September 12, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed European country in the late 1950s, the horror film “Earwig” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A widowed former soldier, who has raised his young daughter ever since her mother died in childbirth, prepares to give up custody to her to some mysterious people.
Culture Audience: “Earwig” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of artistic European horror films that take their time in unveiling clues to the mystery and don’t let the narrative unfold in a conventional way.
If you prefer fast-paced horror movies with a lot of gore or jump scares, then “Earwig” might not be your cup of tea. But if you’re a horror movie fan who is open to a Gothic-influenced European story that doesn’t easily reveal the answers to the story’s mystery, then “Earwig” is a compelling option. “Earwig” director Lucile Hadžihalilović and Geoff Cox co-wrote the movie’s slow-burn screenplay, which they adapted from Brian Catling’s 2019 novel of the same name. “Earwig” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
The first 20 minutes of “Earwig” don’t have a lot of dialogue and is a bit repetitive in showing the home life of a 50-year-old former soldier named Albert Scelline (played by Paul Hilton) and his daughter Mia (played by Romane Hermelaers), who is about 7 or 8 years old. The movie takes place in an unnamed European country in the late 1950s. Albert is a somber loner who has kept Mia isolated in their apartment for her entire life.
Mia is mute, but she can occasionally be heard humming music. She also has an unusual physical characteristic: Mia has teeth made of glass. It’s never explained why she has such an unusual mouth, but Albert has to make custom-fitted teeth for her out of glass and replace the teeth on a fairly regular basis.
Glass is lovingly and sometimes obsessively inspected and perused by Albert, Mia and, by extension, director Hadžihalilović. The Scelline household has a cabinet filled with various drinking glasses. Albert and Mia like to take glasses out of this cabinet just to stare at these drinking utensils. The movie’s striking cinematography by Jonathan Ricquebourg frequently uses a technique taking some of the colored glasses and using them as a way to frame and morph visuals in a scene.
Albert also uses a drinking glass as a sound conductor when he places the glass on Mia’s bedroom door, in order to eavesdrop on his daughter’s non-verbal noises. (She has a habit of grinding her glass teeth, another sign of the characters’ fixation on glass.) And when any of the drinking glasses get broken in the household, Albert meticulously wraps each shard of glass inside a page from a newspaper.
Viewers soon find out how isolated Mia is during a phone conversation that Albert for his first lines of dialogue in the movie. He gets a phone call from an unidentified man, who asks Albert: “How’s the girl?” Albert replies, “Everything is well, sir.”
The caller than tells Albert: “There will be no future payments. You must start preparing the girl to leave. You will bring her to us on the 6th of next month—in 13 days’ time. In the meantime, you must teach her how to behave outside.”
It’s soon shown that Mia has never worn shoes or socks before Albert follows the orders to prepare her to go outside for the first time in her life. On their first outing, Mia is both hesitant and in awe of what she’s seeing. When she and Albert go to a creek area, she is so fascinated with the water that she dives head first into it and seems to almost drown.
Why was Albert being paid to take care of his own daughter? Why is he giving up custody of her so easily? Who are the people who are making these demands? Those questions are answered in the movie, but not in an obvious way. Observant viewers will start to suspect the reason for this unusual child custody arrangement. The reason is confirmed in the last 10 minutes of the film.
Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that Albert encounters some other people during the 13 days in which he prepares to give up custody of Mia. A pivotal scene happens at a pub, where Albert is joined by a creepy unnamed stranger (played by Peter Van Den Begin), who invites himself to sit at the same table as Albert. Even though Albert clearly wants to be left alone, the stranger starts saying things to Albert that make Albert very uncomfortable.
The stranger is well-acquainted with the pub waitress who serves them. Her name is Celeste (played by Romola Garai), who ends up being the target of Albert’s rage when he suddenly lashes out her. Albert breaks a beer bottle and viciously stabs Celeste on her right cheek before he runs away. Albert is not arrested for this crime because Celeste doesn’t press charges.
Celeste ends up in a hospital, where her medical expenses are paid for by another enigmatic man named Laurence (played by Alex Lawther). Meanwhile, as Albert continues to prepare to give up custody of Mia, she gets a new set of glass teeth from a dentist (played by Michael Pas), which is the first time that someone other than Albert has given her a new set of teeth. Mia also adopts a black cat that adores her but hisses in the presence of Albert.
Some of the biggest clues to the mystery in “Earwig” can be found in the flashback scenes with Albert and his wife Marie (played by Anastasia Robin), who had a happy marriage with him. In fact, the only time that Albert is seen smiling is in a flashback with Marie. This marital bliss serves as a motivation and catalyst for much of what happens to Albert and the decisions that he made in his life.
“Earwig” is not the type of movie that will be remembered less the actors’ performances (which are perfectly adequate) and more for the way the story can be unpeeled in layers. “Earwig” composer Augustin Viard’s chilling piano-based score enhances the mood of growing dread that spreads throughout the film. It’s the type of spooky movie where even when it’s daylight, the sun doesn’t shine too brightly.
Viewers need patience and a keen sense of observation to understand what “Earwig” director Hadžihalilović is conveying with the dark secrets that are eventually revealed in this story. It’s the type of movie where a lot can be deciphered by what’s implied but not portrayed on screen. What “Earwig” shows in a very shrouded and haunting way is that people can sometimes go to extremes to have some moments of happiness, even if most of their lives are plagued by misery.