James Quandt on Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s The Woman and the Spider
“ALLES GEHT KAPUTT,” a plaint uttered late in The Woman and the Spider (2021), conjures the controlling theme of this precisionist research in entropy and dissolution. The phrase kaputt, with its connotations of utter exhaustion or failure, repeats 5 different instances within the movie, variously utilized to a pair of glasses, a sound system, a pair of sneakers, a door, and, most tellingly, a discarded down jacket, its yawning seams shedding a delicate rain of feathers as a reminder that all the pieces finally falls aside. The opening picture of an architectural plan for a four-room flat segues, assisted by a refined sound bridge, to a violent close-up of an influence drill shattering asphalt on the sidewalk exterior, the blunt juxtaposition imparting the central competition of this overdetermined movie—that order and management inevitably succumb to disarray and fragmentation and each object and relationship is vulnerable to wreck.
“Much less is extra,” a hapless, affable character known as Markus pronounces towards the tip of Spider; this minimalist credo has been readily obvious within the movie’s mise-en-scène since its preliminary picture. The plot, if such a traditional time period might be utilized to this tenuous net of ambiguities, includes the transfer of a younger lady, Lisa, from the residence she has shared with Mara, an artist with whom she most likely has had a romantic affair, to a different, the place she is going to dwell alone. (Although the movie was shot largely in Bern, Switzerland, town is rarely recognized, one in every of many such elisions.) The movie crowds its spare settings with a number of sundered romantic liaisons and imperiled familial relationships, most of them merely hinted at through indirect glances or offhand feedback, akin to the wedding of Lisa’s mom, Astrid, who leaves her husband at house to indulge a middle-aged flirtation with the handyman employed to assist with Lisa’s transfer. The childishly puritanical daughter takes revenge for Astrid’s transgression with a remark designed to devastate her mom—completely.
The center movie of a trilogy about “human togetherness” by twin brothers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, The Woman and the Spider extends the strict formal and narrative methods of their commencement function, The Unusual Little Cat (2013). (The zoological motif of the Zürchers’ titles continues with the forthcoming third and closing work, The Sparrow within the Chimney.) The usually claustral house of the one residence in Cat expands, barely, in Spider to incorporate different home interiors, however the movie much more not often ventures exterior these home enclosures. Tightly framed with a static digicam—the plumb-line method to composition usually locations characters lifeless heart in a shoulder shot paying homage to a passport picture—Spider achieves a radiant if airless magnificence. And, as in Cat, the Zürchers contradict their chaste minimalism with a bustling, additive method, introducing a welter of characters because the movie proceeds, their relationships and vocations usually unspoken.
Ostensibly a melancholy romantic comedy, The Woman and the Spider suggests in its fairy-tale title one other, extra apposite style: the horror movie. The sun-flooded residences turn out to be an area of informal cruelty and furtive violence, largely involving the malevolent Mara. Resentful of Lisa’s departure, Mara observes others as threats or potential rivals and treats them with smiling contempt or insolent evasion. She withholds her title and her hand from the kindly neighbor who pops in to introduce herself to the brand new tenant and proceeds to fantasize morbidly about that lady’s crying youngster downstairs: “The cat scratched the child,” she muses out loud. “Now the child is lifeless.”
Mara’s aggression ranges from sullenly passive—she hundreds clothes on a coatrack that Lisa must pack away—to actively sadistic. Mara defers, demurs, and refuses when requested to assist with the transfer, as an alternative busying her arms with acts of malice. She pours scorching espresso on a pet canine and torments one other via a toilet door; makes use of a screwdriver to secretly carve a gash within the countertop of Lisa’s new residence; casually smashes a loving picture of a neighbor couple, apparently as a result of they seem completely happy, after which treads over the fragments; and pierces a Styrofoam cup stuffed with wine with a pencil, letting its contents flood over desk and flooring, soaking the architectural plan she had given Lisa as a going-away current. (That doc is doodled on, crumpled, stained, and discarded because the movie proceeds—on this entropic home setting, stuffed with shattered water glasses, gnawed energy cables, damaged door home windows, and splintered image frames, even a houseplant proffered as a present finally ends up mangled.) When Mara extends the blade on a field cutter used to take away mildew from rest room tiles and holds it aloft for inspection, Spider all of the sudden assumes the ominous tone of one other residence movie, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965).
Chez Zürcher, each look, gesture, and object is invested with that means and included into a visible aesthetic as tautly choreographed as a quadrille.
Mara’s most noticeable function, other than her ever vigilant blue eyes, is the herpes sore blossoming on her higher lip. She transmits the lesion to Lisa with a kiss, as if bestowing a farewell current on her former lover. The sore is one in every of many wounds Mara accrues, from a damaged fingernail suffered when Lisa slams the lavatory door on her to a minimize on her brow incurred when she bangs her noggin on a window body throughout a storm. The Zürchers resist the outdated trope of equating Mara’s corporeal accidents with psychic affliction—her harm appears simply one other of the movie’s motifs of defacement—however when Mara unleashes a lacerating rejection on the candy younger employee who yearns after her, killing a fly as an instance her scorn for the tremulous man, her callousness shades into derangement.
With Cat and Spider, the Zürcher brothers seem intent upon fashioning themselves as textbook auteurs, confreres of the administrators of the Berlin Faculty. The a number of stylistic, tonal, and thematic repetitions between the 2 movies, other than the aforementioned similarity of setting, serve to emphasise this aesthetic willpower. In every movie, quotidian banality barely disguises the serene passive-aggressiveness with which family and friends assail each other. In each, a matriarch flirts with a handyman who repairs a defective washer. (The Zürchers appear to have a factor about laundry, lavishing a close-up on a spin cycle within the latter movie.) In Cat and Spider, kids act as sentinels, warily watchful of an grownup world ruled by heedless cruelty—“What are you doing?” a wide-eyed youngster twice calls for of Mara when she witnesses the grown-up’s covert viciousness—and as brokers of anarchy, rending the prevailing ambiance of tense tranquility with noise, mischief, and manic movement. Harm, together with a nastily wounded finger, figures prominently. On a regular basis objects turn out to be uncanny underneath the Zürchers’ acute inspection and are accorded a montage of nonetheless lifes—in Spider, a whistling thermos, a dripping water faucet, a broken countertop, a bloody bandage, a cigarette stub on a window ledge, the field cutter, a blue sponge, the ground plan (now teeming with doodles), and eventually the eponymous arachnid, most of that are related to the malign Mara.
Chez Zürcher, each look, gesture, and object is invested with that means and included into a visible aesthetic as tautly choreographed as a quadrille. (The rating of Spider, alternating a swirling waltz with a Frederic Mompou–like piano riff, emphasizes this musicality.) Colours are each vivid and delimited; the palette of primaries in Spider, together with a yellow sofa that matches Lisa’s canary tee, appears keyed to recall one more residence movie, La Chinoise (1967), by Swiss compatriot Jean-Luc Godard.
The Zürchers kind of observe the basic dramatic unities of time, place, and motion, suppress establishing photographs, and make use of off-screen house to emphasize the vexed intersection of lives—a sudden gaze off-frame usually indicators the incursion of an extra character. (A easy “Hi there!” turns into creepily portentous on this fraught ambiance.) The Zürchers’ extremely labored sound designs play with audio mismatches and mysteries—simply who’s emitting the wail at the start of Cat?—which sometimes recall the aural enigmas of Robert Bresson, at different instances these of Lucrecia Martel. This extremely stylized aesthetic lays its personal traps, and the chary Zürchers are surprisingly able to miscalculation. Each movies function anecdotal flashbacks that happen away from the residences, that are each narrated and proven, pleonasms that rupture the hard-won depth of tone and setting. And the quotidian surrealism of Cat, an virtually literal rendering of Freud’s “Das Unheimliche” (1919), turns into in Spider a failed tour into the improbable, as a witchy outdated lady wildly surfs the rooftop of an residence constructing within the midst of a thunderstorm and the story of a cruise-ship chambermaid, as soon as a beloved roommate of Mara’s, devolves into an ill-advised train in Wes Anderson artifice.
Within the closing motion of The Woman and the Spider, indicators of mortality amass, and there may be discuss of loss of life crosses, burials, coffins, most cancers, ghosts. Amid the accrued ruins of damaged objects and perishable relationships, Lisa’s cost that “Alles geht kaputt” involves counsel that nothing lasts and all flesh is grass.
James Quandt is a movie critic and curator based mostly in Toronto and the editor of monographs on Robert Bresson, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
The Woman and the Spider opens in New York on April 8 at Metrograph and at Movie at Lincoln Heart.