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Review: The Girl and the Spider Is Undone by Its Lack of Dramatic Scaffolding

The film trickles out its story world in discrete blocks of sound and image, withholding a great deal of narrative detail.

The Girl and the Spider
Photo: Cinema Guild

Given how scrupulously director Ramon Zürcher has structured The Girl and the Spider around the medium shot, it’s more than a little jarring when the audience gets a head-to-toe view of the film’s protagonist around the half-hour mark. The medium shot is to Zürcher what the two-shot is to Hong Sang-soo—a default formal strategy from which any and all deviations seem purposeful. Limiting our view and letting characters operate freely in the off-screen space has more than just visual implications in Zürcher’s enigmatic sophomore feature, which trickles out its story world in discrete blocks of sound and image and withholds a great deal of narrative detail. The spider of the title, which also makes a cameo in a number of scenes, proves an apt metaphor: Zürcher spins byzantine webs of audiovisual stimuli from an ultimately modest dramatic core, and not only is the larger narrative design unclear before it’s finally revealed, it’s easy to get stuck dwelling on the minutia along the way.

The scenario is simple on its face but peculiar in its details. Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of the residence in Bern, Switzerland that she shares with friends, and Mara (Henriette Confurius) is somewhat bitter about it. The apartment that Lisa is moving into is a modern, white-walled tabula rasa that her roommates—as well as family members and others in the group’s social circle—are helping to furnish and tidy up. Furniture carrying, packing and unpacking, and drilling into walls provide the film’s main action, even as these activities are often only visible in blurred negative space. Zürcher’s concentrates instead on the passive bystanders to this dynamic movement—like Mara, Lisa, and Lisa’s mother (Ursina Lardi)—as well as the inanimate objects that are passed from room to room and character to character.

That the moving process dominates the entirety of The Girl and the Spider, ostensibly lasting multiple days and requiring the commitment of a small army, is patently unrealistic given the relatively modest nature of the relocation. (This is partially justified by the fact that Mara is an architect and has played some role in designing Lisa’s new digs.) But this seems to be of only minor concern to Zürcher, as the constant hustle and bustle becomes so repetitive as to take on a sense of abstraction. The relentless uprooting in the mise-en-scène—further underlined by a construction project occurring outside the new building—mirrors the evident splintering of Lisa and Mara’s alternately platonic and erotically charged relationship. Moreover, it’s an excuse for Zürcher to employ his mannered, always-in-motion staging. People weave in and out of foreground and background in static shots, often bumping into and off one another before landing in elegant arrangements. No wonder the filmmaker shoots from medium distance so often: Any wider and you’d see the marks all over the ground.

This choreographic micromanagement is paired with a punctiliousness on the level of image: the bright, finely sculpted lighting evokes that of luxe stock footage; the sterile production design suggests a fondness for IKEA’s catalog; and the disciplined employment of primary colors belies the influence of Jean Luc-Godard’s Pop Art formalism, if not a kindergarten teacher’s classroom décor. Regarding a yellow couch brought into the new apartment, two characters share a brief exchange that highlights Zürcher’s emphasis on color’s psychological effects: “The color of jealousy,” one says, to which the other responds, “and of madness.”

There’s very little madness on explicit display in The Girl and the Spider, but veiled jealousy abounds in Mara’s silent gazes, as well as in the crisscrossing romantic and sexual dalliances among the supporting characters. As the moving process wears on, handypersons and seemingly marginal passersby shift from background to foreground and become subject to the same scrutiny that Zürcher directs toward Mara—which isn’t to say that they don’t remain ciphers. The common ground among the ensemble is that they all speak in riddles and regard each other as if they were museum dioramas, a strange habit for people who ostensibly share so much personal history. Of the peripheral figures, only Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), a friend who seems to long for Jan (Flurin Giger) and Markus (Ivan Georgiev) in equal measure, emerges as something more than a bizarrely reticent stiff—which has a lot to do with the tenderness in Litzenberger-Vinet’s eyes, often directed longingly off screen.

Eyes are equally foundational to Confurius’s performance. The actress uses them like a dedicated marksman, targeting her focus from across a room with fierce precision, but she’s just as capable of quickly redirecting it, and Zürcher deserves credit for casting a performer who can command a three-minute shot with the darting of her eyes alone. But the conflicts of The Girl and the Spider are so thinly sketched, with so much expositional context left up to speculation, that Confurius’s largely non-verbal turn comes across as little more than posturing toward emotional resonance, while the withering jabs taken by certain characters toward one another in the final act ultimately fall flat as a result of the same lack of dramatic scaffolding. Criticisms of The Strange Little Cat, Zürcher’s 2013 feature-length debut, as wispy formal experimentation without much in the way of human feeling seemed a bit beside the point given how secondary its narrative was to the filmmaker’s fetishistic eye for detail. Here, in the presence of a greater dramatic ambition, it’s a more relevant charge.

Cast: Henriette Confurius, Liliane Amuat, Ursina Lardi, Flurin Giger, André M. Hennicke, Ivan Georgiev, Dagna Litzenberger Vinet, Lea Draeger, Sabine Timoteo, Birte Schnöink Director: Ramon Zürcher Screenwriter: Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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