Of all the locations one could possibly choose to stage modern relationship movies, cramped apartments surely rank as just about the least cinematic option. But that hasn’t stopped Swiss helmer Ramon Zürcher (“The Strange Little Cat”) from willingly embracing such boxy, where-to-place-the-camera confines yet again for his second feature, “The Girl and the Spider,” or from concocting clever ways to use such spaces to reveal the inner lives of his characters. Zürcher’s movies are like prisms, capturing the things people do when they think no one’s watching … and when they desperately wish they were.
His latest, co-directed with twin brother Silvan (a producer on “Cat” but a full-blown creative partner here), is all about the feelings that arise — more often implied rather than articulated in words — when Lisa (Liliane Amuat) abandons her roommates to rent her own flat. Amid all the commotion of the move, Mara (Henriette Confurius) doesn’t quite know what to do with herself, sulking on the sidelines, picking at a hangnail. She and Lisa were evidently more than just friends, though it’s left deliberately abstruse — a lot like the herpes blister on her upper lip, which transfers from Mara to Lisa midway through the film, its significance uncertain but striking all the same.
Back in 2013, the Zürchers intrigued festival audiences by taking a seemingly generic German family and analyzing everyone crowded into a single apartment — the kids, the adults and, yes, even their aloof orange cat. Rather than being limited by a shared space where privacy was scarce and everyone seemed to be stepping on one another’s toes, Ramon (who helmed that film) pioneered a novel cinematic language largely of his own invention, where plot seemed incidental while the characters’ interior lives became the primary focus.
With “The Girl and the Spider,” he and Silvan develop that approach further, and to even more enigmatic effect, mining pockets of tension in seemingly innocuous situations. In what they’re describing as the second film in “a loose trilogy about human togetherness,” the logistics of Lisa’s move don’t interest the twin helmers nearly as much as the micro-dramas it creates: jealousy, seduction, abandonment, betrayal. Most of these feelings are filtered through Mara’s eyes — which are easily the sullen brunet’s most striking feature, swimming-pool blue in the center, bordered by a darker, deep-sea color around the edges.
She spends much of the film peering out on the changes around her, finding idle — and occasionally destructive — distractions. While Lisa’s mother, Astrid (Ursina Lardi), and the contractors try to make fixes to the new apartment, Mara often appears to be in the way. She’s clearly not helping and in some cases, actually makes the situation worse, as when she aggravates the dog on the other side of a bathroom door, absent-mindedly gouges the new countertop or stabs a Styrofoam cup full of wine with a pencil (making the world’s worst sound in the process). There’s something off about this young woman, to the point where it’s downright unnerving to imagine what she plans to do with the box cutter.
It’s been said that all films are mysteries of a sort, and this deceptively simple-looking scenario masks myriad questions: What kind of connection exists between Lisa and Mara? How does Astrid feel about her daughter’s strange friend? And why does every look exchanged between characters have a predatory, almost sexual hunger behind it? Few directors could get away with giving audiences so little context or plot, but the Zürchers succeed in piquing our curiosity, which is all one really needs to sustain a film.
Some of these mini mysteries do have answers — like the one about whether the lonely woman in Lisa’s old building has been kidnapping the cat. (We see its fur and a cat-shaped impression on her bed, so case closed.) Others are all but impossible to untangle. For example, why does the downstairs neighbor — who abandons her crying infant to come investigate — plant a kiss on Mara’s cheek, whispering, “It’s a shame it’s not you moving in. I’m sure we would have fun together.”
There’s a refreshing (but also perplexing) sexual liberty afoot here, set in motion by the music-box whirl of Eugen Doga’s “Gramophone” waltz, which serves as a motif throughout. Many of the interactions have a curious hormonal undercurrent to them, and no one seems too concerned about class or gender barriers. Astrid flirts with the handyman (André M. Hennicke) she’s hired to fix up Lisa’s place, while his son/assistant Jan (Flurin Giger) makes awkward small talk and later shows up at a party hoping to sleep with Mara. She crushes Jan’s hopes as she would a fly, then pawns him off to her neighbor Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger Vinet) and the black widow-like Nora (Lea Draeger).
But none of these is the spider referred to in the film’s title. As in “The Strange Little Cat,” the creature is a silent side character: a disarmingly large arachnid that would probably freak out most humans but is treated here as a benign non-rent-paying bonus resident. In two separate scenes, Mara lets the spider crawl along her arm, passing it to Lisa in her new kitchen and later to a near-naked Jan — this transfer like some kind of caress, or herpes, depending on how you choose to read it.
So much of “The Girl and the Spider” is left open to interpretation, which is both the appeal and the potential frustration of the Zürchers’ deliciously ambiguous style. They frame each shot in mid to close proximity, such that it’s easy for audiences to feel blindsided by characters striding into a room or lurking just off camera — little surprises that alter not just the perspective of the scene but whose psyche the movie is considering at any given moment (as when Astrid eavesdrops on an intimate conversation between Mara and Lisa). But then, so little seems private between these people, which makes the act of spying on them doubly fascinating, for we’re privy to details no one else notices, like a spider camped out in the corner of the room.