A Mysterious Pathway Into a Tormented Mind: Lucile Hadzihalilovic on Her Trance-Like Psychological Drama, Earwig
A young girl with melting ice for teeth bound to a mysterious protector, an older man who drains and refreezes those teeth each day — such a scenario, found in artist Frank Catly’s 2019 novel Earwig, provides the perfect source material for French filmmaker Lucile Hadžihalilović, whose films depict the uncanny transformations of adolescence in startling, near-surreal ways. In 1994’s medium-length La Bouche de Jean-Pierre, a teenage girl, ensconced at her aunt’s following her mother’s suicide attempt, is subjected to the menacing gaze of her aunt’s abusive boyfriend. In her feature debut, 2004’s Innocence, adapted from Frank Wedekind’s novella, Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, puberty and the performance of gender is taught and ritualized at a girl’s school where young pupils arrive in coffins. And in Evolution, her follow-up, just over a decade later and based on an original script, a young boy is the protagonist, dropped off at a futuristic hospital near the sea where operations cause boys to grow fetuses — a story that also involves amphibious nurses and a possible conspiracy of mothers.
If Hadžihalilović swapped the gender of her protagonists in Evolution, in her latest, Earwig, adapted by Geoff Cox and the director, she shifts her focus from children to adults. The latter are mysteriously motivated figures in the director’s previous work; here it’s the child whose provenance and needs form a kind of puzzle for middle-aged Albert (dubbed “Earwig” in the book, a nickname earned during World War 2). As long as Albert can spend his days caring for the girl, and payment is regularly sent by off-screen employers, he’s able to live his life in a kind of reassuring stasis. But when he’s informed that in a short while his services will no longer be needed, that the girl will be transferred out of his care, Albert enters a psychological spiral, with visions of the past (some involving a woman who may be his wife and the actual mother of this child) colliding with a Mephistophelian figure able to awaken a violence that lurks within him.
About Albert’s world, Hadžihalilović says in our conversation below, “He’s confused between reality, dreams and hallucination. I really wanted the film to be like his dreams, or his nightmare, and to put the audience in that position.” Taking place within a depopulated small city somewhere in the mid-20th century, one with dark, green-hued interiors seen through director and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg’s artfully arranged planes of shadow and light, Earwig proceeds as if in a trance, capturing the eerie feelings of a disquieting nightmare half-remembered upon mid of night awakening. The pacing is deliberate, and the sonic universe is one of quietude, all to make sudden sounds — a breaking of glass, or the thrust of a knife onto skin — all the more arresting. Within a film world that overweights narrative clarity, exposition through dialogue, conventional coverage and fast cutting, Hadžihalilović’s daring, disquieting, formally rigorous work is both a welcome outlier and a much needed reminder of cinema’s power to create aesthetically seductive worlds of inner space that linger long after the lights come up.
I spoke to Hadžihalilović via Zoom, and we discussed her process of adaptation, working with her DP on the film’s dark color palette, and the virtues of allowing the audience to wonder. Awaiting a U.S. distribution deal, Earwig, which premiered in Toronto and was recently the centerpiece of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, is currently on the festival circuit.
Filmmaker: You loosely adapted a Frank Wedekind novella for your first full-length feature, Innocence, in 2004, and now Earwig is an adaptation as well, but of a fairly new novel by Brian Catling. Was this process of adaptation so many years later any different for you?
Hadžihalilović: It was a bit different because with Wedekind, it was more the setting and not so much the story. I think Earwig is somehow more a traditional adaptation, even if I changed many things — cut out some things and added others. But in both cases, what was great is that I felt very free to do what I wanted. Wedekind was dead [laughs], and for Earwig the writer was very generous. He said, “Do whatever you want and I’ll be very happy if you make it very different from the book.” That was really a gift, to have such freedom. At the end, I asked him if he was not unhappy that it was a kind of betrayal of his work, maybe, and he said, “No, it’s a transmutation,” which was very nice for him to say. What I changed a bit, maybe, in Earwig was the main character. I even invented a few things, but nevertheless I followed the main [storyline] of the book, while with Wedekind it was much more pieces and settings that I took.
Filmmaker: And in this film, Albert, the “Earwig” character, is an older man. You’d had older men in previous films going back to your first, La Bouche de Jean-Pierre. But this film is the first, I think, where the point of view of the protagonist is a man as opposed to a child or adolescent. Do you attribute that shift solely to the source material or perhaps having to do with your own interest and perspectives as you’ve gotten older?
Hadžihalilović: Maybe both. That was one thing that attracted me to the book — that, for once, the main character was an adult, and it was a man. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to invent that myself, but to find it in this book — a story told through the mind of an adult, even if that adult is not so mature, in fact. And at the same time, there are elements more familiar to me, like this young girl.
Filmmaker: Do you understand the motivations of the Earwig character in the novel, and are you doing something different with him in the film?
Hadžihalilović: I felt that I understood them because it’s literature — [reading it] I felt much more that I was inside his head. His motivations were sometimes more [like] abuse, I guess, than what’s in the film, [although] he doesn’t do any mean thing to the girl in the book. But I didn’t care really follow this kind of character — I didn’t want him to [be] perverse or too weird, so I tried to make [his behaviors] somehow more gentle than in the book. I tried to make it more acceptable for the audience, so the audience can at some point empathize with him and follow him. But also, the book was quite mysterious — this man is totally unstable and in some kind of constant metamorphosis in his mind, and that makes it sometimes hard to follow. This is something that attracts me a lot, and I didn’t mind to keep him a bit obscure, a bit opaque. I didn’t think it was important to have so much of his backstory. In the book, there’s much more of that, but what I was interested in was really the present. Also, a film can’t be [about] too many things, so I had to make some choices and to focus on what was, for me, the main story, and that was the story of the girl and his lost wife and not too much about [Albert’s] trauma from the war or from childhood. I just kept slight allusions to that. The main thing was the child. Is it her child? Is it his child? Is she real? What is real? And so on.
Filmmaker: The ice teeth is such an incredible image.
Hadžihalilović: I love that in the book, this idea, because teeth are something so solid, so essential, and at the same time, if they are ice, it’s all the opposite. This combination of fragility and something so essential was very attractive and was one of the reasons why I wanted to do the film. I wanted to see the ice teeth on screen, to see the girl. And the big surprise was when we were in prep. The person who did the prothesis made a test out of real ice to see how it would look, and it looked like almost normal teeth. That was quite a shock because everyone was so excited by the idea of the iced teeth, and then, at the end, these iced teeth were not spectacular. [They looked] almost normal. I thought, almost, that the film should not be done. And then, I thought, no, maybe the story is that it’s a man who tries to make this girl complete and for some irrational reason, or maybe just desire, he does it with ice, so it melts. He has to redo it again and again, and it’s both his burden but also maybe what he wants. He wants to look after this girl. And if the teeth wouldn’t melt, then he would have nothing to do with her. So I thought, maybe it’s a more profound deep reason for him to made these iced teeth.
Filmmaker: You’re saying that that the prosthesis made of real iced teeth did not visually look the way you imagined it would look?
Hadžihalilović: Exactly. Everyone thought it’s going to be some amazing thing, but in fact, when it’s ice, like the ice you have in your fridge, they are kind of opaque and not transparent. They look almost like real teeth, except that they melt. And then, when the dentist [in the film] comes and makes the new teeth out of glass, and they are solid, not melting, these ones are more special. So the meaning of it changed from the moment I wrote the script.
Filmmaker: In an interview on your Wikipedia, you said, “What I like in cinema is being lost. I like films I don’t completely understand so they stay with me longer after they’re over. I believe everyone can find their own stories within the film.” I want to ask you about confusion as a kind of positive value versus the value of narrative clarity. There are almost puzzles in this film that the audience can try to figure out: the role of the waitress, the recurring scene of her on the bridge, even the overall timeline of the film. And, as you say, the role of the possibly dead wife. When telling a story such as this one, what are your thoughts about how clear versus how ambiguous story points such as these should or could be?
Hadžihalilović: I wanted to make it emotionally clear, and on that level, the film is not complicated. And then, as in the book, [the character of Earwig] is lost and confused — not only in terms of emtions but also maybe he has a real mental issue. He’s confused between reality, dreams and hallucination. I really wanted the film to be like his dreams, or his nightmare, and to put the audience in that position. And also, I really wanted the film as much as possible not to be verbal because, for me, these oneiric aspects go with something visual, or with sound, but not with words. But the elements are quite simple elements: a man, a girl who could be his daughter, a lost wife, and then another woman, [who] has a kind of erotic strength. And then it’s a kind of a repetition of his nightmare. Maybe imagine that he had a wife who gave birth to a child, and we don’t know what happened to the child. And now, he has a child that he has to look [after]. He’s confused with that reality, and I wanted the audience to be also. I thought that could be exciting for the audience, to find their way, their path, into this confused mind. And I also wanted the film to be full of emotions and a kind of intensity, so even if you are lost, it would keep your interest and you would feel things and wonder what about the meaning of these details. And then you have a kind of answer later on because all the details have a reason. There is an inner coherence in the film, I hope. It’s a little universe in which I would like people to live for a while.
Filmmaker: There’s something of a point-of-view shift in the film, beginning with the waitress in the hospital. We’ve broken away from Earwig here, and there’s another man who arrives to take care of her, or who is her protector. The story goes on parallel tracks at that point, and that storyline feels more objective.
Hadžihalilović: Maybe it seems more objective to you, but it’s not really a shift for me. It’s more like a division, like the mind of this man is divided into Celeste, the waitress, and himself. It’s a trick that this weird, mysterious devilish man in the bar did. He says, “Have you ever wanted to be someone else?” And then, there is a kind of connection between the two of them [Albert and the waitress, Celeste]. And for me, Celeste’s story is a bit the extension of the inside of Albert, somehow. Maybe it’s him thinking of Celeste, and then he can’t stand the idea of dividing himself, or being someone else, and especially not this woman who maybe troubled or disturbed him for reasons you can imagine. He could even have imagined this young guy being a kind of weird protector. Also, there are a lot of echoes between Celeste and him — it’s a bit like as if Celeste was living in his mind now.
Filmmaker: What I read about the book seems to suggest that his attack on Celeste is maybe accidental. But in the film, it seems very deliberate.
Hadžihalilović: I think the film is very much a gothic tale, in a way. There are some motives that belong to this figure of the master [the man in the bar], who pushes you to some act of violence, who pushes you to remember things that you don’t want to. A devilish figure. Albert didn’t want to attack Celeste, the waitress, but unconsciously he probably did, and the man made [this] thing happen. But I don’t want to put it too much with words because I’ve tried a lot not to put words in the film. So [the attack is motivated by] a few things at the same time. There’s a confusion in Albert’s mind, he feels disturbed by the possibility of, let’s say, being someone else, and also there’s maybe the attraction that this woman creates on him. And therefore, it’s accidental and it’s not.
Filmmaker: I want to ask you about the darkness — the visual darkness, the film’s palette. The layers of light within that darkness are spectacular and feel sometimes almost at the edge of what you do in mainstream cinema right now. Could you talk about your conversations with your DP about creating this look?
Hadžihalilović: In the book [Albert and his daughter] are living in an apartment with the shutters closed. I thought it was such a strong thing to imagine these characters living in this semi-obscurity, like insects living under the walls. And so I really also wanted to be as light as possible with the [lighting equipment]. I wanted not to use any additional lights except the lights on the walls. And I wanted to close the shutters. So we made some tests with Jonathan, the DP, to see how far we could go and nevertheless have enough information in the [digital negative]. We [said], “Let’s wait for the grading to really decide how far we would like to go.” It was Fall, so there was not much light anyway, but I was so surprised how much information we coud have in the image. I think it’s also because Jonathan had been very good at choosing the parameters in the camera to get that. The idea was to have a bit of color, to not be too gray, but to have a certain complexity in the sets. And so, he worked with the art director to find exactly the proper shutters that could be opened a bit for letting the light in, the right wallpaper and so on. And we had a few references like a Danish painter, Vilhelm Hammershøi, who painted interiors that were quite empty and with a certain type of color. And we shot in ‘scope but in full frame, so we could reframe as we wanted afterwards. I was lucky with my actors — I was afraid that they would complain about the fact that we would sometimes not see so well their faces. Paul Hilton has a shape to his face and a way he moves that has some kind of expressionist aspect, and that was strong enough for me. Even if you don’t sometimes see all of his expressions in detail, you still feel something. You catch quite easily his mood. Nevertheless, we were quite careful to have the actors close to light sources, to windows. And at the grading we worked with masks.
Filmmaker: I was going to ask if you used many power windows and masks when making the digital intermediate.
Hadžihalilović: We tried to be subtle with that so you don’t [notice] that we are making a bit darker what is around him [while] we kept his face a bit less [dark].
Filmmaker: I know that your production was impacted by COVID and by the lockdowns. Did they impact the film aesthetically? The emptiness of the streets feels very much part of the film’s aesthetic, and I presume that was much easier to do.
Hadžihalilović: In fact, this idea of the emptiness was very much present from the beginning. Inside the apartment, there is almost no furniture or props. And of course, the emptiness of the streets was very important. But the bar was supposed to be crowded, and we couldn’t have a crowded bar [because of COVID]. We had many fewer extras that we wanted to have, but because it was so empty outside, when you go inside, you are so surprised to see people. So in the end, that was fine. But the idea of not hearing traffic or people outside, of meeting almost no one, that was before the lockdown.
Filmmaker: So that was easier, in a way?
Hadžihalilović: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that was easier. The only difficult thing wasn’t a problem of COVID. We had the problem of Brexit even more because we had to do the film before Brexit would become effective because we would have lost our Belgian [financing]. So it was a bit of a run against the [clock].[The shoot was pushed] because of COVID, but at the end of the year, Brexit would take the UK out of Europe. And to get the Belgian money we had to have a European film. And since most of the money came from the UK, we had to shoot when then UK was still in the European community.
Filmmaker: The score is so haunting and so simple.
Hadžihalilović: I asked Warren [Ellis] if he would like to do the music for the film before the shooting. And at the same time, I was a bit cautious because I told him I didn’t know how much music I would like to have in the film. And that maybe it’s more about texture than music. He read the script and asked me to give him a few words.
Filmmaker: What did you tell him?
Hadžihalilović: I guess something like “melancholy, childhood, solitude.” And he gave me some pieces before that were quite trippy, quite like trance. They gave me this idea of movement, like with the glasses and the carousel — I thought that I could extend those moments to [create] a real moment of trance for the character. The [theme] I have used in a repeated way is very simple, like a bit of a lullaby, and it is played on the ondes Martenot, which is a bit like a theremin, but much more subtle and rich. It sounds really out of time, I think, and that specific piece worked very well with the out of time feeling of the film. At first we used a few other [pieces of] music from Warren, but then, it seemed that it was better to use the same one, like a repetition, because this man, Albert, is trapped in his head. And it goes quite well with the minimalism of the film.
Filmmaker: The film feels very much like an act of resistance to many of the pressures of the streaming age — at least the trends impacting filmmakers in the United States, where so many are shifting their sights to television. In its look and pacing Earwig very much demands to be seen in cinemas. As a filmmaker, a French filmmaker, I’m interested in where you feel cinema is going. Do you see what you are doing as resisting these sort of business trends, or are you just doing what you’re doing and not really thinking in these terms?
Hadžihalilović: It’s not only in the States, it’s in France and Europe where a certain type of cinema is disappearing. I’m sure there is still an audience for it, but it’s true there is less space for these films. And [audiences] are really being affected by the narrative aspect of series — they are waiting always for things to be said, things to be clear, to be told quickly what’s the idea of it. This is really not what cinema is for me. For me, it’s a physical experience — with visuals and sound, but an experience. And rather than you are being told some story, it’s more about ideas. Yeah, there is something which has disappeared, for sure.