The Girl and the Spider is a brilliantly maddening thing, a drama that plays by its own perplexing rules. Unfolding across a couple of small Berlin apartments over a couple of days, it takes a perfectly ordinary scenario — two roommates going their separate ways — and abstracts it into a kind of emotional guessing game, eliding numerous niceties of exposition, character development, and even standard storytelling protocol. If there’s a defining image in this boldly unconventional movie, it’s one we never see and only hear described: A corrupted PDF of a floor plan, its words and symbols scrambled beyond recognition.
The film actually opens with a quick glimpse at the non-scrambled version of that same blueprint, delineating the dimensions of one of the aforementioned apartments. This is the new home Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is first seen filling with her belongings. By her side is fellow twentysomething Mara (Henriette Confurius). Minutes pass before it becomes clear that the two aren’t moving in together — that Lisa, in fact, is moving out of the apartment she presently shares with Mara. They will soon be ex-roommates, though the source of the tension between them will remain unclarified.
A focus on the vagaries of cohabitation is just one clue that we’re back in the hands of the Swiss-born, German-trained writer-director Ramon Zürcher. Another is the offbeat rhythm and offhand mischief he brings to cramped domestic spaces. Zürcher established his beguilingly singular style in his feature debut, The Strange Little Cat, which deployed the premise of a family preparing to host a dinner party in their comparably cozy digs as an excuse to puckishly toy with the language of narrative moviemaking. There was something aptly feline about its perspective: How it seemed to flit between rooms, half fixated on conversations and faces, oblivious to the passage of time.
Conversely, and true to its title, The Girl and the Spider spins a tangled web of connection, creeping out from the cryptically splintering friendship between Mara and Lisa to an ever-growing ensemble of friends, family, lovers, acquaintances, hired help, and passersby. You could call it a running joke, how frequently and casually the cast expands. Part of the discombobulating fun is parsing the nature of these relationships, and seeing how Zürcher — who co-directed this new film with his twin brother, Silvan — will introduce each additional branch on the social tree. At one point, the women drop a feather off the balcony of their unit and into the lap of downstairs neighbor Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger Vinet) — a bit of horseplay that vertically extends the action into yet another apartment and its occupants. Not long after, a neighborhood pharmacist (Seraphina Schweiger) everyone knows only in passing is woven tangentially into the fabric of the story, briefly granted her own spotlight.
At times, the film seems to linger in the doorway of slamming-doors farce without quite entering. There’s certainly a hint of screwball to Zürcher’s remarkable blocking — the way he turns the twin apartments into parallel hubs of hustle and bustle, movers and painters crisscrossing the frame, creating alternating currents of foreground and background activity. Numerous half-developed subplots similarly hint at an unrealized potential for a droll sex comedy. Lisa’s mother, Astrid (Ursina Lardi), entertains a flirtation with the head of the moving crew (André M. Hennicke). An amorous single parent (Margherita Schoch) drifts into the room uninvited to hit on everyone in sight while her baby screams away upstairs. Sad-eyed handyman Jan (Flurin Giger) falls into bed with both of the women downstairs, including the strictly nocturnal Nora (Lea Draeger), who sleeps by day and wanders by night, always in a state of undress, like a neurotic vampire.
Zürcher’s whole deal is giving the mundane a jolt of the surreal, maybe to underscore how unusual normal life can be even at its most… usual. In The Girl and the Spider, the essential realism of the situation, which never escalates into anything more overtly dramatic than a quiet spat, is distorted by a dreamlike quality of speech and performance. The dialogue is anti-naturalistic, a series of monologues in which characters recount their dreams or disappear into nostalgic anecdotes. Occasionally, the impression is of multiple interior lives converging in one interior space, everyone dealing aloud but indirectly with the common feelings stirred up whenever a living arrangement drastically changes.
The movie’s cloud of half-articulated emotions often grows dark with hostility. Mara seems the aggressor at first, the toxic roomie of the pair — pounding the wall of Lisa’s new bathroom in sudden spite, cruelly dumping a cup of scalding coffee on someone’s pet pooch. Later, she kills a fly as punctuation on a particularly withering insult. But Lisa has a mean streak, too. “It’s strange, I’ve never felt like you’re my mother,” she tells her mother, unprovoked. Unspoken tensions simmer under every interaction, and violence hovers vaguely in the air, the possibility of it lurking in an ominously brandished boxcutter, an injured finger belatedly diagnosed through flashback, a dark joke about that screaming offscreen baby.
Still, The Girl and the Spider is no shade of thriller; those thirsty for eruptions of actual bloodshed will leave unquenched. The film is more of an unsolved mystery of impending estrangement. When someone finally asks why Lisa is moving out, she can muster only an unrevealing “Because.” Were she and Mara more than roommates? Or did their falling out have something to do with a third party once on the lease, a chambermaid (Birte Schöink) who gets the final voiceover word, despite existing only in the memories of the other characters? Zürcher supplies no concrete answers. Perhaps his characters lack them, too. He seems more interested in tracing the dissolving strands of an interpersonal web, playing six degrees of separation with the polyamorous, multigenerational members of what we now call, in pandemic times, a pod or bubble.
Ambiguity is definitely a feature, not a bug, of The Girl and the Spider. What passes for a plot in this gloriously confounding movie is more of an exercise in controlled chaos — in ricocheting tensions across a claustrophobic setting and vibing hard on a free-floating, indiscriminate antagonism. Zürcher’s talent, plain as day at this early stage of his career, is defamiliarizing both everyday conversation and the intimate character dramas that thrive on it. Even the most banal encounters in his movies feel alien somehow. Or scrambled, like that unseen PDF.
The Girl and the Spider opens in select theaters Friday, April 8. For more reviews and writing by A.A. Dowd, visit his Authory page.