By Darren Hughes
The rebellious, wandering gaze of The Girl and the Spider.
The Girl and the Spider plays at Metrograph until April 14.
To begin, a brief description of the first six shots of The Girl and the Spider:
Shot 1: After a few simple, white-on-black titles we hear distant construction noise and the familiar click of a mouse. The first image is a computer screen. The mouse pointer tracks over the floorplan of a four-room apartment and clicks print.
Shot 2: A high-angle close-up of a jackhammer bit boring through concrete. The construction noise is now at full volume.
Shot 3: A close-up of the back of the head of the jackhammer operator.
Shot 4: A medium close-up of Mara (Henriette Confurius), a twentysomething with searching blue eyes, who stands motionless, staring at something to her left, presumably the back of the head of the jackhammer operator. Behind Mara, her soon-to-be-former roommate Lisa (Liliane Amuat) gets on a bicycle and rides toward the camera. Mara turns to make eye contact as Lisa passes.
Shot 5: After the remainder of the titles, accompanied this time by Eugen Doga’s “Gramofon” waltz, we see a static image of an empty room. We will soon come to understand that this is the bedroom of the four-room flat illustrated in Shot 1. Or perhaps we already understand that, intuitively, on a first viewing.
Shot 6: A close-up of Mara, who is again staring and again standing in one spot while a flurry of activity happens around her. Lisa and two handymen, Jurek (André M. Hennicke) and Jan (Flurin Giger), pass behind her carrying building materials. Mara pivots to her left, then to her right, observing it all with quiet curiosity. She’s wearing a solid gray shirt, Lisa is in yellow, Jurek and Jan are both wearing blue.
This kind of formal description is useful when approaching The Girl and the Spider because one gets the sense while watching it that Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, identical twins who shared writing and directing duties on this film, are working with a slightly different set of rules. Or, more precisely, they seem to have discovered something new in the old rules that everyone else missed and, in the process, somehow, miraculously, have expanded the century-old grammar of continuity editing. The same was true of The Strange Little Cat (2013), Ramon Zürcher’s debut feature about a family gathering in a small Berlin apartment. In that film, which takes place over the course of a single day, people wander in and out of frame, tell stories, eat and drink, and display both affection and open hostility toward one another, all of it stitched together by Zürcher’s montage, which reverse engineers the classic eyeline match: instead of showing us a character in closeup and then cutting to whatever or whomever the character is looking at—forcing us to see the world through that character’s eyes—Zurcher does the opposite, giving us an image and then cutting to the character whose perspective we have been unknowingly occupying. In these films we rarely look at; we’re always looking with. And not knowing whose point of view we’ve stepped into has two disorienting effects. First, every image is activated by the suspense of not-knowing: no moment feels private or stable because every moment is potentially being observed (a very 21st-century twist on Hitchcock’s shame/guilt kink). Second, it creates an inverted Kuleshov Effect: imagine if instead of cutting to Mara after the jackhammer operator, we instead saw a police officer or a crying child or an angry man holding a baseball bat. Each would require the viewer to actively reinterpret the previous shot in a slightly different way. As a result, watching a Zürcher film is a peculiar and uniquely engaging experience of spectatorship, demanding a constant renegotiation of character motivations and relationships.
watching a Zürcher film is a peculiar and uniquely engaging experience of spectatorship
The opening sequence of shots in The Girl and the Spider establishes Mara as our primary surrogate within the film’s world. She’s agreed to help Lisa and Markus (Ivan Georgiev) move into their new apartment, but she’s not happy about the transition. (It’s no coincidence that Mara is stationary in those opening shots, while Lisa is always moving.) She acts out her resentments in petty aggressions—tormenting dogs, taunting a neighbor about her crying child, piercing a Styrofoam cup with a pencil and leaving it on a table as a makeshift trap to spill wine on whomever finds it. In another signature moment for the Zürchers, Mara uses a screwdriver to gouge Lisa’s countertop, but because Mara is again staged in a static medium close-up, we hear what she’s doing outside of the frame but can’t see it, so each of us is left to imagine the scar she’s making in the counter—a thousand different scars for a thousand different viewers. “What are you doing?” an unidentified voice asks. And in the brief pause between the question mark and the next cut, Mara and we have to assess in real time how much damage (in more than one sense of the word) has been done. The Zürchers’ strategy in these scenes is an ideal realization of Robert Bresson’s axiom, “the ear solicited alone makes the eye impatient.” Their use of off-screen sound and “these impatiences” is downright cheeky. Fifteen minutes later, during a montage of insert shots scored by Doga’s waltz, the gouge in the countertop is finally revealed, which doesn’t so much relieve suspense as generate a deeply satisfying frisson, as each of us immediately, unconsciously compares the actual scratch to the one we’d imagined.
The Girl and the Spider expands, with an algebraic logic, the scope of the Zürchers’ project—it’s 30 minutes longer than The Strange Little Cat, with two apartment buildings and two days of action rather than one. (The final film in the trilogy, The Sparrow in the Chimney, is coming soon.) The slightly larger canvas allows room for a more discursive narrative and a larger cast of characters, including Lisa’s mother, Astrid (Ursina Lardi), who flirts with the older handyman and seems disappointed with her daughter and regretful of the distance between them. We meet three neighbors, all of them women, and hear stories of others, each of whom gets a brief moment in the spotlight. There are animals and face-painted children, floating feathers and water balloons, three open wounds, and a beautiful woman across the street who shares longing glances with Mara. In an interview for Cinema Scope, Ramon Zürcher describes their storytelling as “everyday myths. Sometimes in the small things there are big things being articulated.” The fairy-tale quality of the film is written into the costuming and production design, which, taking a cue from New Wave-era Godard, colors everything and everyone in shades of red, blue, yellow, and gray. I haven’t worked out the math yet, but I suspect one could map the shifting relationships between characters to the colors of the shirts they wear, like team jerseys. Note the touch of yellow in Mara’s outfit when she recounts a story of a happier time, when she and Lisa were still close.
Despite all of this talk of algebra and film form, there’s nothing pedantic or fussy about The Girl and the Spider. Just the opposite, in fact. This is, for lack of a better phrase, a very horny movie. “It’s like a queer-bisexual-multisexual universe where the relations, the friendships, don’t fit any traditional definition of anything,” Ramon Zürcher says, in that same interview. “Everyone’s sexuality is allowed to change.” The Zürchers’ filmmaking style isn’t theoretical or incidental to this notion; it methodically engenders a visual language of complex desire that circulates without bounds, recklessly. When Lisa’s new neighbor (a member of the red team) gets her close-up in the center of the frame, she pivots like Mara did—like they all do—and her eyes dart from person to person, quickly scanning their faces and bodies, before finally landing on Mara. “It’s a shame it’s not you moving in,” she whispers, picking a piece of lint from Mara’s shoulder. “I’m sure we would have fun together.” It’s a come-on, and the goodbye kiss she gives Mara is erotic, but all desire in The Girl and the Spider is infected with loneliness and longing. (A virus is a useful metaphor here.) Mara tells a story about a former tenant in her apartment, who left on a whim to become a chambermaid on a cruise ship, where she hoped to find peace in the daily routine of cleaning rooms, alone and unbothered. “Maybe one day she’ll come back,” Mara says, standing motionless in close-up, with a slight smile, staring directly into Lisa’s eyes.
Darren Hughes is an occasional writer, critic, and film programmer with a day job. He's a longtime contributor to Filmmaker Magazine, Cinema Scope, Mubi Notebook, and Senses of Cinema.