When talking about dreams, they often only make sense to the storyteller. We dream of things that cannot be explained, that do not make sense in the real world. They can haunt us, follow us around for days, or revisit us again once we close our eyes. This is the essence of Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Earwig. With almost no dialogue and an exquisitely unsettling sound design, the film slowly drags you through an experience that can only be likened to dreaming — or being trapped in a nightmare you can’t wake up from.
The plot itself is quite bare, and describing it sounds like trying to explain your own dream to someone: A young girl (Romane Hemelaers) has ice cubes for teeth. Albert (Paul Hilton) meticulously takes care of her. He is cold to her, and they rarely speak as he replaces her teeth each day with new frozen “dentures” made from her own saliva as her teeth melt off each day. The apartment is bare and nondescript, save for a painting that the young girl, Mia, seems to be fixated on. Albert receives phone calls every day inquiring about her well-being. These are the details that are presented to the audience with no further explanation. The rest is for us to figure out.
Earwig is an experience. It is extremely slow with little structure or plot, yet every frame is immensely interesting, keeping the audience’s attention. Deep, shadowy lighting obscures the characters as they walk about Albert’s bare apartment. Eyes are hard to make out at times. The almost ghostly cinematography is accompanied by piercing sound design. Each time Albert removes a mechanism from Mia’s mouth, you can hear her lips smacking together. People eating turns into an uncomfortable feast for the ears as you hear the characters chew over everything else. Teeth grinding together, rain plopping on the cobblestone — everything is disturbingly noticeable.
These pieces come together to create the unnatural atmosphere that persists throughout the film. As the plot brings up more disturbing points and becomes increasingly less coherent, the mood remains consistent. The effect is a disconnection from reality, as the film truly feels like being trapped in a dream with disjointed logic. Dread seeps into every scene. Motives are unexplained, just the same as the people behind the phone calls Albert continues to receive. Attempting to figure out why these things are happening is pointless — they are not meant to be explained.
Apart from these atmospheric qualities, the film does feature quite a few disturbing, horrific scenes. Although there is little gore, the violence and distressing behavior are still unnerving. The way they are presented is what makes them the most disturbing: there is no explanation for violent outbursts, only acceptance as the story moves on to the next scene. The manor in which these scenes are presented only add to the overall feeling of surrealness.
The obscureness of the film might work for some, yet might be too off-putting for others; the slow pacing can also make it an arduous watch. If you let yourself be taken by the film, however, it could lead to a nightmarish experience that will haunt you for days. The different objects and pieces of story presented in the film will not be explained to you, instead allowing you to interpret them for yourself — much like your own dreams. Hadžihalilović’s world she has created in Earwig is entirely unsettling, and even if the lack of a cohesive plot puts off viewers, the impression the atmosphere leaves after watching is impressive. From the very beginning, it truly feels like you are entering a dream. If you give yourself to the film, there are threads left for you to unravel. They may not be able to be fully undone, but to attempt to is to attempt to understand your own subconscious or unconscious thoughts.