From its opening shot — a close-up of the nautilus-like curl of a human ear — Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Earwig” sets out to unsettle, slowly burrowing its way into our brains by any orifice it can. Not quite a horror film, this sometimes freaky, often frustrating third feature from the French art-house director of twisted socialization tales “Innocence” and “Evolution” (better known in some quarters as the producer and partner of Gaspar Noé) is light on dialogue and therefore, largely lacking in explanations for the haunting ideas in store.
Hadzihalilovic is a master of atmosphere and tone, but someone not terribly interested in good, old-fashioned narrative. This project, which she liberally adapted from a short surrealist novel by retired English art professor B. Catling, trades in the imagery of dreams. “Earwig” subscribes to their logic as well, all but daring audiences not to fall asleep in their seats as it lulls them deeper into a kind of hypnotic trance. And then, every so often, just when you start to drift, something comes along to jar you awake, like the graphic strangling of a black cat or the business with the girl’s teeth.
That nightmare surfaces early. The movie’s main character, an awkward man with knobby joints and sunken cheeks named Albert Scellinc (Paul Hilton), serves as a caretaker of sorts for a quiet child named Mia (Romane Hemelaers). In an early scene, she sits obediently in a room while Albert adjusts the elaborate dental appliance fitted to her face. Vials on either side of Mia’s mouth collect her saliva, which Albert empties into crescent-shaped molds and stores in a small refrigerator — the only remotely modern device in the whole film (unless a rotary phone counts).
Albert’s task, performed with great care, is to provide the girl with a fresh set of ice-cold teeth every few hours. Why? That mystery is never addressed or answered — but then, it’s no more macabre than cementing metal braces to a teenager’s mouth in the real world, and much less scary than the double row of choppers that come up if you do a Google search for “child skull teeth.” In this context, however, it’s one of those disturbing details audiences won’t soon forget, even long after the rest of “Earwig” has faded to vapor in their memories.
Little else in the film is so effective at making us squirm, though there is a scene in a bar in which a stranger provokes Albert into a fight and the man jams a broken bottle into the face of the barmaid (Romola Garaï) he secretly adores. The act is so suddenly, terribly violent, it could leave scars — on her, of course, but on audiences’ psyches as well. The rest of “Earwig” demands a patience rare among moviegoers, and more uncommon still in a home-viewing environment.
Mia spends her hours in a dark flat with few furnishings and shutters drawn, cut off from the outside world. She examines bugs, picks at loose wallpaper and stares at a seemingly meaningful oil painting of a white mansion that, if our eyes do not deceive, changes slightly every time we see it. Mia takes crystal goblets from Albert’s cabinet and holds them up to the dull, cider-yellow light, marveling at the abstract prism in her hands, while Albert uses a glass of his own, pressed up against the wall, to eavesdrop on what she’s doing.
The production design is brown and somber, like the backgrounds of certain Flemish paintings, and the mostly indoor action mundane and repetitive, like the rituals observed in Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” Catling’s novel is set in the town of Liège, and the film was shot in Belgium, the brain center of surrealist art and home to René Magritte, James Ensor and Paul Delvaux. Hadzihalilovic’s film embraces that tradition, though she never specifies when or where the story (if one can call it that) takes place.
Ambiguity serves as one of her tools, for in the vast crevasses of mystery, audiences may supply whatever meaning makes sense to them. Or not. “Earwig” teeters on the brink of ennui for most of its taxing two-hour running time, asking us to care about characters the film hasn’t really defined. In one scene, we stare at them for minutes on end as their eyes droop and their train chugs forward into the twilight.
Mia was abandoned as an infant and entrusted to Albert, who was married once, we learn. He still dreams of his wife, imagining that she is approaching him from across the lawn in the final scene, which takes place in front of the same building earlier seen in the oil painting. Hadzihalilovic hasn’t included enough of their backstory for this climactic sleight of hand to work, though it sets up one last shock. From a distance, it looks as if the man and woman are embracing, when in fact, she is devouring his cheek with a set of very real teeth. Read into that what you will. I haven’t a clue what it means.