Some directors are prolific, others not so much. With only three feature films released in two decades, Hadzihalilovic clearly belongs to the latter category. It's a shame to see a talented voice struggle to get their films made, on the other hand, it does turn the releases of these films into special events. And truth be told, the commercial prospects of Hadzihalilovic's films are probably pretty fickle regardless. That doesn't mean they're not worth seeking out, so far each Hadzihalilovic film I've seen has been a real treat. I'm glad to say Earwig is no exception, though it's certainly not her most accessible work.
Hadzihalilovic loves to work on that particular edge where arthouse and genre meet. She tilts slightly more towards the arthouse side, so purer genre fans might end up too bored or puzzled by her films, but there are plenty of mystery and fantasy elements within her work that should speak to more adventurous audiences. With Earwig she seems to be taking things one step further, boldly accentuating both arthouse and genre elements, creating an even bigger tension between the two. It's equally frustrating as it is intriguing and appealing, making for a film that is unique and distinctive, without feeling too crazy or otherworldly.
Hadzihalilovic's films are generally quite slow and impenetrable, but while watching them, a firmer and clearer premise tends to crystalize. That doesn't mean she likes to provide all the answers, but on a very basic level, her films tend to make sense. I will say I never quite got that from Earwig. New elements that were introduced along the way usually just confused me even more, to the point where I stopped trying to tie everything together and simply enjoyed the mystery and intrigue they added to the film. This is sure to put off a big part of the audience, then again, there are more than enough straightforward narratives out there already.
The plot revolves around Mia, a little girl with no teeth, who is given prostheses made from her own frozen spit. She is brought up by Albert, a guardian who tends to her every need, though Mia's upbringing is very strict and completely removed from other people. One day Albert gets a call from his bosses, telling him it is time for Mia to return home. He has to prepare Mia for a life outside the comfort of her little bubble, but Albert has some issues of his own he needs to deal with. Mia's first steps into the world are messy and slowly Albert's sanity starts to slip.
Much like her other work, Earwig isn't a film that looks particularly dazzling or overwhelming, even so, the level of finish is extremely impressive. Every shot feels deliberate, framed with intent, and graded with exactly the right color/light balance. Hadzihalilovic likes her films dark and moody, but it never comes off dim or unpronounced. Extra kudos for getting someone like Marc Caro to design the unique dentures, it's details like these that bring life to the genre aspect of the film. While I generally prefer more in-your-face cinematography, I can't help but be in awe of the visual detail and polish here.
The score on the other hand could've been a bit edgier. You're already thinning out potential viewers with slow pacing and a puzzling narrative, so I don't see any reason to hold back on the music. Not that it is bad, mind. It's a very moody score with a fair few highlights, confidently establishing and directing the atmosphere, but I feel the potential was there to take it further still. There's a little grit and unease missing, just a bit of extra tweaking, a touch of distortion here and there to accentuate the dark and mysterious atmosphere running underneath. I realize I'm nitpicking here, but it's only because Hadzihalilovic herself raised the bar so much elsewhere.
The cast is a pretty varied bunch and does great under the circumstances. Their performances are very muted and restrained, but that is clearly what was expected from them. Don't go looking for too many free-roaming emotions or sentimental cues, as there are close to none. While a lot is brewing right underneath the skin of the characters, the most important clues are found in exterior elements. It creates a distance for the audience, but it also adds to the mystery and intrigue. So while not everyone will appreciate the choices made, I do feel it makes for a better film.
Earwig is a show-don't-tell type of film, its biggest obstacle is that what it shows isn't immediately and/or staggeringly clear. If you expect a film to explain itself, to be logical and fully contained, then watching Earwig is going to pose some serious challenges. That said, mystery and fantasy elements generally thrive due to a lack of clear reason and understanding. I have no issue admitting the film left me largely puzzled after it ended, it's just that I consider that a plus, especially as it made the experience while watching all the more intriguing. Your mileage may vary, so make sure you know what you're getting yourself into.
Three films isn't a whole lot, but it's enough for Hadzihalilovic to show that she has range, as well as a recognizable signature. Earwig is unmistakably a Hadzihalilovic film, while also offering something a little different from her previous work. It's an exuberant mood piece that dares to be bewildering, that isn't afraid to challenge its audience and that marries operational excellence with vision and creativity. It's not the most accessible or obvious film, but more audacious film fans will find something that whets their appetite. All I hope is that she can find a way to increase her output, the worst thing about Hadzihalilovic's oeuvre are the lengthy gaps between her films.