The oneiric cinema of French filmmaker Lucile Hadžihalilović has earned her a critical cult following. As well as working with partner Gaspar Noé, as an editor and producer, she has forged her own creative path, directing a trio of feature-length movies to date with noticeable emphasis on portraying childhood experiences (often very dark ones). The worlds she creates are surreal, often sinister, always full of mystery. Hadžihalilović has her champions because they recognise her unique takes on exploring the confusion and strangeness of the human experience.
That she’s made 3 films in almost 20 years is the mark of either a nonsense industry or a director who is incredibly cautious and dedicated to only telling stories she wants to tell. Nevertheless, for admirers, any release is an event to mark in the calendar.
Her latest, Earwig, is an adaptation of a 2019 Brian Catling novel about a girl named Mia (Romane Hemelaers), who has ice cubes for teeth. Released this weekend in the UK (10th June 2022) by the Anti-Worlds distribution company, it marks Hadžihalilović’s English-language debut.
Earwig screened at the 65th BFI London Film Festival in 2021, and during a busy afternoon of press, known in festival parlance as the Afternoon Tea, the director sat down in a noisy dining room at the Mayfair Hotel for a swift chat.
Diabolique: I guess my first question is … you’ve only made three films in almost 20 years. Why so few? Is the answer “money”?
Hadžihalilović: Well, it is money, for sure. Especially with the second one. It is said that the second feature, maybe more in a French context, is the most difficult to be made. I mean, in terms of finding money, and so on. First features are quite supported in France, but when you do the second one … well, a bit less. But also, I guess it’s because, I don’t know, I’m trying to find something that really matters to me and be with it for, because the process of making films, you’re with a film for 2 years, I just need to find something …
Your obsessed with?
Yeah, exactly. This is why I was very happy to find someone like Geoff [co-writer Geoff Cox] to help me build this universe and build the story and characters. But sometimes it can also take quite a long time. For Evolution (2015), it took a long time, because I began without a story or characters, but feelings and images. So it was a kind of long journey to find how to make it in a narrative way.
This is your first film in the English language. How did that come about?
Yeah, well, in fact, it was only the main characters that were British. We shot in Belgium with a French-speaking crew, mainly. So that was easier for me. As you know, the film is not very talkative, there is not much dialogue, so that was not like the main challenge somehow, except what was difficult for me was the accents. Because my English is not that good, so I can’t really get [understand] the accent properly. And I wanted [the cast] to just speak a kind of a European English … so what is that accent? I was relying very much on them. And I was very lucky to have them to help me about that. So that was probably the main difficulty, with the accent.
I didn’t know what country Earwig is supposed to be set in. It had a geographical mystery to it. This was very deliberate, I take it.
Yeah, it was. The main actors were British, but we had Flemish-speaking Belgian actors speaking English, the stranger, the dentist. The concierge, though she doesn’t speak so much, she had another kind of accent, French-speaking Belgian. So let’s say it’s a place where Europeans of different nationalities [exist].
When did you first read Earwig and decide to adapt it?
In fact, it’s Geoff (Cox, the co-writer) who brought it to me. It was really a wonderful present. And, in fact, Brian Catling is a friend of Geoff’s, and he gave it him to read when it was not yet published. Geoff talked to me [about it].
It’s another story about a weird childhood. All your films so far have been about childhood, and that kind of frightening point of view of the world being really mysterious when you’re a child. So why are you drawn to that again and again?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Sorry, I don’t know. I guess … sorry. No, no, I just want to know, I guess it’s I guess, also, one of the reasons I think it’s well, it’s, fairy tales, so it’s much linked with children, even if it’s not films for children. And it’s fun to have children on set. It’s fun to direct children rather than …
Yes. But this time, there is a child, but there is also adults, proper actors, and it was fun.
Another aspect that crops up in your work is body horror. Are directors such as David Cronenberg an indirect influence?
People use these labels, but I’m not so sure about that. But yeah, I guess because the mouth [the ice teeth], there is a horror with the body, and the previous one [Evolution] with the belly. I mean, I didn’t think of Cronenberg, because what I had was this book, this novel, and so I thought about Brian Catling’s world and that maybe rather than anything else first. Fore sure I watched Cronenberg’s first films, I discovered them when I was quite young still, they were a big shock. I guess somehow they influenced me, it’s possible. Same thing for [David] Lynch, but I haven’t thought really of them while making this one [Earwig]. But maybe they have been [some kind of] influential. Sure, that’s possible.
Your approach to storytelling, it’s not traditional at all.
It’s not so much there are no events, for me, some minimal things are events, I guess [my films] it’s not so verbal. It’s not [storytelling] through dialogues, and you don’t put words [in the script] to say, “Oh, this is really bad that [such and such] a thing happened” or “that’s really sad,” so you could say it’s more images and sounds. It’s more [my cinema] is nonverbal. I try … even more in this one [Earwig], it’s more a dream or like a nightmare rather than, the others had parts of that, but this man [Albert, in Earwig] is lost between reality, dreams, hallucinations maybe. And I wanted the audience to feel like that.
I certainly felt the movie emotionally, even if I’d need to watch it again to connect plot points, etc. It’s a really sad movie.
Ah, okay. I’m happy you say that.
So my point is, as long as you connect to the movie emotionally, other aspects you can figure out later on.
Exactly. My films are narrative films but they don’t draw a straight line. It’s maybe also a challenge for critics to try to write [their review] afterwards and say “this is the meaning of it” because in fact you have to take time to digest it.
I agree. One of the reasons I love your work, they remain mysterious. So many films you watch them, understand them straight away, there’s nothing really to think about because the director has set it all out. Do you think to make the audience think and work for their meal, so to speak?
Sure. I would like them [the audience] to be kept in this world [her films] for a while. Not only during the film, but afterwards. I don’t mind if they have weird interpretations, that maybe I don’t agree with, on the contrary, my experience with the book [Earwig], Brian said to me “do what you want with it, and feel free to betray it … he didn’t use that word exactly, but afterwards [after seeing the film], he said “it’s not a betrayal it’s a transmutation.” Which was very nice of him to say.
Lot of movies, you watch them and you understand them straight away. There’s no mystery. There’s nothing much to think about really afterwards. But with your work, at least for me, they linger in my thoughts.
Than just give them [the audience] something? Yeah, sure. I would like them to be to be kept in this world [the world of my films] for a while. So I mean, I don’t mind if they have weird interpretations that maybe are not mine, on the contrary, I think, I had this experience with Brian [adapting the novel], he said, “Do what you want with it,” and feel free to betray [the source material], even though he didn’t use that word exactly. And [when he watched the film], he said, “Oh, it’s not a betrayal. it’s a transmutation,” which was very, very nice of him to say.
I want the audience to take the world [of the film] with them [after the screening], even if it’s a dark, to enjoy the darkness of it and to, yeah, make a kind of catharsis … I don’t know.
I want to finish by mentioning the use of sound in your films. Earwig is quieter than your previous films. How long do you spend on the sound design?
We didn’t work so much longer than the usual time, but we’ve worked like, maybe two or three months. And for instance, we had very long time for doing the follies. Also, the sound editor was a very good one, I was very lucky to work with him. He said that the film needed time to find the right sounds, because there are so few. I mean, the idea was to have few sounds, to give the silence a depth and keep the silence and so it took him time to find the right sounds, and then at some point we felt like we had too much sound, so that was a process to reduce and reduce, that was the thing.