It’s the mesmerizing and unflinching face of 10-year-old actress Blanca Engström that makes The Girl such an immersive experience in Swedish cinema’s poetic, gut-wrenching coolness. Hers is a face that doesn’t smile and barely moves. Obstructed by a thicket of wild hair, increasingly uncombed to achieve Mowgli-like levels by the end of the film. This girl’s face, uncatalogable like all faces, has learned very early to reveal very little—when it doesn’t flat out lie. Of course, the girl, who remains unnamed throughout the film, has the right to seek emotional asylum in a kind of theater of non-emotion. Her parents, bored with the narrow-mindedness of the countryside, leave for Africa for a summer with their older son under the guise of philanthropy—but without their daughter, who is six months too young to go.
The Janes Joplin-loving alcoholic aunt is summoned to babysit, but we soon learn that, while nothing compares to the perversity of children when they’re around other children, it’s the adults who act the most infantile in the absence of other adults. The aunt eventually leaves the girl completely alone for several days, or weeks (one of the film’s clever strategies of engagement is its lack of temporal specificity), while rekindling an old romance elsewhere.
The girl, who hides from everyone in town that she is on her own, bears the trauma of sudden parental loss without witnesses. Her face, simultaneously resilient and always about to shatter, has something of the stoic defensiveness of the orphan girl in Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos, without the vinyl records to console her. Jacques Doillon’s Ponette and So Young Kim’s Treeless Mountain also come to mind. Except here the adults are so unfit for comforting that the girl would rather attempt to “become” a woman by mimicking them from afar.
Fredrik Edfeldt is a master at externalizing interiority without spoiling it. His camera is unabashed yet respectful of the delicateness of its subject. Unlike her family, it doesn’t ask from the girl what she cannot give. And the girl can’t give very much other than what inevitably slips through the pores of her camouflaged face.
In the film, girlhood is too premature a demand on a child who just wants to, well, play. The business of becoming a girl, or not-a-child, also seems to coincide with entering the capitalist system more actively, either as commodity (after setting up a “fake” lottery for which there was no prize, the girl is forced to kiss several older men on their cheeks as punishment) or as its agent (she asks for 50 kronas from a neighbor to keep her mouth shut about his drinking).
The indefatigable look on the girl’s face, accompanying us throughout the film, only loosens up in the end, when her hair is so knotted up it takes a stranger, landing in her backyard in a hot air balloon like an apparition, to comb the burrs out of it. She sits motionless on the chair, transported back to a childness that required very little labor and whose difficult becomings felt forever delayed.