Perhaps the highest compliment I can offer Swiss brothers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher is that while watching their first film, the precocious The Strange Little Cat (2013), and their much-anticipated second, The Girl and the Spider, my imagination ping-pongs around myriad other kinds of movies the duo could make. A spy film? Adapting La princesse de Clèves? A sports drama? An episode of Bridgerton? The mind-boggles.
This is because these two movies, the first set in one apartment and the second—which is premiering at Berlin in the Encounters competition—ambitiously set in two, are exquisitely compact pinball machines of characters entering and leaving each frame, each room, each scene, and adding to and changing the movie at each occurrence, deepening the story’s mystery. Theirs is a cinema that refreshes moment to moment as person A talks to person B, a conversation we soon realize is being witnessed by person C, who walks away to join person D, who soon leaves to talk to B. In The Girl and the Spider, whose first part is set in the flat a young woman (Liliane Amuat) is moving into and whose second part is set in the flat she’s moving out of, a roundelay of characters ricocheting around the apartments—female roommate (Henriette Confurius), male roommate (Ivan Georgiev), mother (Ursina Lardi), mother’s dog, downstairs neighbors (in both flats), neighbor’s roommate, the movers, a cat, another dog, an old lady, a few kids—enter and leave rooms, each interacting with the others in a seeming infinity of thrilling combinations.
Strictly speaking, a story isn’t being told here—especially since the film begins with the implication of the conclusion, that the woman is moving out and changing her life—but rather, seen through the sharp clarity and subtle colorwork of cinematographer Alexander Haßkerl, what we witness is an ever-growing aggregation and blossoming of richness of characters and situations. As the number of characters we meet increases at each juncture, the complexities emerge. We infer and learn more and more as we see one character talk to first the roommate, then the mother, then a random young girl who wanders in, then interacts with a cute mover. What we know, or think we know, about her and her relationships tosses and turns. We find tendrils of desire, frustration, distaste, ambition and apathy, each teased out through small details, changes of perspective, movement between spaces, and the touching of objects. The mother goes through the same growth: A mystery at first, we come to understand her and the tensions and needs in her life evermore as she interacts with others. Histories are suggested and deepen; and we speculate on the relationships that exist beyond the tightly delineated boundaries of these two spaces. (A few brief excursions into the street and into an ambiguous recollection pointedly break the pure confinement of the scenario.)
This formalist game of combinations could be stiff and mechanical, but instead fuses the mobility of Allan Dwan’s comedies, Tati’s playful attention to rhythm and composition, Akerman’s delineated domestic claustrophobia, and the metaphysical punch of Bresson and Lubitsch’s magical doorways, through which so many possibilities can occur. That is to say, one never knows who will meet another, which person will catch another doing or revealing something, and how that person will themselves be caught or discover something anew. This is why when watching a Zürcher film, courtly romances and spy films come to mind: they expose the intrinsic charge of mystery and intrigue that lays tense between one room and the next, behind a door, above or beneath the floor, and forever weaving webs among friends, lovers, and family.