There is in France a sign at railway crossings: “Un train peut en cacher un autre.” One train can hide another. Beyond its primary warning that travellers should exercise caution when crossing tracks because one train may conceal the approach of a second, the phrase invites multiple metaphorical interpretations. Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Earwig is a veritable marshalling yard of such elusive but interconnected meanings. You could spend your life exploring its dream logic without arriving at a definitive destination. Earwig encapsulates Ingmar Bergman’s observation that “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”1 

Dark rooms, indeed. The film is based on a novel by Brian Catling, set in the 1950s in a European city still shrouded in the misery of a world war that has left its protagonist emotionally stunted. Albert Scellinc (Paul Hilton) is employed as caretaker to a young girl called Mia (Romane Hemelaers), who may be his daughter, though if this is so, he has forgotten it. Every day he fits her with fresh dentures made from her frozen saliva, collected in a baroque dental brace. Beyond this silent ritual and mealtimes, there is little interaction between the two. The shutters are always drawn in their apartment, casting the underfurnished rooms into raw umber shadow that stirs up latent anxiety, like that triggered by the murky corners of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) or the barely glimpsed room in Réné Magritte’s La Durée poignardée (Time Transfixed, 1938), which shows a steam train emerging from a blocked-up fireplace.

 The gloom is only occasionally pierced by reflections from Albert’s glass collection, arranged in a cabinet, supplying the apartment with a rare touch of individualism. When he runs a finger around the rim of a glass it produces trancelike Ondes Martenot music and seems to open a portal into the past, generating fragmentary flashbacks of his mother, and of a wife who died, possibly in childbirth.

 For the first 24 minutes, the film’s soundtrack consists of Mia grinding her teeth, a clock ticking, the rumbling of a fridge, distant thunder, a passing train that might be a portent. The first speech we hear is when Albert receives a telephone call from his employer, instructing him to prepare Mia for departure in 13 days. The dialogue is in English, though a chiefly British cast speaks with the sort of subtle accent you might hear while travelling by tram through cosmopolitan cities such as Brussels. Instead of sounding awkward, as is sometimes the case with English dialogue in European co-productions, the odd vocal inflections add to the air of reality being slightly askew.

 As the rituals, coincidences and accumulation of symbols – glass, reflections, insects, a black cat – plunge us ever more deeply into a dream world where meaning hovers tantalisingly just out of reach, Earwig evokes a gathering sense of déjà vu. When Albert dresses Mia in a red coat prior to taking her for a walk around a nearby park, we are inevitably reminded of the drowned daughter in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), another tale of bereavement in which past, present and future bleed into one another. Mia’s outing threatens to end in similar tragedy when she is drawn to her reflection in a lake (the first time she has seen herself, since the only mirror in the apartment is in Albert’s room) and tumbles into the water. Albert hauls her out, but Mia has already passed through the looking-glass, like Alice in John Tenniel’s illustration of Lewis Carroll’s story (1871, perched on a mantelpiece not unlike the one in La Durée poignardée); from then on, the hitherto compliant girl will exhibit signs of wilfulness common to adolescents discovering their place in the world.

 Catling’s novel is explicitly set in Liège; Hadžihalilović doesn’t name her city, but filmed in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium superficially similar to France, but with enough divergence to generate an uncanny valley effect. From its idiosyncratic lighting and deserted streets (shot during the pandemic) to the “brown” bar visited by Albert and the sense of an obscure bureaucracy beavering away behind the scenes, Earwig is steeped in “Belgitude”, a semi-parodic neologism coined in the 1970s to describe the national essence. Hadžihalilović cites as visual inspiration the interiors of Danish Surrealist Vilhelm Hammershøi, but also mentions Belgian artists Fernand Khnopff and Léon Spilliaert, and often seems to be channelling Belgian Symbolism, with its depths of field framed by dark doorways, staircases and passageways, sometimes populated by elusive figures like Georges Le Brun’s L’homme qui passe (The Man Going Past, 1894). These zones of transit suggest links between different levels of consciousness, while the slow pacing encourages us to keep scrutinising the image, like Albert and Mia peering at the large house in a painting that keeps changing, like the haunted picture in M.R. James’ short story The Mezzotint (1904). There are hints of the supernatural in Earwig, and of machinations by outside parties such as the saturnine drinker in the bar, possibly the Devil, who provokes Albert into a horrific act of violence.

 It’s 90 minutes before the hidden train emerges. Albert and Mia finally leave the city, as does (separately) a barmaid whose face Albert has inadvertently disfigured, and with whom he may share a psychic, possibly sexual connection. As their train rolls through a misty landscape there is a reprise of the shimmering Ondes Martenot theme, and the sensory elements of the film click into place like points on a railway track, though we can’t be sure what that place is. The train is definitely symbolic. But of what? An inner journey? Foucaultian heterotopia?

 But never mind the meaning, feel the feeling. “I don’t like it when everything is revealed, explained,” Hadžihalilović said. “I like to have to guess, and I like to have time to feel and think.”2 The house in the painting proves to be the story’s destination, and the backdrop for another shocking act of violence. Catharsis? Karma? The fusion of id and ego? All we know for sure is there are trains coming and going, even if we can’t see them.


  1. John Berger, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” Sight and Sound, (June 1991).
  2. Lucile Hadžihalilović on Her Beguiling Film-Making,” interview by Mark Cousins. Guardian, June 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/jun/07/lucile-hadzihalilovic-on-her-beguiling-film-making-earwig-mark-cousins.

About The Author

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist, and photographer. Her books include the horror novels, Suckers, Stiff Lips, The Ex and The Coming Thing, and monographs on the films The Thing and Let the Right One In. She is a programmer for Offscreen Film Festival in Brussels, and writes regularly for The Guardian and Sight & Sound. She lives in Belgium.

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