Encounters with Fontana and the Zürchers

The Daily — Mar 4, 2021
Fabrizio Rongione, Juan Trench, and Stéphanie Cléau in Andreas Fontana’s Azor (2021)

In February 2013, word began crisscrossing Potsdamer Platz, the hub of the Berlinale in any year but this one: Be sure to catch The Strange Little Cat. Ramon Zürcher, thirty at the time and assisted by his twin brother Silvan, had written and directed a strange little movie, most of it confined to a single apartment on a single day in which a family prepares to have relatives over for dinner. The minimal story was practically irrelevant. The Strange Little Cat was above all a showcase for a fresh and unique style.

Zürcher’s camera remained steady while compositions within each shot wouldn’t exactly flow but rather shift as family members, seeing to their assigned tasks, bending around and bumping into each other, their bodies filling most of each frame, moved from one just-so position to the next. The soundtrack was just as busy. A toy helicopter might buzz toward that last spot of empty space in an upper corner, whizzing by a young girl screaming out a sustained high note. Zürcher had turned domesticity into a modest spectacle—with a hint of claustrophobia. “The medium shot is to Zürcher what the two-shot is to Hong Sangsoo,” writes Carson Lund at Slant, “a default formal strategy from which any and all deviations seem purposeful.”

Few could have expected that we would wait eight years for a follow-up. It would be tempting but overly simplistic to say that everything is doubled in The Girl and the Spider, whose action, taking place over two days rather than one, zigs and zags between two apartments. Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving from one to the other, and the roommate she’s leaving behind, Mara (Henriette Confurius), seethes with resentment. She surreptitiously cuts a gash in the new kitchen counter and finds a creative way to have bright red juice spill from a table to the floor.

All around Mara, a small army of hired hands and neighbors step in, through, and out of the frame carrying ladders and fixtures and a blazing yellow sofa. These frames are just as busy as The Strange Little Cat’s but also literally roomier. Open doors offer views of apartments across hallways and into more rooms. The Girl and the Spider is also more crowded with little narratives.

There’s a flash away to a chambermaid on a cruise liner who has left her piano behind in the new apartment. Then there’s Lisa’s barely concealed fury, deflected perhaps from Mara to be directed at her mother (Ursina Lardi); a hook-up between a neighbor (Dagna Litzenberger Vinet) and a handyman (Flurin Giger); and a single mother (Sabine Timoteo) whose crying baby may be pushing her to an edge she can’t see just yet. “This formalist game of combinations could be stiff and mechanical,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook, “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.”

One unexpected possibility is the appearance—most likely in one of Mara’s dreams—of an elderly neighbor on the roof of the building in a thin nightgown, her arms raised like some harpy’s to welcome a raging storm. Silvan Zürcher, who wrote the first draft of The Girl and the Spider and is credited as a codirector, tells James Prestridge at Close-Up Culture that the next film in what has become a trilogy will incorporate more “surrealistic and horror-like elements.” The Sparrow in the Chimney will be “mainly about rebellion,” he says. “It is a war film, set within a family. It is more explosive than its predecessors.”

The Girl and the Spider has premiered in Encounters, the new competitive program created last year, Carlo Chatrian’s first as the Berlinale’s artistic director. Another very strong contender in the 2021 lineup is Azor, which Swiss director Andreas Fontana spent two and a half years researching before sitting down to write in collaboration with Mariano Llinás (La flor). Set primarily in Buenos Aires in 1980, Azor is saturated with the tension and dread of the best paranoid thrillers of the 1970s.

Fabrizio Rongione, known for his work with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is outstanding as Yvan De Wiel, a private banker who has arrived from Geneva with his true partner, his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau), to conduct business with the filthiest rich of Argentina, clients with strong yet unspoken ties to the ruling military junta. His professional partner, René Keys, has been handling them for years, but he’s gone missing, leaving behind strange rumors of increasingly erratic behavior and a suspicion in the hearts and minds of the clients that the bank is abandoning them.

As each sequence, moving from one client to the next, becomes more sinister than the last, Rongione maintains an open, unreadable expression that somehow conveys his alarm to the viewer without giving De Wiel away to whichever landowner, heiress, or monsignor he’s dealing with. Over time, De Wiel begins to realize that Keys has become an invisible rival who draws strength from his absence. The only winning strategy left on the table will call for a radical break with all he’s known before.

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