This article appeared in the April 14, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Image Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
The Girl and the Spider opens with the film’s only attempt at an establishing shot: a floor plan for an apartment, soon to materialize (if only in claustrophobic fragments) into a three-dimensional space. Then, a Kuleshovian string of images: a jackhammer drills into asphalt in close-up; the back of a construction worker’s head is framed crisply against a blurred background; a young woman, Mara (Henriette Confurius), fixes her melancholy blue eyes on something in the near distance. Other than the staccato roar of the machine, which carries through all three shots, there is no indication of their relationship—no evidence of any spatial proximity or narrative link. The filmic cut is the only suture, attaching the drill to Mara’s projector-like gaze.
How do things relate to one another? This is a central concern of Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s new feature, whose methods one might describe as “planimetric.” In cartography, the term describes a map that lacks relief—objects are represented as if seen from above, flattened into figures on a single, smooth plane. In cinematography, a planimetric composition refers to the kind of shot that frames the construction worker and Mara in those early scenes. The camera is perpendicular to the foreground; the focus is shallow, to obscure depth; and our gaze meets the subject head-on. There are no angles or obliques, only direct confrontations.
This type of two-dimensionality is both oppressive and freeing, its radical leveling of space allowing for an enlarged freedom of relation. In Reinhardtstrasse, a 2009 short by Ramon Zürcher and a precursor to The Girl and the Spider, a character outlines a psychogeographic problem: when cycling down a busy road, she doesn’t know how to enter the bike lane. “Draw the situation,” another character says, “and I’ll show you how.” When reality is reduced to a single plane, a line may join any two dots, traverse any chasm. In The Girl and the Spider, cuts function as such connectors, creating webs of unstable, inexplicable relationality among people and objects.
Like 2013’s The Strange Little Cat, the debut feature by the Zürchers (written and directed by Ramon; produced by Silvan), The Girl and the Spider is an apartment movie, unfolding mostly within a pair of austere, sunlit flats. The domestic setup evinces a Surrealist interest (a hint of Buñuel?) in making the familiar strange—in probing the misalignments between the physical and emotional architectures of a home, with repressed unease constantly threatening to erupt from structural gaps. In The Strange Little Cat, the relationships between members of a family—mother, father, siblings, cousins, grandmother—gain uncertain shape over the course of a banal yet charged day, never quite settling into recognizable bourgeois contours.
The brothers’ new film traces kinships that are precarious by design: the intimacies of a modern life lived in rental homes and with transactional affinities. The twentysomething Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of her apartment, and over the course of two days, relatives, friends, acquaintances, and pets crisscross her old and new abodes, exchanging a cascade of glances, non sequiturs, flirtations, and malevolences. Mara, Lisa’s soon-to-be-former roommate, gazes at her with both longing and resentment; Lisa and her mother, Astrid (Ursina Lardi), alternate between affection and cruelty, especially as Astrid flirts with the rugged handyman, Jurek (André Hennicke); the handyman’s son, Jan (Flurin Giger), fancies the indifferent Mara, and eventually finds himself in a maze of unrequited desires and sexual dalliances involving Lisa’s neighbors: a girl who squirts red wine through a chin piercing and another who sleeps during the day and awakens at night.
This network of relationships is shaded with familiar psychosexual impulses—jealousy, desire, loneliness—but the Zürchers achieve something more intriguingly imprecise with their flattening, their radical evacuation of depth. The directors have described their scripting process as drawing on the Surrealist practice of “automatic writing,” allowing the unconscious to lead the charge in the hopes of accessing a truer realm of experience. A certain automatism—a reliance on instinct, rather than intention—appears to guide the characters, too. Jan offers the film’s most direct utterance—“I like you”—to which Mara responds with a vicious performance that involves killing a fly, all with a sweet, sincere smile. Later, in one of the film’s most sensuous moments, they pass the titular spider tenderly back-and-forth between their hands. If their motivations elude us, they also seem to elude the characters themselves, exceeding their own capacity for articulation.
Often framed alone in portrait-like shots, the characters don’t converse so much as collide, not unlike the brittle inanimate objects that populate the film. In one scene, a glass of wine spills onto a table, soaks the (now vandalized) architectural plan, then drips onto the floor, where it is lapped up by the dog. As Anne-Katrin Titze at Eye for Film has observed, the moment evokes Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s famous 1987 experimental short The Way Things Go, in which everyday objects are repurposed into a new, seemingly autonomous (and comically pointless) causology—an uninterrupted, half-hour-long chain reaction. Inspired by the artists’ studies of states of impending collapse, the film plays on the sublime, combustible moment when one thing is on the verge of becoming another. The thrill of The Girl and the Spider is that it sustains that edge, allowing its characters a moment-to-moment contingency, full of possibilities for new relations, new ruptures.
But these breaks only arrive by accident, in bursts of startling grace. In The Strange Little Cat, a little girl’s grocery list, where every word is misspelled, becomes an object of curiosity—a missive from another world, perhaps. In The Girl and the Spider, the most glorious aberration derives from automation. Mara relates how her computer had momentarily scrambled a PDF of Lisa’s floor plan just as she was about to print it. The mangled blueprint is a planimetric fantasia—a pointillist delight of numbers, letters, and squiggly lines. “I kept opening and closing it, hoping it would happen again,” Mara says wistfully. “It never did.” Only once does such an errant vision of beauty return in the film, conjured by neither a childish mistake nor a machine malfunction, but rather, by the relational powers of cinema: in the film’s final shot, a sly, discontinuous cut turns Mara into a ghost, vanishing her amid a blur of pedestrians.