James Quandt on The Girl and the Spider by Ramon and Silvan Zürcher

“ALLES GEHT KAPUTT”, a complaint filed late in The girl and the spider (2021), evokes the dominant theme of this precisionist study on entropy and dissolution. Word kaputt, with its connotations of utter exhaustion or failure, is repeated five other times in the film, variously applied to a pair of glasses, an audio system, a pair of shoes, a door, and, most tellingly, a discarded down jacket, her seams yawn pouring a soft rain of feathers as a reminder that everything eventually falls apart. The opening image of an architectural plan for a four-room apartment segues, aided by a subtle sound bridge, into a violent close-up of a power drill smashing the asphalt on the outside sidewalk, the stark juxtaposition conferring the central controversy of this overdetermined film – that order and control inevitably succumb to disarray and fragmentation and that every object and relationship is subject to ruin.

“Less is more,” utters an unhappy, affable character called Markus towards the end of Spider; this minimalist credo is present in the staging of the film from its initial image. The plot, if such a conventional term can be applied to this tenuous web of ambiguities, involves the relocation of a young woman, Lisa, from the apartment she shared with Mara, an artist with whom she has probably had a love affair, for another, where she will live alone. (Although the film was shot primarily in Bern, Switzerland, the city is never identified, one of many such elisions.) The film clutters its alternate sets with several broken romantic liaisons and family relationships. in jeopardy, most of them merely being evoked by sidelong glances. or flippant comments, like Lisa’s mother, Astrid, getting married leaving her husband at home to indulge in some middle-aged flirtation with the handyman hired to help Lisa’s move. The childishly puritanical daughter retaliates for Astrid’s transgression with a comment meant to permanently devastate her mother.

Ramon and Silvan Zuércher, The Girl and the Spider, 2021, 2K video, color, sound, 98 minutes.

The intermediate film of a trilogy on “human unity” by twin brothers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, The girl and the spider extends the strict formal and narrative strategies of their graduation function, The strange little cat (2013). (The zoological motif of the Zürcher titles continues with the forthcoming third and final work, The sparrow in the fireplace.) The often cloistered space of the single apartment in Cat expands slightly in Spider to include other domestic interiors, but even more rarely does the film venture outside of these domestic enclosures. Tight frame with a static camera – the plumb approach to composition often places the figures in the center of a shoulder shot reminiscent of a passport photo –Spider achieves a radiant but airless elegance. And, as in Catthe Zürchers contradict their chaste minimalism with a hectic and additive approach, introducing a jumble of characters as the film progresses, their relationships and their often unstated vocations.

Apparently a melancholy romantic comedy, The girl and the spider suggests in its magical title another more relevant genre: the horror film. The sun-drenched apartments become an arena of occasional cruelty and stealthy violence, primarily involving the malevolent Mara. Angry at Lisa’s departure, Mara watches others as threats or potential rivals and treats them with smiling contempt or cheeky evasion. She hides her name and her hand from the nice neighbor who comes to introduce herself to the new tenant and begins to morbidly fantasize about the crying child of this woman downstairs: “The cat scratched the baby”, she thinks. aloud. “Now the baby is dead.”

Ramon and Silvan Zuércher, The Girl and the Spider, 2021, 2K video, color, sound, 98 minutes.

Mara’s aggression ranges from passively sullen—she loads clothes onto a coat rack for Lisa to put away—to actively sadistic. Mara postpones, objects, and refuses when asked to help with the move, instead occupying her hands with malicious acts. She pours hot coffee over a pet dog and torments another through the bathroom door; uses a screwdriver to secretly gouge a gash in the counter of Lisa’s new apartment; casually smashes a loving photo of a neighbor couple, apparently because they seem happy, then stomps on the shards; and pierces a styrofoam cup full of wine with a pencil, letting its contents flood the table and floor, soaking the architectural blueprint she had given Lisa as a parting gift. (This document is scribbled, crumpled, stained and discarded as the film progresses – in this entropic home setting, full of shattered water glasses, chewed-on electric cables, smashed door windows and shattered picture frames. , even a houseplant given as a gift ends up mangled.) When Mara extends the blade of a box cutter used to remove mold from bathroom tiles and holds it aloft for inspection, Spider suddenly takes on the disturbing tone of another home movie, that of Roman Polanski Repulsion (1965).

At Zürcher, every look, every gesture, every object is invested with meaning and integrated into a visual aesthetic as tense as a quadrille.

Mara’s most notable feature, aside from her ever-watchful blue eyes, is the herpes blooming on her upper lip. She transmits the lesion to Lisa with a kiss, as if offering a parting gift to her former lover. The wound is one of many injuries Mara racks up, from a broken fingernail sustained when Lisa slams the bathroom door on her to a cut to her forehead sustained when she bangs her noggin on a window frame during a storm. . The Zürchers resist the old trope of equating Mara’s bodily injuries with psychic affliction – her damage seems to be just another reason for the film’s degradation – but when Mara unleashes heartbreaking rejection on the sweet young worker who yearns for her, killing a fly to illustrate her contempt for the trembling man, his insensitivity turns to derangement.

With Cat and Spider, the Zürcher brothers seem to want to pass themselves off as authors of textbooks, colleagues of the directors of the Berlin school. The multiple stylistic, tonal and thematic repetitions between the two films, beyond the similarity of decor mentioned above, accentuate this aesthetic desire. In each film, the everyday banality barely conceals the serene passive aggressiveness with which friends and family hound each other. In both cases, a matriarch flirts with a handyman who fixes a faulty washing machine. (The Zürchers seem to have a soft spot for laundry, lavishing a close-up on a spin cycle in this latest film.) Cat and Spider, the children act as sentinels, suspiciously watching over an adult world ruled by reckless cruelty – “What are you doing?” a wide-eyed child asks Mara twice when she witnesses the adult’s secret wickedness – and as agents of lawlessness, tearing apart the prevailing atmosphere of tense tranquility with noise, malice and manic movements. Injuries, including a badly injured finger, feature prominently. Everyday objects become strange under the careful examination of the Zürchers and are granted a montage of still lifes – in Spidera hissing thermos, a dripping water tap, a battered countertop, a bloody bandage, a cigarette butt on a window sill, the cutter, a blue sponge, the floor plan (now full of doodles), and finally the eponymous arachnid, most of which are associated with the evil Mara.

Ramon and Silvan Zuércher, The Girl and the Spider, 2021, 2K video, color, sound, 98 minutes.

At Zürcher, every look, every gesture, every object is invested with meaning and integrated into a visual aesthetic as tense as a quadrille. (The rating of Spider, alternating a swirling waltz with a piano riff à la Frederic Mompou, underlines this musicality.) The colors are both vivid and delimited; the palette of primaries in Spiderincluding a yellow couch that matches Lisa’s canary t-shirt, seems key to reminiscent of another apartment movie, The Chinese (1967), by fellow Swiss Jean-Luc Godard.

The Zürchers more or less observe classic dramatic units of time, place and action, remove establishing shots and use the off-screen space to emphasize the thwarted intersection of lives – a sudden look out of frame often signals the incursion of an additional character. (A simple “Hello!” becomes chilling in this charged atmosphere.) The Zürchers’ highly polished sound designs play with audio delays and mysteries – which emits the whimper at the start of Cat?sometimes reminiscent of the sound puzzles of Robert Bresson, sometimes those of Lucrecia Martel. This highly stylized aesthetic poses its own pitfalls, and Zürcher charys are surprisingly capable of miscalculation. Both films feature anecdotal flashbacks that occur far from the apartments, which are both told and shown, redundancies that break the hard-won intensity of tone and setting. And the daily surrealism of Catan almost literal interpretation ofDas Unheimliche(1919), becomes in Spider a failed excursion into the fantastic, as an old woman witch surfs wildly on the roof of a building in the middle of a thunderstorm and the story of a cruise ship maid, once a beloved roommate by Mara, turns into an ill-advised exercise in Wes Anderson’s artifice.

In the last movement of The girl and the spider, the signs of mortality accumulate, and we speak of mortuary crosses, burials, coffins, cancers, ghosts. Amid the accumulated ruins of broken objects and perishable relationships, Lisa’s charge that “Alles geht kaputtcomes to suggest that nothing lasts and that all flesh is grass.

James Quandt is a Toronto-based film critic and curator and editor of monographs on Robert Bresson, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

The girl and the spider opens in New York on April 8 at the Metrograph and Film at Lincoln Center.

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