Teeth made of ice play a key role in the book-to-film adaptation “Earwig,” Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s English-language debut.

But when the Gallic director saw how normal the teeth that her props team created for the film looked, she fell into a panic. “I thought the film was over,” she told Variety. “I had imagined something much more spectacular.”

The development, however, helped her understand the central character of Earwig/Albert (Paul Hilton). He is hired to look after a little girl, Mia (Romane Hemelaers), and change the ice teeth she wears that are made from her frozen saliva, each night.

“Then I thought the story is not about the fetishist thing with the ice, but more about the man that wanted to make this girl complete by giving her teeth,” she says. “But for some crazy reason, he made the teeth of ice so he has to make them again and again and again. I love the idea of making this girl complete, but that it’s like a myth to re-do it again and again. It’s not maybe conscious that it’s the wrong way, maybe it’s the right way for him because it means he has to care for her.”

The film is an adaptation of British sculptor and artist Brian Catling’s 2019 novel of the same name.

“Earwig” made its European premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Official Selection. It made its world premiere at Toronto in the Platform section.

The setting for this strange relationship is a shuttered house, somewhere in mid-20th century Europe. “Earwig” was shot in Belgium in November 2020, postponed from an April shoot date, thanks to the pandemic.

Hadzihalilovic co-wrote the script with U.K. screenwriter Geoff Cox, who introduced her to the book ahead of its publication.

“The book is Catling’s dream and we dreamed upon his dream. We tried to keep this dream logic. It’s a way to find pleasure in your nightmares,” she says.

In keeping with the director’s dialogue-light approach to filmmaking, the Gothic images and sounds carry this cinematic journey, rather than language. The first word spoken is 30 minutes into the film.

“For me, cinema is a non-verbal form of expression and I try to make it as non-verbal as possible,” she says. “I try not to put words because then it’s a kind of control and this guy doesn’t control anything. There is a problem with Mia’s mouth so somehow she doesn’t speak. You do not know why. There is something that prevents him talking, and therefore creating more logic, so there’s more chaos in the mind of this man.”

“Earwig’s” gothic look is helped by the fact that no additional lighting was used for the shoot.

“In the book, this man was living in an apartment with the shutters closed. I wanted no additional light in order to have semi-obscurity. We wanted to be at the limit of that obscurity. The DP, Jonathan Ricquebourg, was not afraid of trying this but it was a challenge for him,” she says.

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Courtesy of Anti-Worlds, Petit Film and Frakas Productions

As for the choice of language: “I was not so sure at the beginning about French or English, but I thought the English would understand the film more than the French who are very rational,” she says. “I think that British literature is more metaphorical, and that this is more difficult to understand in French culture. To play with fantasy fits more with British or American culture, whereas in France, it’s more about rationality and talking about things.”

Wild Bunch International is selling the U.K.-France-Belgium production. The film is produced by Anti-Worlds, Petit Film and Frakas Productions.