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‘The Girl and the Spider’: Film Review

Exploring a turning point in a young woman’s life, the second feature by ‘The Strange Little Cat’ filmmakers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher is, like their first, set largely within the confines of an apartment.

Moving day — the logistics, the stuff, the intricate tangle of emotions — proves the perfect setup for the distinctive storytelling language of Ramon and Silvan Zürcher. That language is built on the mesmerizing use of a fixed camera, characters walking in and out of frame, their relationships gradually revealed (or not), their tensions illuminated in peculiar and jarring exchanges. Awarded the prize for best director in the 2021 Berlin Film Festival’s Encounters section, The Girl and the Spider spins more than a dozen characters through its two-day narrative of a young woman’s move into a new apartment. But it’s the roommate she’s leaving behind who’s at the center of the drama’s swirl of friends, relatives, hired hands and sheer, unwonted feeling.

Arriving almost a decade after The Strange Little Cat, the debut that announced the Swiss-born, Berlin-based Zürcher twins as filmmakers of striking originality, their sophomore outing expands upon that 2013 film’s visual grammar. Working again with cinematographer Alexander Haßkerl, they tap into the weirdness of the familiar in ways that are at once inscrutable and transparent, comic and poignant. Philipp Moll’s lovely score helps to propel the proceedings with a tantalizing blend of restraint and exuberance, in sync with the arresting and intensely observed performances.

The images that open the film encapsulate the psychological territory to be explored: First there’s the clean geometry of an apartment floor plan, a printout of a PDF that will become, yes, a minor character in the story, and then there’s the sight of a jackhammer tearing up a sidewalk. For Mara (Henriette Confurius), who created the former item for the departing Lisa (Liliane Amuat), the ground beneath her is indeed shattering.

It takes a while to determine the connection between the two, whether they’re sisters, ex-lovers or frenemies. And though the movie’s dialogue and pointed glances offer intimations of context, we never quite get a definitive answer. When Lisa’s new downstairs neighbor looks at Mara and asks, “And you are?,” Mara’s hesitation is weighted with a telling uncertainty. Lisa’s terse response that Mara is her roommate, and not making the move with her, answers some questions while opening up a slew more. And the way she commands Mara to “let go” reverberates well beyond the immediate matter of the household item Mara is holding.

The action begins in the blank slate of the new apartment. Lisa’s mother, Astrid (Ursina Lardi), arrives, ostensibly to help. But her main contribution seems to be the watchful gaze, by turns suspicious and wounded, that she aims at her self-possessed daughter and the aching Mara, whose herpes blister she’s quick to point out. (Later, Mara will also have a fresh red scrape on her forehead; she’s a marked woman, her pain racing to the surface, and Confurius’ bright but hooded gaze searching for relief.)

Astrid’s bypass of the social-nicety filter is one that Lisa has inherited, and polished with a youthful imperiousness; she’ll turn it back on her mother with a devastating and escalating precision. With her husband a no-show, Astrid doesn’t hide her enjoyment of the low-key sparks that ignite between her and mover/handyman Jurek (André M. Hennicke). The younger mover, Jan (Flurin Giger), who turns out to be the story’s unlikely Casanova, can’t keep himself from gazing enrapt at a seemingly disdainful Mara.

Another soon-to-be-former roommate of Lisa’s, Markus (Ivan Georgiev), arrives with a couch whose yellow hue is promptly noted as the color of jealousy and madness. Jealousy is an emotion with which Mara is clearly grappling, unmoored as she is by Lisa’s departure, whatever the nature of their relationship. And madness is a well-worn movie trope for female roommates, one that the Zürchers acknowledge, embrace and spoof all at once. The romantic feelings that Mara clings to might be based in reality, or they might reside only in her imagination. Back at the old apartment, where most of the film takes place amid packing, dismantling of appliances and random drop-ins from mischievous, eagle-eyed neighbor kids, a downstairs flat is occupied by the sad-eyed Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger Vinet) and her edge-of-sanity roomie, Nora (Lea Draeger), who has a vampirish aversion to daylight and is rarely dressed.

As in their first film, the Zürchers bring a fresh perspective to the connection between humans and the wild world, specifically within the story’s domestic trappings. In addition to the floor-plan printout, which will undergo transformations at the hands of various characters, the story’s nonhuman figures include a couple of dogs, a cat and the title arachnid, welcomed by key people in the story with an unguarded delight — a poetic reflection of childhood, innocence and the draw of nature. (In their first film, a moth played a similar role in the family apartment where the story unfolded.)

The movie’s timeline is concise, but within that framework, which includes a party in the apartment that Lisa’s leaving, flirtations, seductions and put-downs transpire with an uncommon intensity. Mara, Lisa and Astrid say bizarre and unsettling things, their cruelty and spite sometimes offhand, sometimes calculated. These characters possess a capacity for understanding, but not necessarily for compassion. The story billows out to encompass a shop clerk (Seraphina Schweiger) in the pharmacy across the street, an elderly neighbor (Margherita Schoch) with a particular fondness for a cat who isn’t hers, and the chambermaid (Birte Schöink) who once lived in Mara’s apartment and left behind a piano.

That chambermaid is one of the ghosts between the lines of Mara’s story. Sharing their memories, both Mara and Astrid try to hold on to Lisa by tying her to the past, another spectral expression. But habit and comfort give way to chance, and familiar trajectories are disrupted by other people’s choices. For a fleeting moment, a computer glitch — a ghost in the literal machine — turns Mara’s floor-plan PDF into a chaos of random beauty, an instant she tries and fails to recapture. Unlike Mara, the writer-directors of The Girl and the Spider can shape and control their story. They orchestrate a closing sequence of high-impact lyricism, bringing their tale of the mystery-infused quotidian to a shimmering, open-ended conclusion.

Release date: Friday, April 8 (New York); Friday, April 15 (Los Angeles)

Cast: Henriette Confurius, Liliane Amuat, Ursina Lardi, Flurin Giger, André M. Hennicke, Ivan Georgiev

Director: Ramon Zürcher

Co-director: Silvan Zürcher

Screenwriters: Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher1 hour 38 minutes

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