The French director discusses her haunting new English-language drama, which blends surrealism, ASMR and body horror
If you ever dream about your teeth falling out, it’s supposed to be a sign of anxiety, a fear of ageing, or an extension of the lack of control you might feel during your waking life. It could also be that you just watched Earwig, a hypnotic, haunting drama about a 10-year-old girl, Mia (Romane Hemelaers), whose teeth are made of ice and thus melt within a few hours.
Every morning, a mild-mannered, almost mute man, Albert (Paul Hilton), replaces young Mia’s disappearing gnashers with new ice cubes formed from her own saliva. No dialogue, no explanation. Then one day, Albert receives a phone call: in 13 days, he must return the girl, and in that time she must learn how to “behave outside”. Again, there’s no explanation, just a few hints that something’s deeply, deeply wrong. For instance, on a rare trip outdoors, the girl immediately attempts to drown herself in a lake.
When I speak to Lucile Hadžihalilović, the co-writer and director of Earwig, it’s in Picturehouse Central literally a minute after my interview with Gaspar Noé for Vortex. By coincidence, I’d just received a commission to write about Earwig, and as Hadžihalilović is in London with her partner, Noé, he rings her mobile and asks her to come upstairs to meet me. (During our conversation, Noé also brings her a sandwich.)
“Many of us have nightmares about teeth,” Hadžihalilović says. “Teeth are supposed to be strong and essential, but ice melts and is so fragile. I loved mixing those two ideas together. And when you’re a child, you lose your teeth to have adult teeth. It’s a metamorphosis. It’s really strange to lose your teeth. The essence of yourself could be in your teeth, because they’re so strong. And if it can melt, what does that mean?”
Hadžihalilović, a 61-year-old French filmmaker of Bosnian descent, has already directed two features just as esoteric, if not more so, than Earwig. In 2004’s Innocence, six-year-old girls arrive at a boarding school in coffins and prepare for a mysterious fate, while in 2015’s Evolution, 10-year-old boys are experimented on by women with starfish attributes. Elsewhere, she’s a producer on four of Noé’s films, she edited his early work, and she cowrote Enter the Void.
All in all, Hadžihalilović has never strived for mainstream attention, and Earwig, her English-language debut, makes little attempt to appease casual cinemagoers. If anything, it’s stranger because it’s in English. “I thought maybe British people could understand better this kind of fantasy thing much more than French people,” she says. “In the French system of funding, they don’t take this kind of film seriously.”
Hadžihalilović adapted the script from a Brian Catling novel that she assures me is just as elusive. “In the book, we don’t know more about the girl or why she has ice teeth. Brian wouldn’t tell me, either.” Instead, Catling’s prose explores Albert’s backstory and delves deeper into a subplot involving a disfigured waitress (Romola Garai) and her love interest (Alex Lawther). “But the girl is a mystery by herself. That’s the core of the film. It can’t be explained. It’s impossible.”
So is Earwig her dream logic, a translation of Catling’s dream logic, or a combination of both? “I think the main thing regarding the dream logic was the logic of time itself.” The director is especially proud that when Mia attempts to drown herself, the incident repeats itself later from another character’s perspective. “It wasn’t in the book. It breaks the logic of time. You’re not sure about when things happen, if it was before, or if it was later. Simply by repeating this moment, the whole thing becomes even more dreamy, and there’s suspicion over the timeline of everything.”
Hadžihalilović had a similarly logic-defying vision of Mia’s teeth: shiny and transparent, like a fairy tale. However, when a props person conducted tests with real ice, the director was heartbroken. “It was a big disappointment,” she says. “We all had these dreams about the ice teeth. But in fact, they look pretty similar, except that they’re melting… Ice isn’t shiny, and it’s not transparent.”
Then she had a eureka moment. “I thought: oh, the film is something different. It’s about a man trying to make a girl complete, and he never succeeds, so he has to do it again and again. It’s a burden. But maybe it’s his reason to live.” So like Munchausen syndrome by proxy? “I never thought about that. But you’re right. He doesn’t want her to be normal or complete, because then he will lose her.”
“It’s really strange to lose your teeth. The essence of yourself could be in your teeth, because they’re so strong. And if it can melt, what does that mean?” – Lucile Hadžihalilović
Otherwise, Mia is sheltered from the outside world, and the shutters are closed to prevent any natural light seeping in. “They’re like insects under wallpaper,” Hadžihalilović says. “The idea of something moving under wallpaper is like something from a nightmare.” In turn, Mia becomes immediately overwhelmed by sunlight and nature on her visit to a park. Could it be that her suicide attempt is really just her seeking indoor comforts in the water? “The whole film is oppressive and claustrophobic. When she falls into the lake, it brings her back to the inside.”
Yet Mia’s claustrophobic homelife is also hypnotic and relaxing: Albert’s teeth operation is patient, delicate, and full of odd sounds produced by tapping contraptions. As I presume everyone knows, the most popular ASMR videos tend to include mouth noises, brushing surfaces, and an extra layer of roleplay – often, for some reason, involving dentists. If Albert recorded himself, he could be hugely popular on YouTube.
Does Hadžihalilović watch ASMR? “Oui!” she exclaims. “It’s a hypnotic ritual that they’re doing together, and also towards the audience. They’re little sounds that should put you in a dreamy state.” In fact, Hadžihalilović learned about ASMR when reading an interview Peter Strickland did for In Fabric. “I consider him a cousin of mine. He’s very interested in these kinds of body sounds.”
The two filmmakers Hadžihalilović more commonly receives comparisons to, though, are David Lynch and David Cronenberg. “I understand why (journalists) do that,” she sighs. “Maybe in 20 years they’ll start saying my films are Hadžihalilovićian.”
The truth is, no one makes films like Hadžihalilović, which can be tricky for marketing. How do you sell something that’s Hadžihalilovićian? “It’s not a horror movie,” she says. “There are horror elements and fantasy elements. But it’s more an arthouse film or a film d’auteur with elements of horror.”
In response, I tell Hadžihalilović that I consider Earwig to be a body horror, just one that’s beautiful, soothing, and like ASMR. “I’m happy you say that, because I’m more interested when things are ambivalent. It’s not horror. I didn’t want the apparatus (Mia wears) to be like a torture device. I wanted it to be very nice and delicate, and even like a jewel. It’s a kind of torture, I suppose, to wear it, but it’s pleasant, and the teeth are nice. He’s very conscious, and he doesn’t hurt her.”
She pauses. “But, like you said, people have a fear of losing their teeth.”
Earwig is out in UK cinemas on June 10. Find out details about screenings and Q&As here.