Lemming (2005)

Lemming first published by EyeforFilm, 28 April 2006

Mysterious migrations and collective suicides are the characteristics most closely associated (however spuriously) with lemmings. These small animals peculiar to Scandinavia’s northern regions are just about the last things you would expect to find in the suburbs of southern France, but when high-tech engineer Alain Getty (Laurent Lucas) and his wife Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg) discover one of these creatures blocking their kitchen drainpipe, the bourgeois couple’s otherwise happy, ordered existence is about to be visited by deaths far stranger and a transmigration far more mysterious and irrational than anything undertaken by Norwegian rodents. For, Like the invasive rat in Francois Ozon’s Sitcom (1998), Moll’s lemming is a rodent that, for all its apparent weakness, comes with real bite.

Things start to come unstuck when Alain’s new boss Richard Pollock (André Dussollier) and his wife Alice (Charlotte Rampling) come over for dinner. Unlike their young hosts (at least so far), this older couple has become locked in mutual antagonism and disgust, and the evening ends prematurely when “eccentric” Alice accuses her husband of whoring and insults Benedicte. Yet over the next few weeks, the Pollocks will continue to infiltrate the lives of the Gettys and after Alain turns down Alice’s seductive invitation for him to get inside her, she finds a way of getting inside his wife, with nightmarish consequences for everyone.

Dominik Moll is a director who likes to show middle-class characters having their deepest desires and darkest fantasies stirred up by outsiders, although not even his Harry, He’s Here To Help (2000) quite prepares the viewer for the chilly surrealism of Lemming, where two seemingly different couples play musical chairs with their identities. A neat solution will eventually be found to the question of how a lemming found its way into the Gettys’ plumbing, but its presence serves merely as a MacGuffin to expose weirder enigmas haunting the couple’s domestic bliss.

It is hardly a coincidence that Alain is working on the prototype of a Flying Web Cam, designed to allow house owners to keep a distant eye on what is happening in the home, and fix any leakages or damage from afar, but the problems in Alain’s own abode are too impenetrable to be so easily identified, or resolved, even as they are played out remotely before our very eyes. Half the fun here is trying (and failing) to guess where Moll’s unpredictable narrative will go next, as Alain’s life is turned inside out by one freakish incursion after another.

Moll is often compared to Hitchcock, but Lemming pays more obvious homage to the works of David Lynch. The disrupted dinner and Alain’s guilt-laced seduction evoke similar sequences in Eraserhead (1977); the cool, shadowy interiors of the Gettys’ house, as well as the fluidity of the characters’ identity, recall Lost Highway (1997); the image of Alain spraying the lawn outside his house directly references the opening of Blue Velvet (1986); and even Richard’s holiday cabin in the mountains – “A dream place,” as he so aptly calls it – is prominently overlooked by “twin peaks,” slyly alluding to the 1989 TV series of the same name. For in Moll, as in Lynch, the home is a place of anxiety and tension rather than warmth, and the precise borderlines between reality and dreams are impossible to map. Yet, unlike so many others who have fallen under Lynch’s dark influence, Moll can hold his own, offering in Lemming a death-defying leap into the angst-ridden psyches of the modern couple. The results are slick, funny and unsettling, slipping between psychological thriller, absurdist farce and ghost story into an unnerving dreamscape where psychosis meets metempsychosis.

© Anton Bitel