A new film festival offers cinephiles a tranche of riches from contemporary European directors. By Anthony Carew.

Europa! Europa! festival

Romane Hemelaers as Mia in Earwig.
Romane Hemelaers as Mia in Earwig.
Credit: Anti-Word/Petit Film / FraKas / BFI / Channel Four

Lucile Hadžihalilović may have made – or have been allowed to make – just three feature films in two decades, but the visionary filmmaker has one of this century’s strangest and most singular cinematic corpuses.

Her movies – 2004’s Innocence, 2015’s Évolution, and now Earwig – bring to mind the late BBC broadcaster John Peel’s quip that his favourite band, post-punk drunks The Fall, were “always different ... always the same”. Thrice over, Hadžihalilović – born to Bosnian parents, Moroccan-raised, French-based, partner of cine-provocateur Gaspar Noé – has authored distinct riffs on strikingly similar themes.

They’re like cinematic siblings, so closely related that the resemblance can seem eerie, yet each individual and unique. Evoking siblings suggests Hadžihalilović’s sole preoccupation: the mystery, terror and disempowerment of childhood, existing in a world of adults who may not be looking after your best interests.

All three films are, at core, the same story. In a dilapidated, shadowy home that exists outside time, child protagonists are groomed by adults for unknown yet evidently sinister purposes. Story is spartan, dialogue is rare and mood is menacing. The sound design is meticulous and the cinematography is stunning, every frame a chiaroscuro painting. These aren’t mere entertainments: they’re unnerving, unsettling celluloid nightmares that tap into buried fears and Jungian shadow realms.

In Innocence, a small girls’ boarding school dwells on the fringes of both the forest and Gothic fairytales, where its students are prized for hyperfemininity and genetic purity. In Évolution, a remote seaside village etched into a volcanic landscape is populated entirely by grown women and young boys. The boys are being raised to be impregnated; the circle of life rewritten with disturbing body-horror imagery.

Earwig opens in the perpetual darkness of a spooky house, where a young girl (Romane Hemelaers) lives a solitary life with a father figure (Paul Hilton). Their wordless daily routine includes her being fitted – via a grim contraption – with dentures made from her own frozen saliva. They share silent meals, spy on each other, gaze through coloured glassware at refracted psychedelic light and stare at a spectral painting of a glowering mansion. It’s a solid 20 minutes before the phone rings and father figure, Albert, answers and speaks aloud to his absent “masters”, who ask only about the health of the girl, Mia, and the state of her icy teeth.

This cramped narrative soon fractures and the story progresses without any of the familiar markers of screenplay structure. The apartment is located in a foggy, grim town that seems both ancient and Eastern bloc. There are mentions of the war, misty glimpses of Albert’s dead wife and a tense bar-room standoff that escalates quickly into violence. In a splintered-off subplot, a moustachioed dandy (Alex Lawther) takes a curious, predatory interest in the recovery of a disfigured barmaid (Romola Garai). Mia gets fitted for a set of permanent glass teeth to ready her for the outside world, but it leads to no revelation or resolution.

A symbolic train journey turns out to be an express to nowhere, only heading deeper into the subconscious. The whole of Earwig operates with disorienting dream logic where nothing is what it seems, temporality is wobbly, settings are fluid and identities are confused. Even more than Hadžihalilović’s prior pictures, it’s wide open for interpretation, carrying the same kind of transcendental mystery as David Lynch’s 21st-century output.

Hadžihalilović can be compared to various directors – Lynch, David Cronenberg, Jeunet et Caro, Peter Strickland – but the references never quite stick. Her minimalist works shy away from genre, humour or accessibility. It’s understandable that she’s had trouble finding financing, the reason a decade elapsed between Innocence and Évolution. And the scarcity of her work surely symbolises a movie business that’s happy to cultivate the mythos of the Great Male Artist but is far less interested in bankrolling visionary women.

Earwig is a buried highlight in the stacked program of the maiden Europa! Europa! festival, a collection of pan-European art movies that arrives at a tough time to stage any kind of festival. Filling the gap before the winter seasons of Sydney and Melbourne’s massive film festivals, you can see bracing works such as Cow, Andrea Arnold’s motion-sickness-inducing, guilt-stricken portrait of animals trapped in the routines of industrial farming; Michel Franco’s latest shameless provocation, Sundown, where wealth, violence and masculinity collide in a menacing Mexico; or a restoration of 1993’s Naked, a nihilist howl of rage that’s still Mike Leigh’s one true masterpiece.

For those seeking cinematic riches, there’s much to be mined. There’s the stunning Sweat, an unblinking Polish portrait of a budding fitness-empire influencer told through extreme close-ups, both literal and psychological. The festival’s near-namesake, Europa, plunges viewers into an experiential survival gauntlet in a landscape that feels almost post-apocalyptic, following a young Iraqi migrant on the all-too-real “Balkan Route” to Europe. In Bird Atlas, the odd Czech director Olmo Omerzu tells a tale of corporate embezzlement featuring both Succession-style family rivalry and a Greek chorus of birds that twitter thematic homilies.

Mark Cousins’ latest whispered love letter to cinema and film criticism, The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, offers reassurance and joy to those who’ve watched all 32 hours of his earlier works, The Story of Film and Women Make Film. Belgian bad-times master Joachim Lafosse delivers another sterling psychological drama with The Restless, which depicts the difficulties of navigating bipolar mood swings in a family unit. And a pair of French social satires, Bruno Dumont’s France and Jean-Christophe Meurisse’s Bloody Oranges, are gleeful outbursts of obnoxious sedition.

Europa! Europa! is headlined by the closest thing it has to a big ticket, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II, the sequel to her lauded 2019 picture. It continues Hogg’s cine-memoir, with Honor Swinton Byrne playing a quiet, quixotic film student trying to find her way and artistic voice in Thatcher’s Britain. Where The Souvenir was about the horrible treatment young, naive people are willing to accept in a relationship, Part II is about the perils and ethics of turning personal suffering into art. At times Hogg can feel as hesitant in this space as her on-screen stand-in; but it comes to life late, when the film pirouettes through a meta-movie hall of mirrors, taking fanciful flight and leaving all notions of vérité behind.

As with most of the Europa! Europa! program, The Souvenir: Part II and Earwig are unapologetic art movies. In a moment when festivals feel fragile and the importance of the cinematic experience is being called into question, watching these demanding, difficult films unspooling in the darkened temple of the theatre feels like programming from pre-plague times. 

Europa! Europa! continues until February 27 at locations in Sydney and Melbourne.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Unapologetically artful".

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Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic.

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