James Quandt on Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s The Girl and the Spider (2022)

James Quandt on Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s The Girl and the Spider (1)

“ALLES GEHT KAPUTT,”a plaint uttered late in The Girl and the Spider (2021), conjures the controlling theme of this precisionist study in entropy and dissolution. The word kaputt, with its connotations of utter exhaustion or failure, repeats five other times in the film, variously applied to a pair of glasses, a sound system, a pair of shoes, a door, and, most tellingly, a discarded down jacket, its yawning seams shedding a soft rain of feathers as a reminder that everything eventually falls apart. The opening image of an architectural plan for a four-room flat segues, assisted by a subtle sound bridge, to a violent close-up of a power drill shattering asphalt on the sidewalk outside, the blunt juxtaposition imparting the central contention of this overdetermined film—that order and control inevitably succumb to disarray and fragmentation and every object and relationship is prone to ruin.

“Less is more,” a hapless, affable character called Markus pronounces toward the end of Spider; this minimalist credo has been readily apparent in the film’s mise-en-scène since its initial image. The plot, if such a conventional term can be applied to this tenuous web of ambiguities, involves the move of a young woman, Lisa, from the apartment she has shared with Mara, an artist with whom she probably has had a romantic affair, to another, where she will live alone. (Though the film was shot mostly in Bern, Switzerland, the city is never identified, one of many such elisions.) The film crowds its spare settings with several sundered romantic liaisons and imperiled familial relationships, most of them merely hinted at via oblique glances or offhand comments, such as the marriage of Lisa’s mother, Astrid, who leaves her husband at home to indulge a middle-aged flirtation with the handyman hired to help with Lisa’s move. The childishly puritanical daughter takes revenge for Astrid’s transgression with a comment designed to devastate her mother—permanently.

The middle film of a trilogy about “human togetherness” by twin brothers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, The Girl and the Spider extends the strict formal and narrative strategies of their graduation feature, The Strange Little Cat (2013). (The zoological motif of the Zürchers’ titles continues with the forthcoming third and final work, The Sparrow in the Chimney.) The often claustral space of the single apartment in Cat expands, slightly, in Spider to include other domestic interiors, but the film even more rarely ventures outside these domestic enclosures. Tightly framed with a static camera—the plumb-line approach to composition often places characters dead center in a shoulder shot reminiscent of a passport photo—Spider achieves a radiant if airless elegance. And, as in Cat, the Zürchers contradict their chaste minimalism with a bustling, additive approach, introducing a welter of characters as the film proceeds, their relationships and vocations often unstated.

Ostensibly a melancholy romantic comedy, The Girl and the Spider suggests in its fairy-tale title another, more apposite genre: the horror film. The sun-flooded apartments become an arena of casual cruelty and furtive violence, mostly involving the malevolent Mara. Resentful of Lisa’s departure, Mara observes others as threats or potential rivals and treats them with smiling contempt or insolent evasion. She withholds her name and her hand from the kindly neighbor who pops in to introduce herself to the new tenant and proceeds to fantasize morbidly about that woman’s crying child downstairs: “The cat scratched the baby,” she muses out loud. “Now the baby is dead.”

Mara’s aggression ranges from sullenly passive—she loads clothing on a coatrack that Lisa needs to pack away—to actively sadistic. Mara defers, demurs, and refuses when asked to help with the move, instead busying her hands with acts of malice. She pours hot coffee on a pet dog and torments another through a bathroom door; uses a screwdriver to secretly carve a gash in the countertop of Lisa’s new apartment; casually smashes a loving photo of a neighbor couple, apparently because they appear happy, and then treads over the fragments; and pierces a Styrofoam cup full of wine with a pencil, letting its contents flood over table and floor, soaking the architectural plan she had given Lisa as a going-away present. (That document is doodled on, crumpled, stained, and discarded as the film proceeds—in this entropic domestic setting, full of shattered water glasses, gnawed power cables, broken door windows, and splintered picture frames,even a houseplant proffered as a gift ends up mangled.) When Mara extends the blade on a box cutter used to remove mold from bathroom tiles and holds it aloft for inspection, Spider suddenly assumes the ominous tone of another apartment film, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965).

Chez Zürcher, every look, gesture, and object is invested with meaning and incorporated into a visual aesthetic as tautly choreographed as a quadrille.

Mara’s most noticeable feature, aside from her ever vigilant blue eyes, is the herpes sore blossoming on her upper lip. She transmits the lesion to Lisa with a kiss, as if bestowing a farewell present on her former lover. The sore is one of many wounds Mara accrues, from a broken fingernail suffered when Lisa slams the bathroom door on her to a cut on her forehead incurred when she bangs her noggin on a window frame during a storm. The Zürchers resist the old trope of equating Mara’s corporeal injuries with psychic affliction—her damage seems just another of the film’s motifs of defacement—but when Mara unleashes a lacerating rejection on the sweet young worker who yearns after her, killing a fly to illustrate her scorn for the tremulous man, her callousness shades into derangement.

With Cat and Spider, the Zürcher brothers appear intent upon fashioning themselves as textbook auteurs, confreres of the directors of the Berlin School. The multiple stylistic, tonal, and thematic repetitions between the two films, aside from the aforementioned similarity of setting, serve to emphasize this aesthetic determination. In each film, quotidian banality barely disguises the serene passive-aggressiveness with which friends and family assail one another. In both, a matriarch flirts with a handyman who repairs a faulty washing machine. (The Zürchers seem to have a thing about laundry, lavishing a close-up on a spin cycle in the latter film.) In Cat and Spider, children act as sentinels, warily watchful of an adult world governed by heedless cruelty—“What are you doing?” a wide-eyed child twice demands of Mara when she witnesses the grown-up’s covert viciousness—and as agents of anarchy, rending the prevailing atmosphere of tense tranquility with noise, mischief, and manic motion. Injury, including a nastily wounded finger, figures prominently. Everyday objects become uncanny under the Zürchers’ acute inspection and are accorded a montage of still lifes—in Spider, a whistling thermos, a dripping water tap, a damaged countertop, a bloody bandage, a cigarette stub on a window ledge, the box cutter, a blue sponge, the floor plan (now teeming with doodles), and finally the eponymous arachnid, most of which are associated with the malign Mara.

Chez Zürcher, every look, gesture, and object is invested with meaning and incorporated into a visual aesthetic as tautly choreographed as a quadrille. (The score of Spider, alternating a swirling waltz with a Frederic Mompou–like piano riff, emphasizes this musicality.) Colors are both vivid and delimited; the palette of primaries in Spider, including a yellow couch that matches Lisa’s canary tee, seems keyed to recall yet another apartment film, La Chinoise (1967), by Swiss compatriot Jean-Luc Godard.

The Zürchers more or less observe the classic dramatic unities of time, place, and action, suppress establishing shots, and employ off-screen space to stress the vexed intersection of lives—a sudden gaze off-frame often signals the incursion of an additional character. (A simple “Hello!” becomes creepily portentous in this fraught atmosphere.) The Zürchers’ highly worked sound designs play with audio mismatches and mysteries—just who is emitting the wail at the beginning of Cat?which occasionally recall the aural enigmas of Robert Bresson, at other times those of Lucrecia Martel. This highly stylized aesthetic lays its own traps, and the chary Zürchers are surprisingly capable of miscalculation. Both films feature anecdotal flashbacks that occur away from the apartments, which are both narrated and shown, pleonasms that rupture the hard-won intensity of tone and setting. And the quotidian surrealism of Cat, an almost literal rendering of Freud’s “Das Unheimliche” (1919), becomes in Spider a failed excursion into the fantastic, as a witchy old woman wildly surfs the rooftop of an apartment building in the midst of a thunderstorm and the story of a cruise-ship chambermaid, once a beloved roommate of Mara’s, devolves into an ill-advised exercise in Wes Anderson artifice.

In the final movement of The Girl and the Spider, signs of mortality amass, and there is talk of death crosses, burials, coffins, cancer, ghosts. Amid the accumulated ruins of broken objects and perishable relationships, Lisa’s charge that “Alles geht kaputt” comes to suggest that nothing lasts and all flesh is grass.

James Quandt is a film critic and curator based in Toronto and the 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 Metrograph and at Film at Lincoln Center.

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