Imagine a film in which the main character boasts a nasty cold sore, a broken fingernail, and a forehead nicked by a window pane that is blown in by a summer storm. Imagine the type of heroine who smiles serenely in response to such affronts, more amused than alarmed at the wild ways that the world can corrupt her youthful dermis. Imagine this same woman delighting in the sudden appearance of a large house spider, extending her hand to give it a perch, then passing it on to the palm of a possible lover. Now, imagine a scenario in which witnessing this kind of behavior starts to feel not only plausible, but inevitable. Such is the trippy realm of Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s The Girl and the Spider, an arachnophilic chamber play as arresting as it is unsettling.
At the film’s start, Mara (Henriette Confurius) pensively follows Lisa (Liliane Amuat), her former housemate, as Lisa unpacks her belongings with her mom and dad to move into a flat under renovation. “Have you got herpes?” Astrid (Ursina Lardi) asks of her daughter’s tagalong. “Yeah,” Mara beams, as though acknowledging an impressive feat. Throughout the next 90 minutes, Mara’s emotional and sexual needs turn out to be just as infective; her lust, envy, and oral fixation fuel much of the diegesis. “A year ago, we were on that bike trip,” Mara reflects wistfully as Lisa prepares to install a cabinet. “We lost sight of each other in a small town. I looked everywhere for you in the streets ….”
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What initially feels like a queer backstory between the two 20-somethings morphs into a maze of pansexual entanglements among those who live in the two housing units. Lisa moves from one flat to another that looks eerily similar, if better lit. Her new and former neighbors and their unusual histories trail her like loose packing peanuts — whether a heliophobic gym rat, jealous guy pal, or the elderly Frau Arnold who, from the flat’s top floor, purloins another tenant’s cat.
To be clear: very little happens in this film. A fly buzzes in the kitchen and mold grows in the bathtub. As is often the case in European art films, nobody seems to have a job that takes them out of the rooms in which they party with, sleep with, and torment each other. And yet, to surrender to their strange, often fetishistic, web of affairs and rivalries can be as thrilling as it is banal: an anticlimactic bacchanal between Berliners, in which actual sex feels a lot less racy than what happens to abandoned cups of wine, jack-hammered asphalt, or a labret lip piercing. Should this not sound appealing enough, throw in a handful of kinder and a few whimpering hunde.
“It’s a shame it’s not you moving in,” the single mom from the ground floor says flirtatiously to Mara, touching her cotton sleeve. “I’m sure we would have fun with each other.” But whether they — or anyone else in the film — will become lovers seems of little consequence: everybody seems to be infatuated with everyone else, locking eyes with an intensity that could shame a tantra guru. The awkwardness of such rampant reciprocal looking between characters — those meeting for the first time, requesting a box cutter from a neighbor, asking a clerk for a box of breathable bandages — lends comedic value to a film that would otherwise feel painfully self-serious.
Eliciting, by turns, disgust at the random abjectness of picked scabs and blisters and curiosity at the secret intimacies that lurk between characters, The Girl and the Spider offers the odd, often squeamish, pleasure of voyeuristically observing other people’s voyeurism behind doors that are conspicuously open. “I had a dream last night,” Lisa confides to Mara, while the former’s mother enters the room with a pile of blankets. “I saw that your skin and clothes were dirty. I wanted to stop touching you, but I couldn’t.” As Astrid overhears her daughter’s whispered monologue, a neighbor boy scribbles obliviously at the table; almost everyone is watching everyone else, and doing so without trying to hide it.
Calling attention to these confessional triangulations, shots are often staged with three characters spying on each other diagonally from the back-, middle-, and foreground, entering and leaving the frame just abruptly enough to remind us that no one’s private life is, well, private. That smartphones and computer screens are palpably absent feels ironically appropriate: all drama is played out in real domestic space, but with a stilted affect much more common to the digital spaces in which today’s social turmoil so often transpires.
In tension with the film’s musical leitmotif — a proper Eugen Doga waltz — what unspools onscreen is often messy. The Zürchers are clearly invested in anything that can be punctured, ooze, or spill. The organic and material merge and dissociate. Is that blood dripping off the counter or cheap Merlot? Is the man drilling drywall in the opening scene the same one we see later, asleep with a flaccid penis? Yes, he is.
For viewers seeking a verité account of Millennial grappling, The Girl and the Spider likely isn’t for you. But for anyone who takes their milchkaffee with a side of weird, prepare to get bitten.
The Girl and the Spider is currently in theaters.