(Dominik Moll, France, 129 mins.)
Happy loving couples make it look so easy
Happy loving couples always talk so kind
Until the time that I can do my dancing with a partner
Those happy couples ain't no friends of mine.
-- Joe Jackson, "Happy Loving Couples" (1979)
This sly psychological thriller could've easily been titled Red Herring, but let's
face it, Lemming has more of a ring to it. In any case, after the triumph of With
a Friend Like Harry, I went to Dominik Moll's follow-up hoping lightning would strike twice. It comes close, but this time, Moll may have bitten off more than he can
chew. Then again: lemming, bite, chew... How could it possibly be any other way?
As in Harry, Laurent Lucas is back as a sort of middle class everyman. His Alain
Getty is an efficient, self-satisfied engineer, who has recently been transferred
to suburban Toulouse and has just moved into a slick new house with loving wife Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Science of Sleep), who doesn't work (they
are currently childless). Just as they're settling into their new environment, the
Gettys decide to invite his boss, Richard Pollock (André Dussollier, Un Coeur en
Hiver), and spouse Alice (Charlotte Rampling, Heading South) over for dinner.
Even before the Pollocks arrive, strange things are happening. Well, one thing,
at any rate: The kitchen sink becomes clogged. Alain tries to unscrew the drainpipe, but his tools aren't up to the task. No matter. He has other things to attend to...
Like dinner, which is a disaster. First, the Pollocks are late. Then, Alice won't get out of the car. Finally, she emerges, but won't take off her sunglasses. Then, when Richard gets a call, she starts in on him. "One of your whores?" she asks. "Salad?" Alain asks after an uncomfortable silence. Too late. Alice twists the knife again before tossing her wine at Richard. He apologizes, and tells the Gettys they'll be going. The "model couple," as Alice snidely describes them, breathes a sigh of relief.
Later, Alain takes a second look under the sink. This time, he's able to unscrew the S-curve where he finds a small, wet creature. He carries it down to the basement, places it on a table, and promptly forgets about it. The next day, while her husband is at work, Bénédicte discovers that the "hamster" is still alive and takes it to a veterinarian. He informs her that it's actually a lemming, and that they're native to Scandinavia. How did it get into Alain and Bénédicte's plumbing, let alone France...?
From that point forward, everything goes to hell in a handbasket. I don't think
it's giving too much away to say that it isn't the poor lemming's fault. The ques-
tion is whether any of these characters resemble the rodent. As a specialist tells Bénédicte, lemmings aren't suicidal -- though one of these people will take their life before the film is over -- it's a myth. They try to swim while migrating, he explains, and sometimes they drown. He neglects to add that lemmings are very stupid.
With Harry -- titled Harry, He's Here to Help when I caught it at 2000's Toronto International Film Festival -- Moll elicited frequent, mostly positive comparisons to Hitchcock and Buñuel. Lemming continues in that vein. It also evokes Claude Chabrol, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Michael Hanecke (especially Caché). In other words, you never know what's going to happen next and whether or not to believe your eyes, as when Alain imagines that Alice is influencing his once-sweet wife's actions.
There's also a lack of visual clutter. Compositions are often clean, white, crisp.
Those who found Harry "gimmicky" or overly-clever are likely to cast an even
more jaundiced eye towards Lemming. Personally, I quite liked it, even if the
storyline is more convoluted and attenuated than necessary. (I should also men-
tion the use of Strauss and Ligeti on the soundtrack. A tip of the hat to Kubrick?)
As for the acting, it couldn't be better. Lucas and Gainsbourg remain believable even as their characters become increasingly strange/estranged. Not so with Rampling's Alice. I didn't believe her for a second. She is, to quote Kathleen Murphy, "a construct." Fascinating to watch, but it's hard to believe a woman this cruel could possibly exist. Then again, that's one of the reasons I go to the movies: To experience things outside my everyday purview. In the end, Mssr. Lemming is a Macguffin. It's Alice that actually sets the plot in motion. She may be "incredible," but she's also necessary, and represents Rampling's creepiest characterization yet.
But Lemming ultimately lives and dies by Lucas's performance, and I'm happy
to report that he gets the job done. Like Charles Berling (Ridicule), I tend to think
of him as one of France's more reliable "utility players," i.e. an ordinary-looking
guy who gives consistently good performances, but rarely gets the credit he deserves as he's often paired with showier actors (like Harry's Serge López). In this case, Lucas -- with a major assist from Gainsbourg -- proves he can carry a film. Rampling may give Fatal Attraction-era Glenn Close a run for the money, but Lucas can run circles around Michael Douglas. With two hands tied behind his back. And a leg.
Working with Dominik again...has been a great pleasure. I think about him a great deal
in my everyday life. He has shown faith in me and I shall always be devoted to him.
-- Laurent Lucas on Dominik Moll
Lemming opens at the Varsity Theater on Friday, August 4th. The Varsity
is located at 4329 University Avenue N.E. For more information, please
click here or call 206-781-5755. Images from OutNow and Wikipedia.