line with Innocence and Evolution) while being just precise enough about many plot elements that are allegorically obscure without bringing any suggestive mystery into their lack of intention – these are just details that extend the runtime.
Nonetheless, even in the weakest of his three traits to date, it was a quiet pleasure to be back in the distinct world of Hadzihalilovic. Ear piercing claims all the characteristic virtues of Hadzihalilovic, that aforementioned sense of how to create visual horror in interiors beautifully graduated among them. Her sense of sonic suspense is subtle and fair: when Mia is having a drink in a cupboard, you can strain for a sudden crash, but Hadzihalilovic cuts off outside the hallway first, and only then do we. let us hear his fall, suitably muffled but no less tense for that. In a series of very close-up and dimly lit close-ups, we see Aalbert from above and in profile, his hands on his forehead; As the furrows become noticeable, it’s like one of Claire Denis’ patented calculators redesigned for anxiety rather than sensuality.
There are other extraordinary images throughout: a dying woman’s eyes roll back as her lids recede until only her whites gaze out; a series of pictures of nocturnal ghost cars of a train sinking deeper into a hazy night as electrical wires become less and less visible in the distance. (Grays and blacks are, to say the least, not suitable for online streaming compression – Hadzihalilovic has full control over his picture and sound.) By Augustin Viard, produced by Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis), a worm of ambient ear of which I would like a file at the moment. Now 60 years old and with only three feature films in her career, Hadzihalilovic is one of the very few filmmakers to call herself a “Lynchian”, and I hope she returns more often.
* Previously Hadžihalilović — his new movie title cards remove accents, so I am.